It’s Tuesday afternoon. I am home, trying to write, looking out at a peaceful scene of fall colors in our urban forest garden. Squirrels and birds busily forage or bask in the sun, and a slight breeze gently shakes auburn leaves from our giant oak tree. The scene might be peaceful to look at, but it is just a mirage. Harsh sounds penetrate from every angle. Bird song is lost in the growl of a leaf blower. The breeze’s subtle whisper is drowned out by fire engine sirens. My soundscape’s auditory scene is painted by splatters of barking dogs, crying babies, rumbling trash barrels, beeping trash trucks, an electric hedge trimmer, a rumbling motorcycle, a chopping helicopter and a muffler-less car.
If I were a frog, or a whale, or a cicada, or any other creature that depends on sound waves to communicate, I’d suffer constant interruption. I’d be so misheard and misunderstood that I might lose touch with my family, my neighborhood and my food supply. My nervous system would be stressed, and my health would be compromised. I might not depend on sound as much as some animals do, but it still affects me, and it’s difficult to escape from or adapt to the constant noise of the city.
Peace and quiet are becoming endangered resources, going the way of night skies dark enough to see the Milky Way. The good news? Sound pollution is as easy to fix as light pollution, even in cities. We just have to turn off some machines. The bad news is that noise isn’t confined to boundaries. Getting in touch with the sounds of our farms and gardens is a valuable exercise in awareness. We might hear sounds all day and all night and they just become background static. Really listening opens us up and helps us tune in again.
Get to Know Your Soundscape
An exercise I recommend is to make a sound map of your property. Why should you map the sounds of your farm? Identifying the sounds or at least recognizing their influence on your land enables a deeper understanding of the place and all that is connected to it. At a minimum, there is value in knowing what you have with an inventory. In some cases, you might find yourself working to protect your threatened resource of quiet space in an increasingly noisy world, and it helps if you have a baseline visual aid.
Start with a base layer that shows your property’s boundaries and main features or landmarks. This could be a Google Earth image you download and print. Or, you can sketch it yourself. If you want to be more precise, use grid paper and draw boundaries and main features to scale.
Next, place a transparency sheet or tracing paper over the base layer and secure it. Spend as much time as possible listening in all the areas of your property. Draw symbols on the map and use different colors for the sounds you hear. Mark the spots where you hear the sounds, rather than trying to identify their sources. Notice changes around structures, under trees, in open spaces, at different times of day, days of the week and seasons.
Notice any patterns? Are there places you are attracted to or avoid because of the sounds? How do animals interact with or react to the sounds? Which sounds are natural, and which are machines?
Envision A Multisensory Map
Just by listening to your farm environment, soundscapes can stimulate your artistic imagination and provide a rich source of inspiration. Bill Gilbert is one such artist who explores the idea that walking a path is different than looking at a path on a map, just as traveling by foot is very different than flying over an area in an airplane. A map’s regularly spaced grid lines and two dimensions provide a simple handle on the idea of a place but leave much to the imagination. Several years ago, I visited a museum exhibit and stood transfixed with headphones as I listened to footsteps. Along with the crunch of boot on earth, a man’s voice described the landscape he stepped through, whether it was a small hill to climb or a dust cloud blowing by; shrubby vegetation shading a small puddle or a lizard sunning itself.
The sounds were made and recorded by Gilbert, founder of the Land Arts of the American West program at the University of New Mexico. Gilbert’s projects take mapping off paper and bring them into multidimensional reality. He walks in various patterns, such as moving in cardinal directions from a given point, or along a route for only the length of time it would take to drive it. He records what he experiences along the way, translating the original sights and sounds into other sights and sounds: photographs and audio files. His work takes a warped, flattened oversimplification of the landscape and rearranges it into a human-scale, multisensory, tangible, common-sense interpretation of the space he travels through, at a human speed.
Does Your Land Sound Healthy?
Tuning back in to your space with your own ears, do you like what you hear? Research into the health effects of noise is difficult to untangle because the symptoms people complain about are the same symptoms of chronic stress, an ambiguous yet powerful element in our lives. I’m curious, could you create a map of chronic stress in your life? What colors and shapes would those problems take if we made symbols out of them? Some things in life are just indescribable, but we know how they make us feel, and we intuitively know whether they support our health or not.
When I arrive at my friend’s farm, a 45-minute drive from town, the first thing I do is stretch my ears. I get out of the car and just listen. It sounds spacious because it is. The space between sounds mimics the space between neighbors. Working in the garden for a few hours, the soundscape becomes less silent, as I pick up familiar and unfamiliar bird calls, the roosters at the next farm, the dog that barks when a rooster crows, and the sound of a car coming around the curve 100 feet down the road. I notice a ringing in my ears that I couldn’t hear when I was in town. As I walk with my feet on mulch, I sense the sound mimicking the feel of it—a different sensation and sound from the paths in the garden bed, and different from the gravel driveway. A rustle in the trees alerts me to a deer watching me work, then not watching when I watch it. Maybe it’s listening to me until I stop, and then not listening as it goes on and nibbles on the woodland plants that edge the garden. My, what big ears it has! The better to hear with, my dears.