A new book reminds us of the pleasures of reconnecting with ordinary sound
I recently spent a few days by myself at a cabin rented out by the U.S. Forest Service. I try to do this a couple of times a year — there’s no internet or mobile phone service (no electricity, in fact), and while these retreats started out as a means to catch up on offline reading and writing work, they’ve turned into something more: a way of catching up with myself.
When I’m at one of these cabins, I sleep a lot, read books and articles from my research stack, write a fair bit, and enjoy not having to talk with or cook for anyone. I’m usually very productive. But on recent trips, I’ve spent more time simply listening: to the rush of the little creek by the cabin, or the river a quarter mile away. The air in the cottonwood and aspen trees or over snow, depending on what time of year I’m there. The occasional birds — pine siskins and a bald eagle this time. The intermittent rumble from the nearby gravel road.
Noticing and attention are fashionable topics these days, but listening still gets short shrift. Maybe because for most of us, the world is far too noisy. In cities, where most humans live, the predominant sound is traffic noise. Even in my small Montana town it often dominates, and I can only listen to traffic for so long before my mind and ears are exhausted. When I get away from town, I’m reminded of the pleasures of ordinary sound.
So I was delighted to read Christian McEwen’s new book In Praise of Listening, in which she details how we can retune our ears to the world — especially the non-human world — around us, and what we miss out on when we don’t.
“We do not hear the voices of the insects, birds, animals, or fish, let alone those of the plants and rocks and trees,” writes McEwen in one chapter on listening to nature. I don’t tend to agree with saying “we” do or do not do anything — as she shows later in the chapter, plenty of people do listen to these voices — but the overall point about the dominant culture is taken.
“There are all sorts of reasons for this, ranging from simple human narcissism and distractibility to the growing racket of our post-industrial age. There’s no question that modern life has helped to dull our senses. . . . in most cases, our biggest…