The heart of winter: She is listening…
The frozen air is transparent, smooth and brittle; it rings like a knifeblade against bone.
The sound of her breath, as it freezes, is a soft murmuring, like cloth on cloth.
The muffled wingbeats of a snowy owl rise and fall, reverberating down long corridors of dream, deep into the earth.
This poetry of John Luther Adams, a Pulitzer-prize-winning composer whose music is inspired by nature, describes “The place where you go to listen.” Here’s your invitation to take a listening walk through ACRES preserves.
A winter walk through a preserve can be surprising to the novice. The stillness, the profound change in scenery in a woods, a prairie, a wetland, can shift our understanding of the natural cycle and what it means to protect natural areas.
Although winter has been called a time of silence, our intentional listening invites us into another aspect of preservation. How does this work? Each of us has experience both tuning into, and trying to tune out, the sounds around us. Let’s stop right here: when you reach the end of this sentence, try pausing and listening intently.
What did you hear? Sounds you may have missed before? What happens when we become deliberately aware of our auditory environment? If we practice intentional listening in a nature preserve, will natural sounds bring the trails alive for us in new ways?
Sound walks—listening walks—are ways to appreciate natural areas and their preservation, to feel a stronger connection to the land, to build sensitivity to and respect for the natural world.
Sound ecologists like Kristen Bellisario use special equipment and training to collect, monitor and interpret soundscapes. However, you can enjoy sound walks with only your ears. Or you can bring a journal to capture notes to return to later (perhaps as you revisit a preserve), or a smartphone to record and share your soundscape experience.
Responding to the following may provide you with a practical guide of your own:
How will you select which preserve to listen to? A preserve along a major waterway, near a major road, or with a large forested interior (as Bellisario chose)? With canyon walls, forests, meadows? How might topography or landscape affect acoustics and thus, your experience?
If you choose to walk with others, a pact of silence sometimes helps. Depending on the sensitivity, curiosity, awe, and (perhaps!) age of your companions, a range of responses, from giggles to gasps to “shhhh!” to silence can be expected. Will you agree to stop at certain spots to talk about what each has heard? Or will you speak on the way home?
Walking alone offers unique opportunities for observation and reflection. Will you start your listening walk at the trailhead or before—or will you start with yourself! What do you sound like in winter—your breath, your body, your boots as you move? How do the sounds of your footsteps change as you slog through mud, slide on ice, crunch through snow?
As you walk, will you wonder: “How do my sounds change as I walk? Does my breath fall into rhythms? Is careful listening enhancing my other senses? What natural sounds am I hearing? What might be making them? If I stand still for a few moments with closed eyes, what sounds can I locate around me in every direction? How far can I hear?”
Before your walk, will you brainstorm a list of earth sounds to listen for—chickadees chattering, woodpeckers hammering, ice dripping, wind rustling oak leaves…snow crystals hitting your jackets…and perhaps best of all, the sounds of silence…
Whichever preserve we choose to walk in, and whether we choose to walk alone or with others, intentional listening invites us into a new way of appreciating natural areas preserved not for just one season or two, but forever.