When Palmer Morse and Matthew Mikkelsen reached out to me to share the story of Spruce Tone Films, particularly their documentary Being Hear, I was inspired by their passion for the outdoors and commitment to telling stories that inspire deep listening. In our current chaotic climate, carving out the space to be still with silence is difficult. I'm always struck first thing in the morning at how quiet the early hours are. For many of us, our days filled with noise as we navigate work spaces, transportation, and cityscapes. To inhabit quiet is a real practice and one I hope to cultivate as I strive to become a better steward of this earth.
Finding quiet, however, is increasingly hard, and inequities in access to outdoor spaces mean that silence is a luxury that few can afford. As we fight for social justice and ecological regeneration, it's increasingly important to acknowledge that silent spaces indicate those places in desperate need of preservation.
Herewith, Palmer and Matthew share what deep listening means to them. Tune in for their energizing thoughts on audio ecology, social resilience, and silence.
How does silence support ecological, social, and spiritual resilience?
Seeking natural silence is something that we can all benefit from. When we’re in urban areas we are consumed by noise. The sounds of cars, airplanes, people, and music is all information that can often overload our brains, cause anxiety, and increase blood pressure, among other issues. When we seek to escape the city we flock to forests, mountains, or perhaps the ocean to clear our minds. Being in a quiet place is good for our mental health, can rejuvenate our soul, and ground us in place.
Unfortunately, the places we seek to escape are slowly becoming degraded. The forests we seek refuge in are under flight paths, the mountains we climb to are near resource extractions sites, and the oceans we swim in are host to motor boats. We and the wildlife that surrounds us are in the midsts of it all. Working to protect the natural soundscapes of an area protects our environment from pollution, extraction, and degradation, creating a resilient and healthy ecosystem.
What can we do to conserve natural soundscapes?
Anthropogenic noise pollution in designated conservation areas such as parks, wilderness areas, and coasts is a direct result of humans interacting with the land. Noise pollution is often a difficult environmental issue to be aware of as it’s not a eyesore, although many of the producers of loud noises such as construction, mining, and oil drilling are.
To preserve natural soundscapes is to preserve land in its entirety. If we get rid of the producers of loud and intrusive noises we are simultaneously riding protected lands and the airspace above of several forms of pollution.
That being said, it’s a difficult balance between conservation and accessibility. If people can’t access the lands, they might not see the purpose of preserving them. We believe that setting aside pieces of land that have soundscapes that are mostly unimpacted are most likely the best candidates for a soundscape conservation effort.
Additionally, it’s important to note the importance of accessibility. Many people who do not have the agency or opportunity seek quiet spaces often bear the brunt of noise pollution. It’s important that even in our urban environments noise pollution is controlled. How can we make our means of transportation quieter? How can the noise of construction be muffled?
What experiences compelled you to chronicle this story?
A few years ago, Matt became interested in Gordon’s work as a way to integrate two loves in his life: audio and the outdoors. After a short trip, he came back and was gushing with excitement about nature sound recording and the incredible philosophies related to such that Gordon had bestowed upon him in their short time together.
Acoustic ecology and sound recording more broadly often has a very valuable scientific and technological process. What really amazed us about Gordon’s work is his dedication and awareness of the importance of what he was recording. He wasn’t just setting up a few microphones to capture a beautiful sound, he was thinking about what that sound meant in the greater ecosystem of its place. After a few years of Matt continuing to record on his own, and the two of us working together to film documentaries, we decided to take on this idea of natural silence through Gordon’s perspective as a subject.
How can we better listen to our land?
“Listening” can mean a few different things. Yes, there is the obvious meaning, to use one's ears to gather information. But in a more philosophical sense, listening can mean just taking in information, being aware, being alert, being present. It’s been really interesting screening this film all over the world for roughly the last year and a half. After watching the film, many people instantly get it. They seem to understand the idea of natural silence, why it’s important to experience and seek it out when you can, as well as to preserve it when possible. We think that this understanding comes so easily to people after they’ve watched the film because they’re already aware of it subconsciously. When you leave a busy urban area and step out into the woods for a walk there’s a weight off of your shoulders and part of the reduction of stress and anxiety is because of quiet. As Gordon puts it so eloquently in the film: “It becomes self-evident.”
What does deep listening really mean?
Gordon states in Being Hear that “Listening means taking in all sounds with equal importance, so instead of listening for a sound, I simply listen to the place."
Too often we listen for a specific sound, and we end up missing a whole lot of valuable information along the way. Because after all, sound is information. This is a metaphor for life, and interpersonal relationships as well. Too often we are so focused on one thing, that we miss the big picture.
Gordon says that listening is like meditation in some ways. The simple act of attempting to listen is valuable in itself, and it’s not really about doing it right. The attempt is what matters. Don’t think, just listen.