A SUMMER OF LISTENING

WORDS: HARRISON NIR

IMAGES: KATE WEINER

One major, though seldom recognized, part of being human and alive is making sound. From the moment we are born we are creating vibrations in the air around us. These vibrations are summed into a web of sound comprised of everything we can and much that we cannot hear, all together composing the sonic ecosystems of the Earth. 

In this time of global climate change, there is an urgency to seed resources that aid mass environmental awareness. I find the most influential resource can be a community bonded by commitment, aware of each other and their mutual cause.

The Sound Calendar of the Year 2018 is a pilot project that responds to this urgency through the creation of an expansive, community-sourced environmental audio collection. Developed by Guggenheim fellow, composer Jin Hi Kim, the calendar will map a single year on Earth in sound on a digital platform made to facilitate an annual project of communal reflection. Throughout 2018, the project is calling for 5-10 minute unedited, unique recordings of environments from all over the world. Every perspective, from smartphone to professional grade environmental recordings will be included.

It took me 21 years, until my first trip to Joshua Tree National Park, to realize the impact of the sound we create: from music to noise, every sound is a cause and so, naturally linked to an effect. Think about it, on a human level, how music can instantly alter your mood and cause you to move or react in a particular way, with more or less grace, or how the sirens of an ambulance provoke a fearful empathy and move traffic aside. 

Exploring the desert plains of Joshua Tree, where the summer days are as silent as they are hot and each step taken on the brittle Earth resounds fifty feet in each direction, I became acutely aware of the sound of my presence. As I hiked, I stirred jackrabbits up from their shaded dens and sent them running across the plain and the few gathering birds, whose calls became my compass, fell silent, leaving me to only the hush of the wind pressing through the armored fronds of the joshua trees. 

Every sound we make and every sound we hear has an effect on our environment. It is by this fact that we have the capacity to destroy, to blindly dominate and debilitate ecosystems vital to our flourishing, but it is also by this fact that we have the ability to construct, to change the world by changing what we crank up in volume. 

Reparations sound like activists taken to the street; they are found in the pulse of a chant in support of humanizing politics. Reparations too sound like nights filled with the ecstatic hum of insects, a chorus of birds at sunrise, the explosion of a playfully breaching whale; perhaps most of all, often the rarest form for us today, a deep silence. As we begin to struggle for the salvation of our planet and the life that dwells upon it, we must amplify the voices of not just disenfranchised human life, but also of the non-human lives that are most affected by environmental desecration. 

I have spent this summer traveling and recording a wide range of Californian ecosystems for the Sound Calendar of the Year. Whenever I go out to record, tip-toeing in the direction of a preciously momentary sound, I cannot but be aware of the effect that my presence has on the intricate systems that are in motion around me. I am so quickly reminded of my place within the natural world, as opposed to separated from it within the zones of my human comfort.

The more I listen the easier it is becoming to hear each sonic ecosystem as a code containing information about the health of the environment. Long before climate change became a visible and visceral phenomena on Earth, it was audible. Rachel Carson famously turned her experience of the Earth’s changing soundscape into a call for action in Silent Spring, published in 1962, inspired by a perceived decrease in bird song. 

Over 60 years later, it is impossible for us to understand the sonic world that inspired Carson to write, the same that helped develop the Western environmental movement. What we can do now, in an effort to become more aware participants in and more involved stewards of our ecological communities, is develop our ability to listen. 

The act of recording then becomes a practice of presence. Beyond an understanding of the technology, it requires the skills of an activist: a patience capable of waiting out long silences for moments of the beautifully spontaneous and a willingness to a take a backseat to greater forces of inspiration.

Traveling down Highway 1 on California’s Pacific coast, I turned off into a parking lot filled to near its capacity with tour busses, vans and single family cars. “Elephant Seal Observation Area” read a sign at the entrance to the lot. 

This area of the highway, just past San Simeon, is known for hosting herds of beached elephant seals. I had my recording device ready, excited to capture the calls of the majestic sea mammals. Exiting my car, the wonder of witnessing the seals was clouded by the amount of humans crowded into the observation path. A mere ten feet from where the massive seals lay molting, human families and touring groups outnumbered the animal/spectacle we were all there to see. My recording became a testimony to the creation of this zoo-like spectacle, more “human” than “natural," with the cacophony of human voices masking the beautiful groans and growls of the seals I came to record. 

Observing and eventually recording the seals, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was a part of the crowd. This is a lesson that I had to learn over and over again this summer as I traveled the Pacific coast with my recording device. It is the same lesson I learned at Joshua Tree and likely need to learn again: it doesn’t matter where you listen, much of the sounds of the Earth today are not pristine. More often than not, they are marred by sound pollution resulting from human behavior.  

I remember once, early in the summer, recording the buzzing of a number of bees at work on a yellow-flowering bush in the back brush of Runyon Canyon. It wasn’t minutes into the tape that a jet-plane flying overhead overtook the recording and, all at once, the whole understanding of place that I was able to capture shifted.

Over an entire summer, I could not once create a recording that could create the guise of a ecosystem uninfluenced by human presence. I’ve come to understand that the fact of my presence alone, as quiet and respectful as I aim to be, influences the environment around me. 

It took a summer of listening for me to get that the Earth I am able to hear will always be a human reality. However, as listeners as well as sound-makers, all of us, we have the capacity to know and to fight to hear the beauty made possible by an Earth in balance. 

There is a certain harmony in the dissonance of the Earth’s changing soundscapes; change is happening everywhere. The ability to sensitively witness these changes is directly related to the work that must be done to preserve a diversity of species and ecosystems on the Earth. 

This is the intention behind the Sound Calendar of the Year: to cultivate a community of inspired listeners. From the silence of Joshua Tree to the wild, hollering savannahs of Uganda, to a car chorus at rush hour, the more sonic perspective that we can gather into the Sound Calendar each year, the better we can witness the Earth change. And the first step towards healing ourselves through healing our relationship with this planet is to listen and to trace the sounds we hear back to their cause. 

Harrison Nir is a student composer and writer, pursuing a double degree in Music and Anthropology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He served as the College of the Environment Sound Calendar of the Year 2018 Summer Intern and is currently based in Los Angeles. 

Kate WeinerComment