The Place Where You Go To Listen
“Songs are thoughts which are sung out with the breath when people let themselves be moved by a great force, and ordinary speech no longer suffices.
When the words that we need shoot up of themselves, we have a new song.”
— Orpingalik, a Netsilik elder
“They say that she heard things…
At Naalagiagvik, The Place Where You Go To Listen, she would sit alone, in stillness. The wind across the tundra and the little waves lapping on the shore told her secrets. Birds passing overhead spoke to her in strange tongues.
She listened. And she heard. But she rarely spoke of these things. She did not question them. This is the way it is for one who listens.
She spent many days and nights alone, poised with the deep patience of the hunter, her ears and her body attuned to everything around her. Before the wind and the great sea, she took for herself this discipline: always to listen.
She listened for the sound, like drums, of the earth stirring in ancient sleep. She listened for the sound, like stone rain, as rivers of caribou flooded the great plain. She listened, in autumn, for the echo of the call of the last white swan.
She understood the languages of birds. In time, she learned the quiet words of the plants. Closing her eyes, she heard small voices whispering:
“I am uqpik. I am river willow. I am here.”
“I am asiaq. I am blueberry. I am here.”
The wind brought to her the voices of her ancestors, the old ones, who taught that true wisdom lives far from humankind, deep in the great loneliness.
As she traveled, she listened to the voices of the land, voices speaking the name of each place, carrying the memories of those who live here now and those who have gone.
As she listened, she came to hear the breath of each place — how the snow falls here, how the ice melts–how, when everything is still — the air breathes. The drums of her ears throbbed with the heartbeat of this place, a particular rhythm that can be heard in no other place.
Often, she remembered the teaching of an old shaman, who spoke of silam inua — the inhabiting spirit, the voice of the universe. Silam inua speaks not through ordinary words, but through fire and ice, sunshine and calm seas, the howling of wolves, and the innocence of children, who understand nothing.
In her mind, she heard the words of the shaman, who said of silam inua: “All we know is that it has a gentle voice like a woman, a voice so fine and gentle that even children cannot be afraid”.
The heart of winter: She is listening.
Darkness envelopes her — heavy, luminous with aurora. The mountains, in silhouette, stand silent. There is no wind.
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.
She stands, motionless, listening to the resonant stillness. Then, slowly, she draws a new breath. In a voice not her own, yet somehow strangely familiar, she begins to sing…”
Alex Ross in the New Yorker regarding John Luther Adam’s 2013 premiere of ‘Become Ocean’,
“The title comes from lines that John Cage wrote in tribute to the music of his colleague Lou Harrison: “Listening to it we become ocean.” There are also environmental implications, as Adams indicates in a brief, bleak note in the score: “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.”
Adams asks the question in the above video, activism or art? – a question that is fleshed out in the explorations of The Dark Mountain Project – A collection of activists, artists, poets, writers, scientists, and others who are trying to discover a new narrative to carry society forward into an unknown future.
Jeppe Graugaard in his latest post on the Dark Mountain blog begins with this quote
‘A great silence is spreading over the natural world even as the sound of man is becoming deafening. Little by little the vast orchestra of life, the chorus of the natural world, is in the process of being quietened. There has been a massive decrease in the density and diversity of key vocal creatures, both large and small.’
Graugaard interviews Bernie Krause, author of ‘The Great Animal Orchestra‘ whose work he says
“is an intriguing exploration of biophonies as a wellspring of human culture and a potential source for redefining our relationship with the natural world. Krause believes that ‘biophonies contain the acoustic compass we need to guide us along the route of an ever-challenged planet’, and that listening to what is going on in habitats across the planet can help us map out a viable course into an uncertain future.”
Krause believes we are culturally illiterate, in the sense that we are illiterate of the so-called natural world.
“Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, posits that as we lose access to wild habitats and thus our connection to the natural world, we become impaired with what he has identified as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, a type of infirmity that introduces debilitating kinds of physical and emotional tension into our lives. I, too, have found that in my life, especially with the incredible rate of loss of wild soundscapes. As we hear them we’re endowed with a sense of place – the true story of the world in which we live. With their loss the health of every contiguous biome as well as our own sense of well-being is affected in complex ways since it implies a conditional change for almost all the living organisms that inhabit it whether human or Other.
It also occurs to me that the loss isn’t happening in a time frame that we’ve learned to accept. It unfurls way too slowly for us to get it. And we’re challenged when it comes to a sense of overview – seeing the whole picture – sometimes referred to as seeing the forest for the trees. You know, in the common media we are dealing with four frame cuts – the minimum instant in which most of us are capable of getting any information from sonic or visual cues. The problem is further exacerbated because we’re distracted by so many other things. So these cultures, languages, soundscapes disappear before our eyes but our minds can’t comprehend the staggering loss because we’re asynchronous with the timing of life itself. We’re further impeded because we live in such a state of disbelief and denial. Therein lies the core of our illiteracy.”
Krause goes on to explain how economic and corporate ‘progress’ has sped up the debilitating loss of the natural habitat of so much of the planet. With the disappearance of the interwoven sound that emerges from the layers of communication that build upon different species – from insect to amphibian to mammal – the music that the world expresses is forever lost. The quality of life diminishes and the only way it can be experienced is through an artificial and ersatz expression of wilderness.
Here is an exercise. Listen to the audio samples on the Wild Sanctuary website and pay attention to how it makes you feel. This is an example of the music we have lost and are losing.
In the Ted Talk below, Bernie Krause’s account of what happened in Lincoln Meadow, reveals what happens to the complexity of an environment if even seeming small changes occur. As Krause says, “A sense of place is the true story of the world we live in.”