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Listening, noticing, knowing

Words, sounds and pictures from lockdown in a rural place.

I am sitting by a river near to my house. I sit by that river and the longer I sit, the more I notice. Just the white rush of small rapids upstream to my right at first, but after some minutes, more layers creep in. A slosh of waves on boulders to my left. A bass drone of the main flow ahead, submerged. A small slapping at my feet, where long tendrilled mosses sway in the backwash. A dipper zips past, busy making springtime plans, a robin tries in vain to catch butterflies.

Being fully present and listening deeply is hard at first. Letting time pass without distraction requires a concerted effort. I become conscious of how shallow my breathing has become. Anxiety has gotten into everything, but attending to the soundscape here has brought me out of my head and back into my body.

In our new context, local natural spaces are suddenly in the spotlight. They were always there, hidden in plain sight while we rushed off for bigger and better, but they now have new utility not just as dogwalks but as relief from existential threat. We’re connecting with our immediate environment in ways we might never have done before.

Noticing is a luxury not afforded to all, even if we remain physically well. Nurses and Posties will have little time for gardening, even if they have access to gardens. For others, more time inside can mean more time in bad housing or an unsafe situation. The virus has thrown the gross inequities of our society into sharp relief, but outdoor space seems newly valuable to all – key worker, home worker or home schooler, furloughed or zero houred. This disease has shown that where we stay is where we draw resilience from, whether we like it or not.

I am sitting by a lochan, different to where you are sitting now. So many things are happening. The wind comes in rolling waves, slow motion sighs I hear before I see, skiffing the surface, creating shimmering rippling bowls. The loch is surrounded by birch, above there’s old pine dotting the hillside… and is that tatty ancient oak? This is an old place, partly human made. There are actually two lochans here, separated by a dyke, its boulder wall long bound and covered by birch and heather roots. It’d be mistaken for a natural feature if it wasn’t for its straightness. There are fishing jetties, one completely collapsed with only the posts remaining, and another just a few minutes away that’s partly intact. I’m intrigued to know the human history here. It’s unique.

The wind casts around from shore to shore. There are small birds with white chests and others with yellow chests. I don’t know their names by heart, but I make a guess. To know their names is a luxury, but I do notice them – I can still do that. I notice how their chorus moves around the lochan with the wind. They are in conversation, in stereo. I notice how they play on the open ground behind me, darting wildly on the biting south easterly fetched from over the blunt headed Munro on the horizon. I notice how the sun shines through the wings of two birds who seem to be dancing together. Tiny, translucent, so delicate.

Later still, two larger sounding birds are calling. There’s a low purring, a call and response, two distinct, throaty, vowel-ish tones. Otherwise, utter quiet. No traffic moves in this glen. The other birds have gone to bed.

To notice this is a luxury. But not to notice is also a luxury; one we can no longer afford.

Noticing has to do with familiarity. Getting to know somewhere does not require inside knowledge or special skills, just time and curiosity. It needn’t even be rural – as a teenager I haunted an abandoned brickworks. I know something of my lochan place now, but I still don’t know its name. I check the map again. Apparently, it doesn’t have one.

Now I am sitting in a room different to the one you are in, and I am trying to make sense of the mess of my thoughts. And I’m thinking about how noticing appears to be less taken for granted than it was, and the way that taking exercise has been politicised, that staying put and resting in one place has been problematised. And I notice anew that there’s a hierarchy of noticing. I’ve long had a question about the naming of things and why it’s accorded such priority. Naming is political – it doesn’t always give the named power, but it always empowers the namer.

I can follow the logic. I understand if I can identify something, I might then be able to see how it fits into its environment, how it interacts with other things that I can also name and that way build a more complete picture. But it seems that quite often the naming of things is where our noticing begins and ends, and there are other categories of knowing that don’t rely on words, ways of understanding at least as central to the experience.

Sound is that other language for me. The wind in trees, the fried egg fizz of raindrops on tent fabric, even the barely-there softness and lightness of snowflakes coming to rest on a jacket arm has its own particular, intimate acoustic. The creak of a tree branch, and the crack and wrench as it calves a big limb to the ground – a shocking thing I heard and saw recently. Hollow, jarring rockfall, an alarm call resonant not only of a coire bowl or a boulder filled gap, but also of hazard and indifference. The sorrowful burble of curlews, which always comes with an echo borne of where and not just what. We always hear the place – in this case, nearly always an open, wet place – as well as the creature itself, whatever our proximity to it. The echo of place offers clues to the nature of the bird, it’s way of being. Soundscape is landscape.

With our orbits curtailed, we’re also drawing more deeply on past experiences. A key sound memory for me is the sound of my own footsteps, walking across the Pyrenees. Wherever I went, there I was. But it conjures a very specific location and atmosphere, too. Through remembering that sound, I can access a particular feeling of hitting my stride after the first week or so, equal parts exhausted, energised and emotional in soft gold-green light, a rhythm found walking at dusk under beech trees in the Basque.

And after I went to the unnamed lochan, I went home to my office room, which is different to the room you are in now. I looked up the bird in a small pocket book and that’s how I know what we humans call it. In the north, it’s a migrator, so the bird I saw may have only arrived recently in the warmer weather. It likes reed beds and clearings and eats mostly insects, but sometimes also breadcrumbs. In the past, it was sometimes called Polly Dishwash, perhaps because it favours the watering holes where our predecessors washed clothes and pans. It’s true name is a Pied Wagtail or Motacilla alba, but it’s song was the place and the place was its song and that matters more to me than a name.

You can use a phone to record sounds and edit them in Audacity, a free audio program. If you don’t have a phone, ‘set your mind to record’ for a period of time, and jot down what you hear after. Your recordings, or journal of noticing will help you track your listening and observation powers over time.

The structure for this article was inspired by Alvin Lucier’s sound art work – ‘I am sitting in a room’

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.