The Living Soundscape - taking time to listen

Hardwick Wood - Robert Enderby

There can be a joy to being able to identify species by their sound, but Communities and Wildlife Manager Rebekah extols the virtues of just listening, too, and letting the natural soundscape wash over us...

The beautiful, mystifying, sometimes terrifying sounds of the natural world surround us no matter where we are. The pitter patter of rain to the raging storm, the buzzing bees to the singing crickets, the trickling stream or crashing sea and of course beautiful birdsong. During this time of lockdown many of us have become more attuned to the sounds of nature during walks for daily exercise or through spending time in our gardens. The distinct lack of traffic noise has enabled us to enjoy the sounds of spring like no other year in recent memory.

As someone who has worked in the conservation world for a number of years I have experienced a certain amount of pressure to be able to identify species, whether it be recording for monitoring purposes or to impart knowledge to a visiting school or community group. I enjoy this aspect of the work and love taking books out with me on a countryside walk to look at wildflowers, or even more painstaking….mosses, much to the utter enjoyment of my long suffering husband and now my son! I actually find it quite hard not to switch into identification mode and a walk is very rarely just a walk without trying to work something out.

This affliction is not just for those of us in conservation but a deep part of the human psyche, after all early humans would have relied upon knowledge passed on about what was good to eat and what should be avoided, and so our brains have evolved to recognise, compartmentalise and remember. The modern world brings a more diverse range of topics to train our brains to be busy with, all models of motorbike (my husband), bus timetables, breeds of dog and so on and so forth.

While we at the Wildlife Trust are delighted when people become interested in the natural world and try to encourage and inform, there is unfortunately a competitive nature in some circles and this can have the opposite effect on someone’s enthusiasm. I recently heard of someone who was snubbed for not knowing a song thrush call, not what I would call one of the easiest bird songs to know, which made the person feel self-conscious about asking for help to name other puzzling calls.

This is where I think we could all take a lesson from mindfulness meditation techniques which encourage us to recognise the brains eagerness to name, assign and remember everything going in and give it a little break to just be….. 

Corn bunting singing

Corn bunting (Milaria calandra) singing in oilseed rape crop - Chris Gomersall/2020Vision

A few years ago I embarked on a mindfulness meditation course and one of the stand out moments for me was the listening meditation week. We were gathered in a room and our meditation for that evening was to be aware of all the sounds that passed our audible spectrum but just to hear them as part of a soundscape, not to name, identify, judge but just to hear. This is remarkably difficult thing to do but with some practice it is very liberating.

be aware of all the sounds that [pass] our audible spectrum but just hear them as part of a soundscape...

To hear the traffic sound as just sound and not associate irritation, or to hear a bird singing and just take in the different notes, like a sound line on an old stereo system or notes on a musical score. It occurred to me that an enjoyment of the natural soundscape is taken away by my need to identify the birdsong, or insect noise or a running stream rather than just enjoying the range of sounds hitting my eardrums and find a sense of calm by steeping away from judgement and anxiety….’listen without prejudice’ as dear old George Michael once said!

Really listening, in practice...

And so as I went on my evening walk today I tried to resist the urge to identify the soundscape and just listen…..and it struck me how different an experience this was. As I left my home there was a screeching rushing noise overhead, a low hum as a backdrop to the soundscape and a regular thudding sound coming from under me. A regular interlude of a high pitch flurry of notes, quite melodic but urgent, (too much judgement there).

The thud changed to a crunch as I entered the track of the old railway line, and then a soft repeatitive sound, regular again but a different pitch. A loud trill, a background of soft rustling, a definite shift in the overall soundscape. In comes another sound, scratchy tones ranging around a central note, coming often, louder as I approach a scrubby hawthorn, fading as I pass. A two note sound, high low…quiet, high low….quiet. The rustling intensifies, the feel of the wind on my face accompanies this sound, a constant, moving along with me. Another definite shift in the soundscape.

The rustling intensifies, the feel of the wind on my face accompanies this sound, a constant, moving along with me.

I approach home, the screeching is back, the thud and the droning undertones return. I feel calm, refreshed, my busy mind has had a rest, a rest from the constant need to name, make associations, to be active. Don’t get me wrong, it is not easy, and the busy mind needs a constant reminder to calm down and stop labelling – but it is worth the effort.

To be able to listen to the natural soundscape is a real pleasure but it is all too easy to get caught up in trying to work out what you are hearing instead of just hearing. I never fail to appreciate having all my senses so let’s give them the attention they deserve at times and give those busy minds a bit of a break. And if someone asks you what that sound is, take a moment to appreciate that wonderful sound with them before jumping in with identification mode, you will find it a much more pleasurable experience all round!

Why not try a 'listen to the soundscape' walk for your next 30 Days Wild activity?