A few years ago, I went out to see the zany film The Grand Budapest Hotel. It was just my luck to sit a couple of rows in front of a man who gleefully provided a running commentary on the finer points of the movie to his partner. She snickered away while crumpling candy wrappers.
The mounting tension of the moviegoers was palpable. Some noticeably threw glances, others directed coughs, and yet others heaved sighs. The couple’s banter and giggling just kept going.
Eventually, a rather large, leather-clad, Hells Angels type guy rose up to let the couple know that they either had to shut up or exit the theater.
Are you imagining a 300-pound guy with massive facial hair, huge black boots, and scar along his forehead? Yeah, that’s the guy. He told them to stop, and that ended that.
So, what do we generally feel about those who subvert big-screen pleasure? “Irresponsible” might be a word that just crossed your mind. Or perhaps if you were honest you were thinking “socially inept,” “immature,” “disrespectful.” and “zero consideration for others.”
For most of us, the movie theater sound environment is a sacred thing that when desecrated can get us pretty upset. That makes sense. When it’s difficult to take in the film’s dialogue and soundtrack, we lose track of the feel of the story as well as the characters. Perhaps even the overall flow of the movie gets muddled. In fact, our cinematic experience could be significantly diminished even if the behavior ceases.
In my mind, this begs a big question: if a movie theater sound environment is so sacred, what about the world outside its confines?
I know that many Vermonters are keenly aware of the special landscape that is ours, as well as our unique communities. However, one quality often gets lost in this mix: the state of our natural sound world, otherwise known as our soundscape.
Should Vermont’s soundscape be sacred and protected?
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Natural soundscapes are the complex collection of utterances: the song emanating from all aspects of the more-than-human and elemental world that surrounds us. That includes the flute-like call of the wood thrush, a subtle breeze in a tree, snow falling from a hemlock branch, the flow of a creek, and an entire symphony of natural sounds for us to hear when we stop in a quiet place for a moment to listen.
Our indigenous Vermont soundtrack brings meaning to place, articulates the seasons, informs us of the time of day and context, inspires our lives, and is something that nourishes us in a way that goes beyond words.
Sadly, it’s pretty clear that the collective sonic weight of the ever-growing number of cars, trucks, and other vehicles in Vermont are steadily replacing our precious soundscapes, similarly to how we are replacing the atmosphere with carbon and other pollutants.
Added to this are countless other technological artifacts that compete for the bandwidth of our sound environment — things that fly, hover, dig, blow, crunch, burn, move earth, grind, pound, alarm, saw, plow, and whack. The list goes on.
All these vehicles, tools, devices, and machines are mostly here to make our lives easier. Some are downright miracles, but they all are progressively impoverishing our aboriginal soundscapes.
This massive rising rumble is pervasive in our downtowns, in our neighborhoods, on our roads, and even coming down upon us from on high. It travels up our glens, swells into the valleys, climbs up mountainsides to the tops, and spreads out to blanket much of our state.
In many places, the background rumble is present nearly 24/7. This is also happening on a global level; the list of places on Earth that aren’t disrupted in some manner is quickly shrinking.
Perhaps most concerning is that, as soundscape ecologist Bryan Pijanowski notes, we are being “forced to turn our ears off.”
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What folks like Pijanowski and other bioacousticians have realized is that soundscapes are far more complex than we ever could appreciate and that a majority of nature’s frequencies are way beyond our aural capabilities.
As we mindlessly jam nature’s sonic output, we directly disrupt the integrity of this intricate vibratory mosaic. In doing so, we also impact the calls and sounds of an untold number of species, subverting their ability to communicate, find a mate and, in many cases, to survive.
Of course, we just don’t notice this. However, while the soundscape of the more-than-human realm is being severely undermined, it is important to note that soundscapes are a “commons”; they are the shared domain of our human social world as well.
A myriad of research studies have revealed that noise pollution is harmful to our minds, bodies, and our sleep. Noise also has a direct impact on our cardiovascular system, especially for the young and the elderly.
Even though we might try to turn our ears off, it still surely gets into us.
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But to take this concept a step further, our excessive audible effluent has a profound impact on our relationship to the world.
Ecopsychologist David Kidner has argued that we physically and emotionally recoil from the world “if what is ‘out there’ is damaged, cheapened, and commercialized.” We then respond by “taking refuge within our islands of comfort, reinforcing narcissism and abandoning the world to further degradation.”
Basically, Kidner is suggesting that there is a feedback loop where we make the world less livable by desecrating our soundscapes, landscapes, and scentscapes to a point where we reflexively withdraw into the protective isolation of things like our homes or the sensory seclusion of our cars.
In other words, we’re gradually abandoning and retreating from what we have made so noisy, ugly, and polluted, ensuring that things will only get worse and that fewer people will engage in human-scale modes of mobility, like walking or biking around.
Then we build strip malls and other developments — places to go shopping, get the dog groomed, or attend a restful yoga class — that are profoundly unpleasant to human beings and nearly everything else.
Furthermore, in many Vermont neighborhoods and communities, residents even become traffic refugees, walking less in their neighborhoods, decreasing their encounters with community members, forsaking their front gardens, disengaging from their front porches, and sometimes even deserting their street-facing rooms.
This sets the stage for what some describe as “sonic terrorism” — the intentionally mind-numbingly loud cars and trucks, as well as the ear-crunching motorcycles, that seem to emerge from hibernation every spring.
Our abandonment of the world opens the door for a radical form of individualism: one that appears to sacrifice the rights of others by holding our soundscapes under siege.
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But this technologically-assisted assault is part and parcel of that destructive feedback loop that Kidner points toward.
As we incrementally vacate our streets and neighborhoods — bodily, sensorily, and emotionally — and confine ourselves to “islands of comfort,” we begin to lose whatever collective control we have.
We are, in effect, complicit in a feedback loop that allows this to happen, and our Vermont soundscapes are steadily bearing the weight.
Of course, humans, even in the best of times and circumstances, will produce an endless array of noises, and there’s a long, storied history of attempts to bring quiet to our world.
We will always bring our voices, celebration, tools, and technologies to the soundscape. There’s no argument about that. However, with our avowedly secular allegiance to a mounting, vast army of technologies and machines, there is no doubt in my mind that we are deeply sabotaging our ability to experience our world and that we are consequently undermining our affinity and responsibility to its social and ecological integrity.
Perhaps we are even subverting our humanity as well. R.D. Laing once put it bluntly: “If our experience is destroyed, our behavior will be destructive. If our experience is destroyed, we have lost our own selves.”
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Some say that we’ve become far too doped up by the fossil-fuel industry and other corporate interests to be little more than passive.
These companies spend billions of dollars yearly on a dazzling curriculum (a.k.a., advertising and marketing) and we abuse the substances and technologies that they push. They seductively grant us great power while we comfortably dissociate from the colossal local and global impacts. We’ve arranged our communities, our lives, and our lifestyles accordingly, co-creating with them a hyper-motorized and less-livable world while destroying our experience on multiple levels.
A more compassionate, yet unsettling, way to understand what is happening is something called “environmental generational amnesia.” Coined by author, professor, and ecological thinker Peter Kahn, the term describes how we experience our world based on what we see today without realizing what we have already lost in terms of biodiversity, air and water quality, forest health, our own connections to the world and, of course, our soundscapes.
Lacking any more fundamental notion of ecological health, each new generation takes the world as it finds it as “normal” or “healthy,” and if we respond at all, we respond primarily only to further degradation.
This is a big reason that our natural soundscapes hold great potential as a wake-up call — a sort of beacon or homecoming for our senses. The antidote to amnesia is to remember — and to “re-member” means to bring back the parts that have been forgotten.
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I’m fully aware that the state of our natural soundscapes might arrive to some ears as a trivial issue in a problem-plagued world. But I’m biased. In my work as a psychotherapist, drawing on the field of ecopsychology, what I see as the root of much of an epidemic of discontent, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and suicide is largely the result of the impoverishment of our experience.
And as we have seen, the quality of our environment and particularly our natural soundscapes — the hearable and the unhearable sounds of the more-than-human world — have a lot to do with how we feel about our planet, our community and neighborhood, and essentially about our own selves.
From this perspective, a significant measure of our health is directly linked to the health of our environment. Yes, we humans have proven to be adaptable and seemingly thrive under many types of conditions, but that adaptability has some profound costs on our mental health as a species and consequently to the world at large.
To know and deeply relate to the tonality of the natural world is similar in process to how we recognize and naturally bond with the soft vocalizations of our child or timbre of our lover’s speech. Our ability to relate to the many-voiced landscape is indeed an important aspect of our emotional attachment to the terrain we inhabit and to its living and animate beings.
Vermont’s natural soundscapes provide contextualization and maybe even inform us how to act in the world. They are truly a “language older than words” (to borrow an idea from the intrepid ecological writer Derrick Jensen), with the potential to shape our emotional and ecological intelligence.
This is the soundtrack of our earthly place. And like a movie soundtrack, these natural soundscapes convey and color a story, though they are immensely more complex than any movie soundtrack with shades, tones, and meanings that are in part far beyond our understanding.
Filled with vital information, nature’s soundscapes are not here just for us; they are a property of the world — just as, in fact, we are.
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Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki teacher, musician, and author, relates a story from his people that might be fitting here. It tells of a time when the creator gave birth to the living world but missed one essential thing — the people.
This maker of life then decided to form the A-senee-ki-wakw — the stone people — because he wanted to make the people sturdy and strong. But the oversized A-senee-ki-wakw walked the land with great noise and madness, destroying the plants, animals, and beauty of the world. They could not feel or hear.
The creator decided to dismantle the A-senee-ki-wakw and reboot “the people,” inspired by the ash-tree leaf. The new human being was to be open and porous to the world and be “of it.”
I believe that there are a few things that, inspired by this account of the A-senee-ki-wakw, we might ask ourselves. One such question: As Vermonters, who do we want to be, and what kind of world do we want to live in?
One powerful measure of this is the quality of our soundscapes and what we sound like. We just need to open our ears and honestly listen.