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Listening Deliberately

Sam Broun
Rob Rosenthal recording at Oyster Pond in Falmouth in April.

There are fewer cars on the road these days, due to shelter-in-place advisories and business closings. The traffic is much calmer. Rob Rosenthal of Falmouth has noticed the quiet... and the sounds. 

Today is April 16, 2020, about quarter to 6 in the morning. I’m headed to the woods with Sam to listen. 


Henry David Thoreau famously said “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” I’m not that hardy. but, recently, I have been going to the woods to “listen deliberately.” 


I don’t usually make field recordings of the natural environment. Who wants to with traffic sound always so pervasive? It’s like taking a picture with fingerprints on the lens. But lately, the world is quieter. So, today on a walk with my partner, Samantha, I have my stereo recorder mounted on a camera tripod. A puffy, foam windscreen sits on top in case it gets breezy. And we don’t have to go far. There’s a nice stand of woods right nearby. 


I remember arguing with a friend of mine about carrying a camera while out for a walk. He never brings one. The camera gets in the way, he says. You end up thinking about the technology and the picture you want to make, not what you’re experiencing. He has a point. That’s happened to me.


But, then again, sometimes looking through a viewfinder helps focus my attention. Thinking photographically, I find I’m more attuned to details – the light, an arrangement of trees, slight variations of ocean blue….  I see more. The same happens with a tape recorder. Headphones on, standing as still as possible. I hear more.


There’s an impulse I think, an impulse to not record in place for very long if a location is too quiet. “Well, nothing happening here. Time to get a move on.” It’s like I expect sounds to change quickly. Like I’m scrolling through images on Instagram. “Here’s something new. Here’s something new. Here’s something new.” I have to fight the urge to leave. Force myself to pause. Listen more intently. Wait for a surprise. A new texture, like this lone Canada goose.


What exactly am I listening for? I don’t really know. Nothing? Everything? I know. That’s not a satisfying answer to me either. Not concrete enough. Seems like recording should be constructive. Some goal to reach. Record a specific bird, maybe. Or find locations on the Cape where, for half an hour, there is no intrusion from human-made sound – a serious challenge, I suspect. But, really, I’m only on the audio hunt for the pleasure of listening.


Hear that? Not one. Not two. But three woodpeckers. 


Okay, there is one thing I find myself listening for. The biophony. This is a word field recordist Bernie Krause coined. He defines it as “the combined sound that the whole group of living organisms produce in any given biome.” Krause posits that animals have developed sonic niches. Birds, insects, mammals… their vocalizations all tend to occupy different frequency ranges. A natural orchestration, if you will, developed through evolution where the singing, howling, buzzing, croaking tend not to compete sonically. Put another way, if vocalizations sounded the same, communication would be very difficult. 


Listening this intently, sounds I typically ignore become more intriguing. I mean, it’s inspiring to watch an osprey dive for fish. But the sound of one hitting the water and escaping with a catch? Wow. 


I’ve been recording at night, too. I turn off my flashlight. The glow from my recorder casts a dim light on me and Sam and the trees. We stand as still as possible. Spring peepers are sensitive to movement.   


 Which leads me to this. I guess there is one more thing I listen for. My thoughts. 


Like tonight. Standing here, at the edge of this vernal pool, soaked in the chirps of these frogs, “deep time” creeps in. My thoughts drift to my three year old grandson. And to the age of the light coming from those stars in between tree limbs. I mean, really, listening to this chorus, a chorus that has likely echoed in these woods for, well, when was this pool formed? When the ice sheets receded some 10,000 years ago? And frogs in general? According to the American Museum of Natural History, they’ve been around for 200 million years. Two. Hundred. Million. I’m merely 57. 


Today is April 17th 2020. It’s early. Not sure what time. Recording in my back yard. No walk today. 


Believe it or not, I don’t think I’m going to listen to my recordings at home. I mean, sure, once in a while I might. But, the thought of it doesn’t seem satisfying. Sitting in my home office, listening to an audio file on my computer is disconnected from place – the breeze, the smells, the ground under my feet. I guess recording sound I don’t listen to is like taking a picture I never look at. But that doesn’t stop me from taking pictures – noticing, in the moment, what’s pleasing to the eye and clicking. And, so while the traffic is minimal, I think I’ll keep putting headphones on, pressing record. Ears wide open. Deliberately listening.