A River of Sound

Close to its surface a shallow river talks loudly. It’s as if the water is passing through many throats, being gulped, gargled and spluttered as it moves over pebbles and rocks, willow roots, rafts of dead vegetation piled against the bank. I propped the recorder on a stone as close to the surface as I could. The little red indicator flashed and the bars representing the left and right stereo channels pulsed. Sound recorders are difficult to use. They pick up and amplify even the slightest vibration, so you have to stand rock-still while you’re recording, which is hard when you’re knee deep in freezing water. I held on for a minute, then tried again further out in the stream. This time two goosanders flew over my head and I captured the woosh-beat of their wings. I managed another two recordings before the industrial world interrupted, first a tractor, then a chainsaw, and finally the droning tinnitus of an overhead jet. 

I’m recording these sounds in order to build an archive I can access in a decade or so. I’ve been getting slowly but progressively hard of hearing for several years now. At first I missed the occasional word when someone was speaking to me. Now I cannot follow conversations in a room with people talking or music playing in the background. Oncoming deafness is not how I imagined it. The world doesn’t seem to be getting quieter, it is simply narrowing. High pitched notes, the steeples in a soundscape, have disappeared. I don’t hear our alarm go off in the mornings, which can be handy, but I also can’t hear buzzards calling. Lower registers have smudged together and lost their edges. At the same time internal sounds, my heartbeat, the creaking of my jaw, and the thud of my footsteps, have become amplified. It’s like being submerged in water. The world sometimes feels noisier than before. But increasing noise is the hallmark of these times.  Though the natural world is being silenced there will never be a silent spring. 

I’m hoping that, when my hearing worsens, I’ll be able to play sound recordings on headphones with the volume turned up and still hear the things I love to listen to, the voices of fast flowing rivers, owl calls and the wing-beats of goosanders. 

On an island south of Thailand a young tourist was riding an elephant on the beach when the normally obedient creature turned and ran. The elephant’s caretaker managed to catch up and lead it back to the beach, but within minutes it fled again, the tourist still onboard. Once more the caretaker steered the elephant back to the beach only for it to turn and run. This situation continued, the caretaker and the tourist becoming more exasperated until other people noticed a dark line rapidly swelling out to sea. This time elephant, rider and caretaker fled and did not return. Minutes later the tidal wave hit, engulfing everything in its path and drowning hundreds of people. The tsunami had been caused by an underwater earthquake many miles offshore. After the event, people noticed that animals, wild and domestic, had made their way to higher ground in the minutes before the wave hit. No carcasses were found. The animals had heard the infrasound made by the earthquake, a sound below the 20hz range of human hearing. 

A horse can hear through its feet and its jaw, feeling low frequency vibrations passing through the ground. A horse’s ear is conical like the end of a trumpet and can be rotated independently through 180 degrees. You know when a horse is paying attention to you because at least one ear will be pointing in your direction. When both ears are facing forward, the horse is doing its own thing. Once, when out riding on a quiet lane, my horse reared and span. I managed to quiet her down and we went a little further before she span again. I decided not to fight her. We turned for home where I let her out into the field. She took off as soon as I closed the gate and joined the rest of the herd galloping and bucking like mad things. Across the valley a flash of lightning lit up the mountains. In half-an-hour one of the biggest thunderstorms I’ve ever experienced hit. The horses continued to spook until every one of them was coated white with a mixture of sweat and rain. 

The highly tuned senses of some animals makes them appear to be able to see into the future. But in reality all creatures only experience the past. Humans, being less sensitive, live a little further into the past. Our ears and eyes, and the tips of our fingers need to relay what they are sensing along pathways to the brain. It then takes the cortex a fraction of a second to process these sensations and to formulate the mental picture of the information sent. By the time we comprehend what we’re experiencing, the experience has already gone. We’ll never see our loved ones as they actually are, but only as they have just been. We’re all standing in rivers, looking downstream. 

In the final stage of dying breathing becomes laboured. A rattle starts at the back of the throat. When it was in my father’s throat a nurse gave him an injection. She told me it was to make his breathing easier. This did not happen. It got quieter, but more rapid, more laboured. It was like watching a terrible film sequence with the volume turned down. Perhaps most families don’t want to hear that sound. I wish that my father could have been spared the jab of a needle as one of his last experiences of life and that he didn’t have to listen to a nurse talking about him as if he was just an irreparable machine. I’d have liked to have taken him to be beside my river so he could listen to the past and future spoken by water.  But perhaps in those last minutes he was tuned into something else entirely, something far off that I’ll only hear when I reach the edge of my life.

Our hearing, like our sight, flits from one focal point to the next. But the ear doesn’t function like the eye. Hearing does not blur. It takes a deliberate act of inattention to tune out your surroundings. When I was at primary school the teachers always moved me to the front row of the class because of my deafness, but I could hear as well as anyone back then. I just wasn’t interested in what they were teaching me. It felt like there was something outside the classroom walls that I was missing, something important but invisible, happening beyond the housing estate, the railway line and the pit stacks. There was a line of trees on the horizon and I knew that whatever I was sensing was going on somewhere in there. My parents weren’t interested in woods and wild places, they liked parks, shopping streets, seaside promenades. The first decade and a half of my life was wholly spent within earshot of passing cars and human voices. But we lived across the road from an old Victorian priory with a couple of acres of ground which had become overgrown since the owners had fallen on hard times. A tawny owl took up residence in there and some nights it perched on the faulty street-lamp outside my bedroom window. Its call woke me up and filled me with a desire to be near to wildness that has never left me.

Soundscapes surround us that we are oblivious to. Elephants converse on dry evenings over a 300km distance. Oceans teem with the calls of cetaceans thrown half way around the world, but we need to use machines to hear them.  We listen to the calls of bats with radio detectors, we use apps to recognise the songs of finches. Most of the time the sounds we hear are coming out of our own heads.  I can walk miles without hearing anything apart from the argument I’ve concocted with myself. At other times an ear-worm will follow me for days. It’s so easy to tune out. The last pair of curlews on my hill are usually around this time of year, but they’re always far off and their calls are easily missed, so I have to stop, scan the landscape and concentrate hard. It’s like trying to find a faint radio signal amongst the electrostatic crackle and hiss of the world, turning the dial as slowly as I can. I’m listening to the world harder these days, and I’m building a sound archive as a back-up. One day its index will read: river in spate, wind in Scots pines, galloping wild ponies, high waterfalls, flock of golden plovers, honey bees on heather, otters at the stream, distant curlews.