Senses: Sounds

Senses: Sounds

As I write this, the usual soundtrack of keys tap-tap-tapping is not alone. It’s a mechanical intrusion on the nearby waterfall, the soft scurrying of a cheeky squirrel, the honking of geese and the evening chorus of birdsong settling down for the night.

I can hear the breeze rustling the leaves on the trees. A moorhen chirps. There’s a whisper among the leaves – perhaps the hedgehog which came to visit the other night – and then splashing as some ducklings make their ungainly plop into the water.

The more I tune into the sounds of the forest, the more I hear. It’s an orchestral symphony where shrill piccolos pierce through the gentle backdrop of strings. It’s constantly unpredictable, yet familiar. I feel relaxed, content, composed on this beautiful Spring evening in the forest.

Sound is extremely powerful. Of all the senses, it’s the one I’m most sensitive to. Why is it that modern offices, soft play centres, noisy pubs, busy streets and building sites put me on edge, yet babbling brooks, birds singing and rainfall have the power to instantly relax? There’s a reason spas play whale music and not power drills.

There’s some science behind this. We didn’t evolve to live in cities and work in air-conditioned boxes. Traffic, constant interaction and noise are the modern saber-tooth tigers. They trigger our fight-or-flight response in the brain and too much of this causes both mental and physical fatigue.

Even if you love the excitement and vibrancy of a city, you can’t escape this deeper connection with nature from our ancestors. The settled background hum of nature is where our bodies and minds feel most at rest. Sounds of the natural world are key to our mental and physical well-being.

There’s plenty of coverage about our impact on the environment and increasing evidence that we are reaching a crunch point – one where it could soon become impossible to reverse the effects of climate change. It all makes for sobering reading.

I’d recommend you check out a podcast on the BBC Sounds app. Forest 404 is set in the 24th Century and imagines a world where the forests of the ‘old world’ have long since disappeared. The central character discovers some recordings of the Sumatran rainforest and we follow her on the resulting adventure.

There are some fascinating talks to accompany the drama and one contains a powerful comparison of two soundscapes: the first of a meadow in Sierra Nevada before a logging company carries out work in the area; the second takes place a year later. The difference is stark.

It worries me, and as the story progresses in Forest 404, you are left with a deep sense of what we stand to lose. A world without trees, birdsong, streams. It doesn’t bear thinking about. I don’t think it’s extreme to think our current habits are sending us irreversibly down this path. Can we, as humans, continue to survive without the sounds of the natural world we currently take for granted?

I have written before about the power of silence and some of my favourite sounds in nature. It’s the first thing I notice when I arrive in the Lakes. Even when all seems still, the air is thick with sound. Wind, water, woodpeckers, willow warblers… whatever it may be, the more you listen the more you hear. There are so many layers and my other senses become heightened.

It’s why looking at a picture of a mountain just isn’t the same as being in the physical presence of one. And why an Indian takeaway tastes even better with a sitar playing in the background. We humans thrive on the full 4D experience.

Next time you are out walking, try focusing on what you can hear. The rustle of your clothing. The thud of your footsteps or the gentle crunch of pebbles skipping momentarily across the rocky ground as you disturb them. The creak of a rucksack strap. The wind around your lugholes. Distant church bells. Let your imagination run wild as you hear twigs snapping. Is it a zombie, a yeti or (more likely) a spooked deer which has sensed your presence long before you approach? The variety constantly evolves as you round each corner. I defy you not to feel better.

So be mindful of sounds when you are out walking; it’ll enhance your experience. Any why not bring some of the outside into your office? Open a window. Put on some headphones and listen to some birdsong. Better still, find a park or a river for a lunchtime stroll. The benefits often last for hours, getting you through that difficult meeting and providing some much needed balance.

I am convinced we all benefit from listening to nature. I’d even argue it’s fundamental to our survival as a species. As humans, we often feel invincible. Like we have the strength, the power and the intelligence to mould the natural world to fit our ideals of progress. Unfortunately there can only be one winner and I don’t think it’ll be us.

That’s why I remain optimistic that the more people who take a walk, sit in a forest for an hour, or even just find a podcast to educate them about how connected we are to nature, the more chance we have of looking after it for future generations to enjoy. Or more dramatically, if the events of Forest 404 are to believed, the more chance we have of surviving as a species.

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