The Literal Landscape: A Series from the Terrain.org Editor-in-Chief
Ihadn’t meant to kill the bird. He was a robin, as best I could tell at 50 miles per hour—the road loping through the Vermont countryside, green on green except for the occasional field of dandelions, a congregation of black-and-white cows beside the baptistery of a watering trough. The bird arced out of the roadside brush and into the passenger side of the windshield, thinking perhaps the glint was a sudden stream, dragonflies and water striders ready for the taking. On impact, the beak dropped and neck must have snapped before he bounced and landed light but lifeless on the pavement behind me. I could hear the initial impact even with the buds of the iPod planted in my ears, the chords of the Rolling Stones’ “Bitch” rolling with the small hills. I may have invoked the song’s refrain—“Love, it’s a bitch, alright”—as I watched the pear-sized life pass. It’s not so much that love is a bitch, I thought, as that sudden collisions are a bitch. I’d been warned to watch for moose, and have certainly pinged birds before, but something about this encounter resounded, as if the robin instead pierced the curved glass, a dart nested in the pane of my deeper self.
I paused the iPod and removed the earplugs. The sound of the engine filled the cavity of the rental car. Still, as I slowed to 40 I could just make out the calls of other birds in the birches and maples, the whirr of a riding mower on a lawn, the whine of the car’s small tires. My wife Billie has had an iPod for months now, raving about it daily, telling me at every possibility how much I’d like one. I’m not interested, I’d insist. But with a trip from Tucson to New England coming up, I began to see the value. No more searching through radio stations as I drove the rental car. The chance to have our full music library digitized and at my fingertips. And an easy ability to watch films on the sleek black device, as well. I gave in and it was only a matter of days before my new iPod held more than 1,900 songs and a handful of movies.
I accepted the digital music player with a mixture of anticipation and regret. As with my adoption of any new technology, I knew it would change my habits and relationship with the wider world. Though I design websites and work on computers all day, I’m always wary of new gadgets. It’s not that I’m old-fashioned; instead, there’s something about losing a connection to the visceral world, an unwillingness to substitute virtual for actual.
I didn’t blame the bird’s death on the iPod. But over the few days I had the player on that June trip, I felt its ability to lure me away from the natural—and perhaps just as essential, the unnatural—sounds around me. I wasn’t shocked, then, to learn that the iPod is often called the isolation-Pod. For Billie, after a day of teaching second graders, isolation is a reward: her escape into synthesized rhythms and soothing vocals, if only for the brief periods before dinner or after our daughters are in bed. My escape is also from monotony—the drone of engines on the airliner, in the car. But back at home or moving around town I prefer the honeyed song of the lesser goldfinch, the raucous cry of a cactus wren, even the regular echo of a fighter jet arcing above the local air base. Sound is every bit as much a part of place as image.
So passing through New Hampshire’s White Mountains on my way to Vermont, I was surprised to encounter a teenage boy with iPod earplugs nestled in his ears, volume up, music tinny but nonetheless audible. In a hooded red sweatshirt and baggy jeans, he walked along the trail that edges the Flume Brook at Franconia Notch State Park. The Flume is a thin gorge nearly three football fields long, lined with dark walls of granite and basalt, overgrown in ferns, moss, and the dangling branches of alder. At the ravine’s head is Avalanche Falls, four stories high and 30 feet wide. The wild rush of the brook is as visceral in sound as in sight, yet without both the experience must have been diminished for the boy.
Or perhaps that’s only my antiquated view, for isn’t it possible the teenager’s experience was actually heightened by his music? The melody didn’t sound like Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” or even The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme’ Shelter,” which would have been appropriate given the waterfall’s overspray, but his on-demand soundtrack played on, and he appeared as engaged as any of us. Yet at what point does synthetic sound replace natural sound and so authentic experience? At what point do we lose our intrinsic connection to the physical places around us because we’ve become absorbed in the virtual places that technology makes so easy to access?
After arriving in Vermont the next day, friend and jazz clarinetist David Rothenberg, author of best-selling books on bird and whale song, said, “Why not try walking through a wild forest listening to a recording made in Times Square?” My immediate reaction was to do the opposite: load up the iPod with forest recordings for trips to the city. The last place I had seen David was New York, and I well remember the symphony of sirens and subway trains, vehicles and voices.
Without an accessible recording, however, my options were limited to the songs already on my player: I skipped “Gimme’ Shelter” for another topical Stones song, “Street Fighting Man.” Placing the smooth buds into my ears, I reached the edge of a tattered trail near Craftsbury, Vermont, where I was staying. Guitar riffs announced the song, but right away I realized that I must slide up the volume to hide the swishing of my feet on the high grass and pine needles that covered the cross-country ski lane. The trail dropped into a forest of hawthorn, birch, and pine. Ferns and intricate wildflowers of blue and white drifted into the path or edged the filtered shadows of the trees. I raised the volume once again to cover the cries of crows so that I could no longer hear even the internal cadence of my own breathing.
Almost immediately—as Mick Jagger crooned and a sitar bent in the background—I felt disconnected from the trail and broader landscape. My eyes cropped the shapes of the verdant maple leaves against speckled limbs and the gray granite against darker trail. But I saw few birds. A humid breeze washed my face and hands, mosquitoes took residence on the back of my neck, and the scent of the pines was light yet persistent. But I saw no wildlife. And soon my head swayed back and forth in a kind of rhythmic, autistic scan far from normal. By the time the song ended and “Sympathy for the Devil” began, my walk felt more cinematic than anything else—not as much surreal as half-real, a vital sense not so much cut off as held captive. I could neither deny the experience was compelling nor endorse its isolation.
The path reached a wide clearing and then a road, but I kept going, iPod blaring, northern Vermont’s pastures and soft forested hills on every horizon. The nature of the acoustic environment of the landscape—the soundscape—made little difference in my walk, except when I passed the swift but narrow Black River, where the trill of red-winged blackbirds forced me to wind the volume to its maximum, to the level the iPod needed to overpower the jet engines just outside my seat on the flight from Tucson. I hadn’t realized the sheer amplitude of the natural world, always assuming the mechanizations of humans were louder by default. I was tempted to pause the player to listen to the fen, but instead stepped off the road onto a faint trail beside the marsh’s edge and headed for a hill a half-mile distant. Along the way I saw dozens of birds—warblers and blackbirds, finches and mallards—plus the outline of a turtle just below the water’s murky surface. The breeze picked up and I found myself slapping the back of my neck less, the forest’s tiny fiends left behind. Knee-deep in wildflowers and grass, I trudged to the base of the hill, choosing my steps through the water-logged pasture carefully, my shoes and pants already soaked. And I was delighted, for even though I wasn’t exposed to natural sounds, there was a certain rhythm to the digital songs that rolled into my ears, immersing me completely. Though I was still certain the boy at the Flume missed the full natural experience, I realized he hadn’t missed experience altogether. I conceded that his exposure was rich, even if not truly authentic.
Or wasn’t it? At the base of the hill I stopped once I recognized there wasn’t a trail after all. I turned south and looked across the fen as the wind built behind me. Suddenly the grass undulated in vast uneven ripples—like the parabolic waves of sound itself—and I became unstable, disoriented. I knew this experience was an illusion both optical and aural, yet the entire sheet of green and yellow-green grasses rolled row after row into to the dark braid of the Black River even as my feet dug hard into the hillside. The misty green horizon represented the forest I came through, but it didn’t move. Only the saturated meadow between us receded, shifting with the wind and dropping into the river like a wide, thatched conveyor belt. The Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” filled my head when I realized, too, that I could no longer deny that the boy’s experience was any less authentic than mine.
“But if you try sometimes,” the song’s chorus continued as I re-centered myself, “you get what you need.” What I needed to ask, then, wasn’t whether synthetic sounds in nature lead to a less authentic personal experience, for I now knew that individual experience can be authentic regardless of acoustic source. Instead, I wondered if the loss of natural sounds leads to a disconnection from place altogether. That is, do we become numb to landscapes when they lose their natural sounds?
The answer may lie in how human-caused noise is perceived. For example, National Park Service managers have concluded, based on scientific research and visitor surveys, that park quality is generally inseparable from “natural peace and the sounds of nature.” So an effort is underway to better manage their soundscapes, which are threatened by flyovers, automobile traffic, and snowmobiles. One of the first parks under study is Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in California, where researchers set up equipment to establish sonic benchmarks—what the Acoustic Ecology Institute calls a “voiceprint of habitat.” The researchers’ goal is to monitor the soundscape as an indicator of overall ecosystem health: the more natural the sounds, the healthier the park ecosystem and the more connected visitors feel.
The ecosystem of my family back in Tucson is our stout bungalow plus the city and Sonoran desert beyond. Our soundscape is mostly a wonderful mix: not only local birds, but also neighbors on front porches, vehicles on streets, and the wind among acacia and mesquite. Lizards scamper beneath sage and prickly pear while bees nuzzle vibrant flowers. Inside, it’s not uncommon for the soundscape to be composed of music—my older daughter practicing viola, my younger daughter on piano, a song or composition on the stereo.
This year, however, technology silenced our house even as my wife and daughters heard more music. In January, my daughters’ school was selected from among more than three-thousand others as the greenest grade school in America. Civano Community School is known not only for its progressive expeditionary learning model, but also for a focus on community and environment. Solar photovoltaic panels provide power, a school garden maintained by students supplements lunches, and recycling is old hat. With the award, each child received a green iPod Shuffle and solar charger. It didn’t take long for my older daughter, in fifth grade, and her sister, in second, to load their matchbox-sized players with their favorite music.
“Finally!” my older daughter said as she eased the iPod out of its case. She was one of the few remaining students in her class who didn’t already have one. Though we defined the amount of time they could listen to their iPods, the effect was immediate, and silencing. More often than not, I found the girls walking around the house, iPods on, oblivious to my call. They hadn’t become zombies, because they danced or skipped or hopped to the beat, but they certainly became isolated—and were happier for it. But were they healthier, and was our family?
My wife was already a chronic headphone wearer, connected to a portable CD player, before I gave her an iPod for Mother’s Day. After school she often works late into the evening grading student work and creating lesson plans. For these repetitive tasks, and for exercising and housework, she listens to her own music. Upgrading to the iPod was a logical evolution, both in technology and practice: it is smaller, uses less power, and contains more music than the CD player. Yet once Billie programmed her iPod, listening increased and our home became quieter still. That’s not necessarily bad when I’m working, but can be downright eerie otherwise.
There may be dangers, too. Beyond the real possibility of hearing loss—listen no more than five minutes at full volume or four-and-a-half hours at 70 percent volume per day, researchers have determined—the broader risk is disconnection from landscape and community altogether. Video game developers, computer manufacturers, and the corporations behind them may well want us to substitute virtual for actual reality (and with today’s threats to the global environment, who isn’t tempted every now and then?). After all, the less engaged we are the more complacent we become, and complacency breeds a willingness to purchase whatever product—necessary or not—is placed before us. But it seems to me that being a part of the community’s full landscape requires informed and active participation. And active participation is not possible with earplugs. Instead, face-to-face communication, sustained discourse, and keen listening must prevail.
Back on the edge of the Vermont marsh, without a trail to guide me further in my research, I removed the ear buds. The wider world rushed back, and with it the fen’s own sporadic music. Between the blackbirds, finches, and surprising bass notes of hundreds of frogs I hadn’t heard or seen earlier, it was a symphony indeed. I trudged back to the road, footsteps squelching in the lovely muck, and sat on a stone beside the bridge. The Black River’s strong current carried leaves and twigs beneath me, but the river also had its own lyric, not quite lapping at the edges but still resonating off the brambly shore and among the reeds.
I sat for a long time savoring the sounds—both natural and artificial, for trucks on a nearby highway held the frequency of waves on a beach—before walking up the road toward the trees. The wind shifted and a clique of birches gossiped, bright green leaves rattling, before I made my way into the forest where the higher pines had their own shushing talk. As the trail shifted from gravel to mud to hard-packed earth, the tempo of my footsteps changed accordingly. Here a thud, there a scrape. Behind me a bird called, almost laughing in its nasal song, and I turned just in time to glimpse a nuthatch. Walking uphill through the forest, I saw that with the iPod on, I lost not only my sense of hearing, but also my sense of time and distance. Clearly, I wasn’t tuned into the landscape in many ways.
My full appreciation for hearing the sounds around me, however, wasn’t set by the blackbirds or frogs or trees, nor the bubbling of small brooks on either side of the trail. Rather, it came all at once, as I approached the edge of the forest, when a single crow’s sudden and rapid cawing made me jump. I couldn’t say who was more startled as the black sentinel circled high before flying off. But it left me silent, ears fine-tuned before I took another step.
A few minutes later I was deep in thought on sound and landscape when a distinct chipping rang from a pear tree in a pasture ahead. The call was from a robin with flashy auburn breast and charcoal back. His yellow beak moved rapidly with the song, but his bright black eye remained focused on me—the kind of gaze I use on my daughters when they’re up to no good. His scrutiny had the same effect: we were both leery. I approached slowly, aware of my reputation with robins in these parts. I was sorry for killing the other robin but argued, in my mind anyway, that there was little I could do to avoid the collision. At this he turned and began singing loudly. He called more and more rapidly until I discerned two songs, though I could not see the other robin. Their intensity rose so that the calls could have been mistaken for an electronic synthesizer, keys dancing wildly, frequency and amplitude high. I half expected the ground to begin undulating once again, but instead I turned and continued walking up the path, the robins’ song like a gleaming window, open and flawless.
This essay originally appeared in Hawk & Handsaw: A Journal of Creative Sustainability.
Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland’s Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion,Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.