“Silence is like scouring sand,” says Gordon Hempton. “When you are quiet, the silence blows against your mind and etches away everything soft and unimportant.” What is left is what is real: pure awareness, and the very hardest questions.”
“They have eyes, yet they do not see. They have ears, yet they do not hear.” Thus sings the Psalmist. Habit dulls our senses and wears away our ties of belonging, to the point of rendering our lives sad and monotonous. Our greatest joys come in those rare moments of our lives when our attention, sharpened by deprivation, breaks through the shell of habit to allow us, at last, access to the light of day, to the music of nature, to the heart of things and to the soul of living beings. It was thus that Gustav Fechner, founder of experimental psychology, discovered the soul of flowers.
Following several years of overwork, he sank into a strange depression that was accompanied by an illness affecting his eyes. He had to live in darkness for the entire time it took to effect a cure – three years. When he opened his eyes to the light of day for the first time, he was dazzled to the point of ecstasy by the flowers he saw, and he remained convinced from that day on that they had a soul.
“I still remember very well the feeling I had – after living like a recluse in a dark room for several years because of an illness that affected my eyes – when for the first time I entered the flower garden without a blindfold over my eyes. It seemed that my gaze moved me outside of the human condition, that each flower was dazzling me with its own light, as if it were pouring into the light outside some ray of its inner light. The whole garden seemed to me transformed, as if it weren’t I, but nature which was starting to live again. And I thought that this was the right moment for my eyes to be given a fresh start, as it were, in order that nature, grown old in my eyes, might reclaim her youth. We cannot believe how much nature will renew and revive herself when preparing to meet someone who comes to her with new eyes.
The image of the garden had remained with me in the dark room, but in the faint light, it was only clearer and more beautiful, and I believed I suddenly saw an inner light at the heart of the external brightness of flowers, as well as the spiritual genesis of colours that could only be seen on the outside. I had no doubt then that I was looking at the glow of the soul of the flowers and, in wonder and ecstasy, I thought: This is what the garden beyond the wall of this world must look like, and the whole earth and the substance of the earth is only a fence around this garden, for those who remain outside.” 1
Nature also renews and revives herself for those who approach her with a new ear. This is what Gordon Hempton, a young American botanist, realized when he discovered the living silence of the forest. The noise he was used to hearing before that moment seemed to have the same effect on him that darkness had on Fechner; that is, it deprived him of the music of things. When he distanced himself from the noise, he was enchanted to discover that the silence of nature – or, more precisely, its music – when protected against man-made noise, was, for the ear, the equivalent of a flower to an eye long deprived of light.
''When predators are on the prowl, birds and frogs, even insects, fall silent. No wonder humans are drawn to places where the birds feel safe enough to sing. No wonder we smile to hear a frog chorus in the dark. But in the cacophonous city, Gordon believes, we are always on edge, always flinching, the way deer tremble when they drink from a noisy river. 2
In this environment, the noise of an airplane or car motor is not only a false note, it is a mechanical predator, and we are unaware of its effect on this resonant landscape – that which Gordon Hempton calls the “soundscape.” One can see domesticated dogs, such as Great Pyrenees, attack vehicles as if they are living monsters who intend to take them away from their masters. If this is how domesticated animals react, imagine the instinctive acts of flight or aggression that must form in the psyches of wild animals or even in frail insects. This is the least we might say about a mystery that deserves our respect. Instead of profaning this mystery with intrusive noise, Gordon Hempton argues that we should pay attention to it, should commune with ourselves in order to be better able to welcome the mystery into ourselves.
“Just as animals have ecological niches, they have aural niches, defined by the soundscapes they live in. The onslaught of noise destroys that aural habitat. Birdsong is lost along highways, which are, in effect, wide swaths of loud, low-pitched noise reaching deep into the forests and meadows, reducing bird habitat—and sometimes eliminating it entirely. It’s a loss to humans too. Just as artificial lights drown out the stars, our engines drown out the birds, and our experience of the world’s beauty is that much more impoverished.” 3
An American after all, Gordon Hempton moved from the mystical to the commercial without too much trouble. He had to earn a living in order to pursue his calling, which soon became a crusade to save the last sacred places from man-made noise, and so he sold – successfully, it would appear – high-quality recordings of the music of his favourite soundscapes. In 2005, he launched a project called “One Square Inch of Silence.”
“Following leads, crisscrossing the country, he searched for one square inch where he could listen for fifteen minutes and not hear a human sound but the whisper of his pencil on wet paper. In Olympic National Park, where 95 percent of the land is protected as wilderness, he found the ‘widest diversity of soundscapes and the longest periods of natural quiet of any unit within the national park system.’' 4
Once he had discovered these sanctuaries, he had to convince airline companies to respect the airspace under them, and he has already been somewhat successful. We can take from this story the understanding that human hearing is subject to the law of communicating vessels: that its quality improves in every domain when it improves in a specific domain, in listening to nature, for example.
“Nature discovery is self-discovery. When you listen you become changed and your actions will naturally help protect what you value most. ... I've found that listening to nature is a great way to learn how to listen to each other. When we listen to nature we are forced just to take it all in and hear the voice of the songbird, the tones, the passion and emotion, then take a few more steps down the trail and hear another of the same species and hear different tones, different emotions. Soon we learn that communication is not so much ‘what’ is being said as much as ‘how’ it is being said. It is the same with human communication.”5
1-Gustav Theodor Fechner, Nanna, über das Seelenleben der Pflanzen, Verlag von Leopold Voss, Leipzig 1921, postface. Trad: J.D.