We’ve been living in the forest for coming up on 19 years, now. It’s been a non-stop series of lessons in the art of listening.
When we first moved here, I would go for a walk down the long driveway, and maybe I would hear a bird. “Ah”, I thought, “Wildlife!” My world consisted of this little bubble of space surrounding me, and I’d wonder what was happening elsewhere in the forest.
And then I learned to listen. I don’t mean listen the way people listen all the time. I mean really listen - listen with attention and intention. I mean listen and learn and think about what you’re hearing. And it wasn’t long before I felt that bubble of space expanding dramatically.
I learned to distinguish birds from chipmunks, which sounds like it ought to be obvious but sometimes isn’t, as chipmunks can make sounds suspiciously like a common sound made by chickadees, and both populate our forest in abundance. I learned that a Pacific Wren which sounds so loud you think it must be perching on your shoulder can actually be hundreds of feet away - wrens are teeny birds but they are incredibly loud. I started to learn the difference between bird calls that said “Attention, everyone! THIS IS MY TREE!”, “Hello sexy lady birds, I am extremely handsome, desireable, and unattached!”, and “DANGER DANGER DANGER!!!”
One of the things I learned was that we think we’re listening, but we’re actually making so much racket we can’t hear most of the sound. Even your footfalls as you walk will mask a lot of stuff. You have to stop moving, maybe even pause your breathing. And then listen, and listen some more, and attend even to the tiniest whispers. Yes, that’s a wren, way over there. And of course that robin way up high, yelling his head off. Is that a finch? It’s very faint and it’s over where I heard a finch yesterday, so probably the same finch. Why did everyone go quiet to the south? Something big moving through the brush. The wind is from that direction and it isn’t stinky, so it’s probably deer being clumsy and not a bear being quiet. A pickup truck out on the main road, with something loose and noisy in the back, perhaps an empty gas can.
The picture of what’s happening around you emerges slowly, sort of like when it’s quite foggy and hard to see but if you just look patiently, things emerge from the low contrast visual field. The longer and more attentively you listen, the more you hear and the more detailed your model of the space around you gets, and the radius of the space around you grows and grows.