Open Your Ears — And Your Mind

How Active Listening in Nature Can Reconnect Us with Ourselves

Thanks to the impending “privatization of auditory space,” there’s no shortage of options for city dwellers and open floorplan office workers to drown out traffic, chatter and other distractions — from noise-canceling headphones to new app features that let riders preemptively silence their Uber drivers. In a crowded, industrialized world, many are trying to reclaim our own sense of hearing, but the real quiet we need isn’t in a pair of AirPods; it’s in nature.

“We’ve taught ourselves not to bother paying attention to the sound that’s constantly coming at us because it’s pretty meaningless,” explains Gordon Hempton, acoustic ecologist and Emmy-winning “Sound Tracker.” “In nature, you don’t want to do that. The way our brain operates is exactly the opposite.”

Hempton’s globetrotting recordings offer one way to find natural solace in artificial environments, but he’s also passionate about teaching aspiring sound recordists and others how to experience the real thing themselves, thereby rediscovering what active listening really means.

Psychologically, an active mindset comes down to sensory self-awareness, being present and open to whatever’s happening right now, both in and around you, rather than passively fixated on what comes next. What most humans think of as active listening, focusing conscious attention on something, is anything but, so they end up filtering out sounds based on conscious biases in a practice called “controlled impairment.”

“You cannot listen for a sound, because a sound hasn’t even happened yet,” Hempton advises. “Don’t listen for sound or sounds, just listen to the place. That place is not supposed to be a certain way for your enjoyment, that place just is. The question is, can you just be, with what is?”

Active Listening in Nature

If listening to earbuds implies discriminating against sounds and trying to be anywhere else, listening in nature is about opening up and giving equal importance to everything that’s happening sonically. True to naturalist John Muir’s quote that “nature discovery is self-discovery,” it also means paying attention to how each place and sound evokes different feelings, reconnecting with evolutionary instincts over idle worries.

Unfortunately, these unspoiled listening experiences have become more and more endangered, inspiring Hempton to launch One Square Inch of Silence (OSI), his symbolic crusade to preserve natural silence at a single site in Olympic National Park and create a list of The Last Great Quiet Places. At last count, there were 12 in the U.S., all unprotected and measured by the interval between instances of manmade noise.

At the same time, we’re recognizing how crucial natural “silence” can be for human health, with WHO findings that chronic exposure to noise pollution affects our blood biochemistry more than exhaust fumes, triggering release of the stress hormone cortisol and the loss of at least one million healthy life-years in western Europe each year. Not only is listening maybe our most neglected sense, Hempton makes a convincing argument for why it’s also the most important:

“All animal species have the ability to hear. The information that sound carries is so important that animal species don’t exist unless they can tap into that information.”

Active listening means opening up and realizing your connection to something, whether person, place, or living thing, through sound, and if there’s one thing humanity needs right now, it’s to connect and care about the fate of Earth’s nature, because it’s also our own.

More than any other sense or environment, listening to wild places removes us from time — or at least our intense modern urgency around it — and helps us learn how to achieve an active mindset unburdened by human intentions, including our own. Only then can what we hear truly change us, as illustrated by Hempton’s revelatory first experience camping alone in the Amazon:

“There was so much detail in the sound, so much information filling that space, I had the experience that I was listening to the inside of God’s clock, that was immensely more complicated than anything we could conceive of. Listening to this amazing music and feeling that immense intelligence of the jungle, I relaxed, because I knew that if I died, it would go to such a high cause, that I then laid down and went to sleep. In the morning, I wake up and … I was actually surprised that I was still alive.”

Thanks to listening, the jungle has become Hempton’s church – while he may not want to live there or even go every Sunday, he needs to the occasional visit to restore his spiritual fulfillment and sanity. His next journey starts in September.

Tricks to Active Listening in Nature

Listening abilities benefit from practice and education like any other, especially once our hearing has become narrowly attuned to urban environments, prioritizing the frequencies for human speech and blocking out most everything else. Here are some tips from the Sound Tracker himself for opening your ears to nature and connecting with your more intuitive animal self:

  • Use a Microphone and Headphones to Start: “Because the brain has already been trained that it’s not really that important, it’s just an exercise, what you do to fool it is hold a microphone and put in headphones or earbuds, and the brain immediately says, ‘oh, this is important’. Now you take the earbuds out, and you can listen yourself, to those sounds that you weren’t listening to before, even though you thought you could.”
  • Relax and Let Go of Outcome: “The ear has some of the smallest muscles and bones of the body; even a little bit of caffeine or stressful thinking will tighten those muscles enough to reduce your fidelity … We stop waiting for things to happen and we let them happen, and notice so much more.”
  • Notice Your Own Acoustic Presence: “You can go the next step and ask yourself ‘what is my impact on the information flow? Am I being quiet, or am I adding information now to this bioacoustics system? Am I creating anything of significance or am I just adding meaningless noise that is making it difficult for other animals to communicate?’ … [Y]ou get to find your place, not on top, but in this living orchestra, which is often just being quiet.”
  • Notice How You Feel: “When you notice a songbird singing, notice how you feel when it sings. I can talk to you about the difference between an alarm call and a song, but you won’t have to guess at it, because you can feel the difference. Feeling is a language, and you can become fluent in your conversations using feelings only. If you don’t have to go through words, everything happens much more fluidly, much more naturally, and most of all, accurately.”

Evergreen Escapes, “transformative travel” agency offering three-day “vanishing silence” tours from Seattle to OSI in the Hoh Rainforest: | [email protected]

Jeffrey Rindskopf

Jeffrey Rindskopf is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle, born and raised in southern California. He attended film school at Chapman University before beginning his career as a freelancer in 2014, writing fiction and articles covering travel, food, and culture. When he isn't writing, Jeffrey likes to travel or simply melt into the couch while consuming some of his favorite media.

Related Articles