Listening In: Earthly Sounds in a Man-Made World

I always find it ironic when I see a jogger or hiker in the woods wearing earbuds. It seems that while this person is taking the time to travel through the natural world, they are at the same time filtering part of it out. It is the equivalent of visiting a museum wearing a blindfold. Maybe this is odd behavior, but maybe it isn’t. We humans have had a lot of help tuning out mother nature, especially with the advent of portable electronic devices.

With the noisy world that is synonymous with modern life, it has become quite difficult to hear the natural world that surrounds us. Our world is filled with very loud sounds. Cars, buses, and trucks make so much noise that hearing our own voices becomes quite difficult near busy streets.  Just try talking to your friend as you walk along a busy street and see how quickly you must raise your voice in order to compete with traffic noise. At the same time, airplanes soar overhead with loud turbines and trains blast their horns at street crossings as they pass by. Ambulances, police cars, and fire vehicles all have their sirens blaring as they rush to their assignments. Jackhammers, pile drivers, cranes, and bulldozers make earth-shaking noises as they repair and build the concrete world that continues to envelop us. It truly is a deafening world that we live in.

Human ears have evolved to become receptive to the sounds of the earth. The wind, thunder, and animal sounds are all things that our primal instincts were designed to receive. Native Americans used the sounds of animals to predict weather and harvesting times, as well as to sense incoming danger from other humans.

The next time you go out into your backyard, filter out the human noises and pay attention to what else is making sounds.  You may wish to close your eyes to help you focus on the sounds. What do you hear? One of the first things you will probably notice are birds singing. Synonymous with the arrival of Spring, bird songs are fortunately still common around the world. Not just in Spring, birds make sounds nearly all year long. Even in the dead of winter you will occasionally hear sparrows, finches, and juncos chattering in the morning and late afternoon. If you are curious enough and want to learn how to identify bird calls, there are many resources available online that will give you this information.  One of the best is Allaboutbirds.org, a website run by Cornell University.

Listen to the wind

Ask yourself some questions. Can you hear it passing through the leaves in the trees above? Are the branches creaking and rubbing together?  This is how you can determine the wind’s velocity. Leaves fluttering gently is just a light 5 to 10 mph wind. Wind blowing through pine trees has a unique sound of its own. When branches start to move, that is when more wind force is present. This could mean a storm is approaching.  It could also mean a cold or warm front is passing through your area.  Is the wind cyclical? In other words, is it blowing constantly or does it seem to die out every so often? This cyclical pattern indicates a gradual change in atmospheric pressure. When a tree branch falls, it is often preceded by a crack or squeak. This is another warning sign that our ears can tune into to alert us of the potential danger.

Do you hear animals in the trees?

Squirrels can sometimes be a nuisance to homeowners, however they are very vocal communicators and their chattering or whining noises can alert you if there are other animals nearby such as cats, owls, or hawks. You can observe how they communicate with each other, as well. Our ears are tuned into these animals probably for the hunting aspect. They sometimes will squawk at you in hopes of getting a peanut, or in this case, a broccoli leaf.

(photo courtesy of US CDC media library)

Do you hear the flapping wings of insects?

I’m sure that you have been nestled inside your tent at night and have heard a mosquito buzzing either inside or outside. In this case your ears are alerting you that a carnivorous insect, and perhaps a disease carrier, is nearby. Your eyes won’t pick them up in the darkness, but yet your ears have the ability to hear the sound range of the mosquito’s wings fluttering.

The flow of water

There is nothing like listening to the sounds of water flowing through a stream. It soothes your mind. Did you ever wonder why we have the ability to hear a stream? It is somewhat common to be hiking and you find yourself nearly out of water. You then start looking at your map, GPS, or surrounding area for natural water sources. In the woods, it is difficult to find water with your eyes.  It is quite often that your ears will find it first. In fact, it is your ears that will find the water that is safest to drink. Stagnant water is not something you want to use as a drinking water source, thus it makes no sound. Your ears will ignore it. Instead, fresh flowing water has a distinctive sound that your ears can receive. Flowing water can be heard a ¼ mile or more away.

The cycle repeats

When you are out on the trail, did you ever notice that birds start singing about an hour before sunrise?  It is mother nature’s built in alarm clock.  Your ears are normally what wakes you up in the morning. Mother nature is telling you to get up, get coffee, and start packing so that you can take advantage of all of the daylight the day will offer.

Listening is an art

It takes concentration and self-discipline to become a good listener. Listening is something that we often take for granted.  The ability to hear is a gift.  Unlike most living creatures, our ears have been adapted to a wide frequency spectrum and we have the ability to hear multiple frequency ranges. Your ears are one of your most important senses.  Take care of them and they will take care of you. The next time you are walking or running through the woods, instead of putting in those earbuds, have a listen to what mother nature wants you to really hear.

All photos by author except where noted. Special article post by David E. Safdy of Outdoor Herbivore.

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