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We humans are a noisy bunch. With our machines, trucks, sirens, horns, beeps, loudspeakers, airplanes, and lawnmowers, we have surrounded ourselves with the deafening sounds of progress. To be in a city is to cordon nature on the outside. The timid tweets and cooing of birds, rain hitting the pavement, and the occasional thunder are a few of the only sounds we hear from within our homes, if we bother to turn off the TV or computer or smartphones to pause to listen.
Silence is not the opposite of noise; it’s the opposite of not wanting to listen. Even in the wildest, most remote places, there is noise. If there is air and atmosphere, there is sound. Unless you are in outer space (where there is no air and hence no support for propagating soundwaves), silence — understood to be the total absence of sound — is more an idea, an aspiration.
Spring 2020 marked the largest drop in global seismic noise in recorded history. It took a pandemic to shut us up for a while.
Listening to silence is not the absence of noise; it is the willingness to listen to ever-present non-human noise. By listening, we begin to see the world anew.
A new book by nature photographer and explorer Pete McBride invites us to celebrate the art of listening to nature and to reconnect with our ancestral need of being in the world.
We evolved to have a profound sound acuity. This was a must if our species was to survive in the jungles and the savannahs by protecting ourselves from predators and enemies and finding food and safe shelter. Being attuned to the natural world meant not only seeing things but hearing them. At night, seeing with our ears, building a spatial perception of our surroundings unaided by images, was a matter of life or death. Our ancestors could reconstruct a whole environment — the kinds of animals, the direction of the wind, if water was near or far, the weather patterns — by quietly listening.
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