SOUNDSCAPES

There are many ways to mark the seasons, rhythms, places and moments of my life, and one of them is by its soundscapes.

Put simply, I live—like most of my fellow Canadians—half the year with the windows open and half the year with them shut.

I’m reminded of this when May rolls around and finally, FINALLY, I’m able to open them wide and welcome in the fresh air and the accompanying sounds of the world outside my cocoon.

I do it with gusto. In that moment, it feels like my house and I are inflating our lungs together as we take in a big broad breath of outside air. One breath in….and then aahhhhhhhhhh!

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There’s that first waft of unheated outdoor air which is followed by a sense of expansion, of everything opening up. The accumulated household scents and dusts of fall and winter are swept up and whooshed away—or at least that’s how it feels.

It’s a moment of reconnection with the world outside, but especially, with the sounds of the natural world.

I thought of all this in early June as I listened to Bernie Krause describe his life’s work on CBC radio.

Krause is an acoustic ecologist who has been listening to the natural world since he was a young boy. Afflicted as he was with, in his own words: “a terrible case of ADHD”, Krause discovered that the only thing that seemed to make a difference and mitigate his feelings of stress and anxiety was going out in the field and listening to natural sounds. In the CBC interview, he relates how the sounds of nature calm him and focus him, an effect which he describes as analgesic—literally relieving his pain.

 

Bernie Krause at work
Bernie Krause at work

Krause has dedicated his life to recording the sounds of nature and now possesses a priceless archive of soundscapes—many of which have since gone silent.

I was moved by the urgency and eloquence of Krause’s ecological message.

I was also taken up by his view of a world in which every living creature strives to establish its own acoustic territory, to express its “voice”, with or without vocal chords.

In the sonic universe Krause has spent a lifetime capturing, the soundscape is “a different way of experiencing the living world around us. […] It’s a narrative of place”.

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Krause has dedicated himself to archiving the sounds of the biophony—that is: “the sounds made by living organisms collectively”.

But we also live and share space in the geophony, which simply means earth sounds such as the wind, as well as in the anthropophony, which includes the controlled human sounds of music, as well as the chaotic noises our technologies produce.

This is a wondrous world view that brings me back to the soundscapes of my home with its opening and closing windows.

 

I’m very sound-sensitive. It’s why I love the radio: it’s the closest thing to having someone read to me. I don’t turn on the radio for background noise— I listen to interviews and news and documentaries and music that engage my mind, my imagination and my emotions while I’m cooking or cleaning or driving around. Sometimes, like when Bernie Krause spoke, I just stop and listen.

It’s this same sensitivity to sound that makes the arrival of spring so thrilling. I miss the birds terribly over the winter. Come open-window season, the first whistles and trills of cardinals make me want to sing.

My very early mornings are less lonely because I can listen to the robins—my favourite sentinels of the sun—who return at dusk to sing the giant star to sleep. Throughout the day, I can sit and write or work with an ear tuned to the activity of starlings and grackles and red windged blackbirds and blue jays, chickadees, sparrows and occasional woodpeckers nearby.

 

I noticed just a few days ago that the cicadas have already begun their metallic, vibrant song hidden away up in our maple trees, signalling the arrival of true summer heat and reminding me that the countdown to autumn has already begun. They’re early this year. The Earth is warming.

 

There are other living outdoor sounds that bother me.

 

When I hear the frantic chittering or screeching of a squirrel, I can’t help but wonder which predator is causing it distress. And cats mewling in the night is awfully disquieting.

There’s also the occasional tapping of insects against the windows, and the violently ugly BANG of birds smashing into them as they hunt mayflies—a particularly ominous sound, I think.

 

Most of these sounds I owe to the trees that shelter them and envelop our cottage. Stripped of their voices in late fall and winter, the maples in my yard have now recovered their leafy sibilance and hiss gloriously on breezy days, reminding me of the sea. When it rains, it sounds like millions of tiny marbles are falling through their foliage.

 

 

The soundscape of trees means everything. We should listen more attentively, I think.

It got unseasonably cold last Sunday: the temperature dropped to 15 degrees Celsius (from 30 just days before) and I found myself having to shut the windows, which had the effect of shutting out all of the sounds from outside. The house sounded like fall. And winter. It didn’t feel right.

 

Winter’s quiet. Outdoors, it’s the sound of silent, open space. Of mute trees and fauna. Of an environment acoustically dampened by snow.

Indoors, it’s a shut-in soundscape. Anthropophony [the stress is on the third syllable].

Like so much else about our environment, we aren’t mindful of the soundscapes of our homes. But close your eyes and sit still inside your own house or apartment and be attentive to all of its sounds.

Depending on the floor and the room I’m in, I can hear:

 

  • The hum of the refrigerator compressor or the percolating sounds of its dehumidifier;
  • The scale of tones and pings produced by my Iphone as it signals a message dropping into my email or Facebook account, or a more insistant text message warning, or else a phone call, which on my phone is the classic marimba ringtone;
  • The television in the livingroom—turned on far too often;
  • The sounds of my son Christian’s laptop emanating from his room: tinny and scratchy from a distance—superficial;
  • The radio, my acoustic window on the world;
  • The rotating floor fans cooling the house at this time of year;
  • The low bangs in the water pipes encased inside the walls, heating the house in winter;
  • The whistling kettle;
  • Youtube, somewhere in the house;
  • The spin sounds and beeps of the washer-dryer down in the basement.

 

 

And depending on the intensity, with or without the windows open, I can also hear:

  • The trains with their lumbering diesel locomotives, and occasionally, like last week, the deafening and nerve-shredding blare of their horns—sometimes in the dead of night;
  • The airplanes—mostly in the summer, taking off (only when seasonal repairs are being done on one of the strips);
  • The automobiles on highway 20—even the lush trees can’t completely muffle their distant drone.

 

Yesterday, the quiet of my office upstairs was invaded by the sounds of a circular saw and other power tools next door, where renovations are being done, and by a landscaping crew with their blasted leaf blowers.

 

I think that Bernie Krause is right about the importance of our soundscapes. His acute connection to the biophony makes his voice important, and his work makes me wonder and worry about our twenty-first century retreat behind earbuds.

 

What does it mean, that so many of us prefer to pipe recorded sounds directly into our ears, effectively shutting out everything and everyone else, including the sound of our own voices?

 

It probably says something about wanting to scale down the soundscapes of our lives. It probably says something about our desire to carve out an acoustic niche of our own design, wherever we go. It may also signal our turning away from the noises and sounds of others.

This last one distresses me the most. What if the natural world went silent?

What if the sounds of human voices, especially those of my loved ones, were to disappear?

Listening to the sounds we make and those around us tell us a lot about who and where we are. I’m a language teacher, dedicated to the human voice and its varied expressions.

 

There is in souls a sympathy with sounds:

And as the mind is pitch’d the ear is pleased
With melting airs, or martial, brisk or grave;
Some chord in unison with what we hear
Is touch’d within us, and the heart replies
.” —William Cowpe

* * *

I collect words—they are sweets in the mouth of sound.”
― Sally GardnerMaggot Moon

26011-Song-Bird

 

 

 

 

STUDENT OF WEATHER

Ice-covered tree in Pointe-Claire Village, December 28th, 2015
Ice-covered tree in Pointe-Claire Village, December 28th, 2015

In my last year as a history undergrad at Concordia University, I wrote a paper about Canadian identity, specifically about our «northern-ness», and how the North—more than any other criteria in the «What-makes-Canadians-Canadian» debate—defines us and has shaped our culture.

I think back on those years and smile. Undergrads can churn out essays like nobody’s business. And if memory serves, the ideas were far less important to our professors than how we articulated them (that was a big verb in those years) and structured them.

 

Even as I handed it in, I remember feeling that it was a purely intellectual exercise. My belief that there is such a thing as a Canadian identity was still far more visceral than rational. And yet, that’s among the papers I remember most clearly.

It’s presently 6:23 on a cold winter morning. The sun won’t be rising for another hour. The walls and windows of the house crack and make subtle banging noises as hot-water heatingIMG_2487 pipes, frames and panes react to contrasting heat and cold. The furnace has been running for hours and hours, on and off but mostly on, because it has been very cold, minus 17 ° Celsius (1 ° F) and this old house just can’t keep in its heat.

It’s pitch black, but it isn’t. And you can’t understand that unless you understand northern winter skies, which are never completely dark. Because the night sky over my house is actually white: dark white, which makes no sense until you see it. But it is. And in spite of the fact that there’s still not a hint of sunlight in it, you can see the clouds that overlay the basic whiteness of the sky. Dark blue whiteness.

Winter sky over my street.
Winter sky over my street.

It’s beautiful.

My IPhone camera just can’t do it justice, which disappoints me.

I wrote about our Christmas Eve weather in a previous blog: about how the temperature climbed up to 17 degrees  (63 ° F). That was crazy weather that’s nevertheless slowly entering our climate-changed collective consciousness here.

Not long after that though, normality returned. A snowstorm blew in and dumped 40 cm of fresh white snow on the ground. It’s gorgeous. Tree branches, rooftops and even roads were covered. White streets are just the prettiest thing.

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People shoveled driveways and front walks. They cleared the snow from their cars. Those who live closer to downtown found their vehicles buried and jammed-in by packed, plowed snow.

Many people in Quebec hire contractors to come clear their driveway in the winter, usually getting together with their neighbours for better service (and a better price!). This didn’t exist when I was growing up, but I like the industriousness of it (a few entrepreneurs understood that you can establish a decent business doing this) and the job creation. But it says something about our changed lifestyle too: no one has the time; everyone is pressed to get to work, to school, to daycare. Or isn’t fit enough to shovel.

Christian in his Northern NInja attire, getting ready to walk out into the snowstorm
Christian in his Northern Ninja attire, getting ready to walk out into the snowstorm

 

My wonderful neighbor John revved up his big, heavy, noisy snowblower and cleared his driveway, then his next door neighbour’s, then ours. He kept going till he was too tired to continue. Such kindness is the stuff of angels. Or Frank Capra movies.

Earlier this morning, I heard the voice of Mike Finnerty on CBC radio (he’s fantastically good at his job) explaining that temperatures are now on the rise again, and that by Saturday, we’ll be back to +5° C.

 

 

That means that my furnace will get a bit of a break (and my Hydro bill too), but that we’ll lose a lot of the snow that adds beauty to the landscape and provides acoustic peace in a leafless winter world.

It also means a temperature swing of 22 degrees in a few days.

What kind of people live with these kinds of major shifts in the environment they blithely walk around in most of the time?

Canadians do. Well, almost all of us. Except for the folks on the lower West coast, and Torontonians—historically at least (recent meteorological history has destabilized them too).

A walk along the Lakeshore in Pointe-Claire, in autumn
A walk along the Lakeshore in Pointe-Claire, in autumn

 

A lot of our culture comes straight from the U.S. Most of it, probably. But not our weather culture. That’s 100% ours. And I’m pretty sure that no one, anywhere else in the world, does weather the way we do.

Weather—or météo, as it’s referred to in Quebec—is one of the most important modules in beginner level French classes for adults. Understanding forecasts is crucial, and newly arrived immigrants need to pick up the skill fast. Being fluent in «weatherese» means knowing which clothes and how many layers you’ll have to put on or take off during the course of the day; what your children need to wear to school (especially in the schoolyard) ; how long your commute will be and how many public transit delays are likely. It also means being able to start a conversation with anyone, anywhere.

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Montreal winters can get so cold that people migrate below ground and work, stroll, shop and socialize in the heated underground city (actually, an indoor city); and Montreal summers can be so hot and humid that the same climate-controlled spaces beckon once again. It’s a wonder there’s anyone in the streets. And yet, outdoor terrasses everywhere are packed and lively.

Many years ago, in late March or early April, I wrote a letter to my younger sister who lives in Coquitlam, BC. It was a year when winter was long and spring’s arrival was incredibly swift. I must have waxed poetic about everything going on outside in « the weather ».

Not long after, I received an email from her, which read like a long sigh, asking me to keep writing to her about these thing, telling me that she missed the changing seasons and longed for those natural rhythms and shifts.

Surely, we’re changed by the climate and the weather we live in.

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A winter gale brings the skin pain and bone-deep shivering of «wind chill», but on a steamy summer day, you can find a shady spot, close your eyes and feel the strong, cooling wind on your skin, hear it hissing in the trees, and feel truly happy.

 

There are summer days when the scorching sun—that even my South Asian students are distressed to feel burning their skin—is so merciless that the only place to be is at the shopping mall or in the water. But on a frigid winter afternoon, when the sky is the clearest, driest blue imaginable, you can find a sunny spot at home, by the window, and sit there like a happy cat, soaking up the warm rays, your face turned, flower-like, toward the golden light.

With each equinox, our homes become bellows as we shut our windows tight in the fall to keep the chill wind out, trapping the smells of harvest cooking, only to fling them wide open in spring to let in fresh air and birdsong.

Every summer, sitting outside on the lawn and listening to the birds (and a lawnmower or two),  I have a moment when I look around me and think:  I can’t believe that in a few months all of this will be gone and I won’t be able to sit out; there’ll be no leaves on the trees; I’ll be spending my days indoors, and going for a walk will feel like an impossible memory.

And then, in early spring, I’ll look at the trees and I’ll will them to sprout the leaves I love so much, while dreaming of green, green, green;  and I’ll feel like bursting with optimism when the first flock of migrating Canada geese flies over the house.

What have I learned from the weather? Adaptability, I think. Maybe that’s part of my Canadian, northern identity.

An acquired acceptance of change?  The ability to shift my perspective?

I hope so.

To everything there is a season.

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