As an art installation I think these giant wooden acoustic amplifiers inside Estonia’s Pähni Nature Centre are beautiful. I admire their architectural integrity, their studied craftsmanship, and the academic reasoning behind their surprise appearance in the forest. Amplifying nature is an interesting concept, for I find being in its presence already so affecting to both mind and body. These structures manipulate the human propensity for curiosity, forcing occupants to focus on a singular sense with the purpose of listening.
That said, I believe the aural component of experiencing nature shouldn’t have to be amplified for us to appreciate the world unfolding around us. We already listen to things too loudly everywhere else, with most of our lives bathed in noise, welcomed or uninvited. As in cinema, sometimes the loudest emotional moments are the most silent, and nature provides us opportunities to experience existence without manipulative volume. The opportunity to give up ourselves to a place is offered when you turn the dial from “output” to “input”, occasionally all the way down to “off”…a frightening thought for some, for only then are we left with our own thoughts.
Hilbre tries to capture the feeling of summer on the islands. It follows the lives of the residents and the seasonal visitors, the beauty of the flora and the awe inspiring tides that cut Hilbre off from the mainland.
Those moments of silence interrupted by the lightly layered whispers of trees and grass swaying, the small avalanches of sand streaming down a hill, the chitinous chatter of insects crawling underfoot*, and the distant echoes of birds overhead are all amplified already when we make a conscious effort to give into our sense for more than a heartbeat. When sound can enter beyond the ear and be felt deep within our organs, tickling our skin, and affecting emotions and memory it takes on a whole new property than background noise or an imposition.
Sometimes the sounds of a place can be deafening: the crashing tide along the snaggle-toothed coast of Sea Ranch, the choral howls of monkeys in Costa Rica, a thunderous monsoon having an emotional breakdown in fits and fury of light and sound. Other times it’s only when I silence the chatter in my head I can hear – really hear – the space I’m inhabiting. Even in conversation, so much can be communicated with the pause when words are unnecessary or insufficient. Yet in our nervous state we continually decide to layer in more sound onto our lives? It’s a most perplexing habit of humans to continually speak and seek being spoken to with volume mistaken for meaning.
To learn how to hear the world without it screaming in our ears is a proficiency with lasting effects even after you’ve departed from sweeping sounds of the forest, the stark silence of the desert, or the throaty cool exhale of the sea. What a world…what a lovely world…is revealed when we set out not to seek more, but discover an appreciation for less.
* One of my favorite memories in Costa Rica was Emily and I both leaning our ears to the ground to listen to a streaming line of leaf cutter ants, each hurrying across a network of branches and fallen leaves with purpose, their percussive procession like the tiniest bars of a typewriter writing the story of industry with each footstep.