By Sherry Marr
Come take a walk with me into the rainforest. As we move deeper in, the sounds of town fall away. It feels like the trees are watching our entry, listening to our footfalls. The silence here curls around us, sweetly protective. How safe the wild ones must feel in here, when Two-Leggeds are not present.
There is a small pond, with a creek burbling, on the left. The yellow swamp lanterns stand tall and proud. Small mushrooms cluster atop a stump. It is so silent here, the absence of sound can be felt almost as a presence. And there are presences here: the Standing People, the ferns and fronds, and all of the creatures, small and large, who keep themselves hidden when the Two-Leggeds come.
Now we have walked down the steep steps, and have come out of the trees onto the shore. The wind is blowing westerly today, and the waves are wild and joyous, loud, crashing on the rocks with breathtaking sprays of white foam. Brother Eagle soars above, alighting on a scrag, giving his piercing cry. The sound of nature in full roar. There is a small island off to the right. One calm spring evening, I heard a thousand small birds singing there, all at once, as dusk fell. Then a floatplane engine roared and they all fell silent, as one voice, as if their conductor had snapped his baton.
Here is where the wild world and the one humanity has conquered meet. Our kind is noisy, clamorous. The wild ones are wary. They know we are unpredictable, that some of us are dangerous. They have watched us dismantling their world. I feel the weight of that.
I am back home, now, sitting in my yard in the sun. One block up First Street, an entire rocky outcropping, a full half-block deep, is being drilled, loosened, scooped up and carried away in trucks to make way for three homes for the wealthy, since the not-wealthy are barely able to hang onto life in this town any more. (Ironically, the lot belongs to the town planner who is also in charge of drafting a tree protection bylaw for Tofino. It is taking forever. Maybe now this small forest is gone, we will get our bylaw? Will there be many trees left by the time we have one? Stay tuned.)
Kitty-corner, one block in the other direction, where chain saws removed half of Tonquin Forest in the fall, big equipment is busy all day long, scraping, bulldozing, digging, loading what once lived there – entire ecosystems – into trucks sent to the dump. What is left is a scraped-bare moonscape. It hurts my heart.
Where did the owls and bats, raccoons, wolves and bears go, who once lived here? So little forest and habitat are left, so many wild ones displaced. A cougar strolls through town, confused, looking for the forest that once kept him out of sight. Crews cropped the berry bushes that lined paths around town. What will the bears eat, when they soon venture out after their uneasy, hungry winter sleep? They were already so thin last fall.
Float planes and small boats are busy in the harbor where, just this morning, my friend saw orcas passing through. Traffic is everywhere. For such a small village, it is astounding how many cars there are, trying to find places to park, lined up behind each other on the road into town, where hydro crews are savagely ripping and tearing at the trees lining the highway. They are not just trimming or limbing directly under the hydro lines – they are leaving behind skinned poles, looking like a line of chopsticks with a bit of frothy top. They are cutting far more, and deeper into the bush, than is needed to keep the hydro lines clear. Trees are coming down everywhere, at a pace I have not seen before.
Is no where safe from us? Why do we think that our voracious needs are all that matters, as we clearcut and pave the world to live like kings?
Should we visit the city now, where the traffic roars louder than the waves, skytrains zoom back and forth, and the crush of humanity can be felt on every city block? We are so many, the noisiest species on the planet, which is being devoured to keep us alive. Industry needs to gobble. Profit before planet. It is a beast whose appetite can only be satisfied by feeding it pieces of the earth.
The Conversation at PBS explains, “As transportation networks expand and urban areas grow, noise from sources such as vehicle engines is spreading into remote places. Human-caused noise has consequences for wildlife, entire ecosystems and people. It reduces the ability to hear natural sounds, which can mean the difference between life and death for many animals, and degrade the calming effect that we feel when we spend time in wild places.” I think of whales, who communicate underwater, impacted by our many boat engines. Of elephants, who communicate with infrasound, stalked by poachers for their tusks.
THE BIG PICTURE
I try to look at the big picture.
The sun, ardent tongue
licking us like a mother besotted
with her new cub, will wear itself out.
Everything is transitory.
Think of the meteor
that annihilated the dinosaurs.
And before that, the volcanoes
of the Permian period – all those burnt ferns
and reptiles, sharks and bony fish –
that was extinction on a scale
that makes our losses look like a bad day at the slots.
And perhaps we’re slated to ascend
to some kind of intelligence
that doesn’t need bodies, or clean water, or even air.
But I can’t shake my longing
for the last six hundred
Iberian lynx with their tufted ears,
Brazilian guitarfish, the 4
per cent of them still cruising
the seafloor, eyes staring straight up.
And all the newborn marsupials –
red kangaroos, joeys the size of honeybees –
steelhead trout, river dolphins,
so many species of frogs
breathing through their damp
Today, on the bus, a woman
in a sweater the exact shade of cardinals,
and her cardinal-colored bra strap, exposed
on her pale shoulder, makes me ache
for those bright flashes in the snow.
And polar bears, the cream and amber
of their fur, the long, hollow
hairs through which the sun slips,
swallowed into their dark skin. When I get home,
my son has a headache and, though he’s
almost grown, asks me to sing him a song.
We lie together on the lumpy couch
and I warble out the old show tunes, “Night and Day”…
“They Can’t Take That Away From Me”… A cheap
silver chain shimmers across his throat
rising and falling with his pulse. There never was
anything else. Only these excruciatingly
insignificant creatures we love.
No one can say it any better than that. Sigh. When I look at the big picture, it is hard to hold onto hope. Yet how can we live without it? We live the day we are given. And when times get harder, we will live those, too. The only certainty, during this accelerating climate crisis, is that our turn will come. Extreme weather events (caused by our remorseless emissions) play no favourites.
We become accustomed to the noise: the roar of traffic, seaplanes, heavy machinery, the cacophony of cities. We only have to step into the forest, to have our stress fall away, to feel the enduring peace of the patient trees, who are trying so hard to stay alive to save us. They speak to us without words, teaching us peacefulness. We need this Deep Peace as much as we need oxygen.
Bernie Krause is a soundscape ecologist, as well as a musician. Krause has concentrated on the recording and archiving of wild natural soundscapes from around the world. Interestingly, using synthesizer sounds he had recorded, Krause helped lure Humphrey the Whale, a migrating female humpback that had wandered into Sacramento River Delta and apparently got lost, back to the Pacific Ocean.
“Every natural soundscape,” he explains, “generates its own unique signature, one that contains incredible amounts of information. When we listen closely, it gives us valuable tools by which to evaluate the health of a habitat across the entire spectrum of life.” Indigenous people have always known that the soundscape of a place can indicate when an ecosystem has been unsettled by human encroachment.
“When we recognize the personhood of beings,” writes Sherri Mitchell in Indigenous Prophecy and Mother Earth,
we start to recognize that they have something valuable to teach us…Every plant, tree and animal carries its own unique wisdom and can teach us how to live harmoniously with one another and in relationship to Mother Earth. When we extend our view of kinship beyond our anthropocentric view, a whole new world of knowledge becomes available to us…When we love, we treat the beloved with reverence and respect. Indigenous peoples living in accordance with these beliefs have lived in loving relationship with the beings in the natural world for millennia.
In order to survive, we must all come to realize that we do not exist solely for the benefit and development of our individual lives as human beings. Rather, our role as human beings is to evolve into a state of interbeing with the rest of life so that we may join the universal flow that is ever moving toward harmony and balance. This is the only way life on Mother Earth will remain viable into the future.
I am weary, friends – from watching the news, from watching the trees fall, from watching leaders who are either preferring the “alternate reality” of denial, or are wilfully ignoring the climate crisis in hopes of being re-elected. Either way, it is self-interest governing those who should be putting the survival of their constituents before their own love of power. I am weary from watching hungry, displaced animals, the first climate refugees, wandering the earth, along with human refugees, now numbering in the millions, displaced by extreme climate events, (un)“natural” disaster and war.
Walk with me back into the forest. Let’s find some peace. Breathe in – how sweet the air is in here, away from car exhaust. Does it seem to you, as it does to me, that the trees are watching us? Are they trying to tell us something about peace, about how it is a choice that we can make, as a species? Thankfully, it is a choice we can make personally, when the world weighs on us. I am grateful there are places near me, still, where I can go to commune with the natural world.
May this always be so, for all who follow after.
SHE TOLD ME THE EARTH LOVES US
Anne Haven McDonnell
She said it softly, without a need
for conviction or romance.
After everything? I asked, ashamed.
That’s not the kind of love she meant.
She walked through a field of gray
beetle-bored pine, snags branching
like polished bone. I forget sometimes
how trees look at me with the generosity
of water. I forget all the other
breath I’m breathing in.
Today I learned that trees can’t sleep
with our lights on. That they knit
a forest in their language, their feelings.
This is not a metaphor.
Like seeing a face across a crowd,
we are learning all the old things,
newly shined and numbered.
I’m always looking
for a place to lie down
and cry. Green, mossed, shaded.
Or rock-quiet, empty. Somewhere
to hush and start over.
I put on my antlers in the sun.
I walk through the dark gate of the trees.
Grief waters my footsteps, leaving
a trail that glistens.
— Poems and essay excerpts are from the anthology All We Can Save, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katherine K. Wilkinson.
For our challenge this week, let’s write about soundscapes, loud or quiet. Where do you find relief, for your beleaguered spirit? What are the sounds of the place where you live? What is happening to the natural world and the creatures near you? I look forward to reading your replies.