When I was a kid, my mom used to take me on “listening walks” and this interview reminded me of her. From The Last Quiet Places: Silence and the Presence of Everything.
MR. HEMPTON: Yeah. Oh, grass wind. Oh, that is absolutely gorgeous, grass wind and pine wind. You know, we can go back to the writing of John Muir, which he turned me on to the fact that the tone, the pitch, of the wind is a function of the length of the needle or the blade of grass. So the shorter the needle on the pine, the higher the pitch; the longer, the lower the pitch. There are all kinds of things like that, but the two folders where I collected, I have, oh, over 100 different recordings which are actually silent from places, and you cannot discern a sense of space, but you can discern a sense of tonal quality, that there is a fundamental frequency for each habitat.
And then my quiet folder is a folder which is a step above that where you cannot distinguish any activity. You can’t hear a bird, a cricket, you can’t hear a ripple on a lake, you can’t hear any of the wind going through the pines. But you do have a sense of space and each habitat also has a characteristic sense of space. These are the fundamental — to relate this to music, these are the fundamental tones that everything else is built up upon so that, when we listen to a place on planet Earth, we very quickly realize that Earth is a solar-powered jukebox.
MR. HEMPTON: I get so many comments when I give presentations and lectures of people that come up to me afterwards and they say, “You know, my child just doesn’t listen.” We’re all born listeners and I always say, if there’s one thing you want to do as an adult to become a better listener, take a preschooler, someone who hasn’t gone to school and been taught how to listen by focusing attention, which is actually controlled impairment, but a preschooler who’s still taking in the whole world. Hoist them onto your shoulders and go for a night walk. They’ll tell you everything you need to know about becoming a better listener.
And if you have the good fortune of going for a walk up a nature trail with a child, the younger they are, the more pointless it seems to go any further because the miracles are right here. Let’s just sit down, don’t worry about the exercise or the goals, the expectations that you brought into the experience, and let’s just really be here. That is often the big challenge for adults when it comes to silence, because we’re so busy being someplace else that when we’re in a silent place, there are no distractions. We finally do get to meet ourselves and that can be frightening for a short while. It can be frightening. It’s practically fear of the unknown.