Nature writing and sound – part II


Henry David Thoreau


‘Wildlife artists select the best and discard the rest. The aesthetician repairs nature before admiring it. Landscape artists and architects are like flower arrangers.’

‘Aesthetic experience of nature is in engagement as much as in detachment… a forest is entered, not viewed.’

(ROLSTON III, H., (2002). From Beauty to Duty: Aesthetics of Nature and Environmental Ethics. In: A. BERLEANT, ed. Environment and the Arts: Perspectives on Environmental Aesthetics. Ashgate.

Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) published Walden in 1854. The book remains one of the best known and best loved accounts of one person’s engagement with the natural environment. I mentioned earlier my impression that certain authors come over time to represent more than the sum of their works. Thoreau is such a writer – mention of his name or work often leads to an exchange of knowing glances between nature lovers of all denominations. He was far from being the first to remove himself from the bustle of everyday life, but the procedures he adopted in setting up the project and methodically documenting his experience are truly innovative and original.

A good background to Thoreau and his work, including a link to a download of Walden itself, can be had at this Wikipedia entry. There is a lot of academic suspicion around the value of Wikipedia, some of it justified, but in this case the entry is well presented, thorough, and will save you many hours trawling through a variety of sources. My only gripe is with the description of the work as a novel. Calling a literary work a novel implies a degree of fabrication and I agree with the implication so far. But I prefer to read the work as a documentary, an artful fabrication or representation of a series of experiences in which a carefully considered plan was set well in advance and consciously followed through to its conclusion. (I’m not giving an academic paper here so I’m not going to go into a detailed justification. Call it a hunch, based on the fact that artists involved in large scale process-and field-based research projects (like me) do this all the time.)

Although my primary interest is in Thoreau’s awareness and literary investigation of sound, I’ve also been considering related topics, such as his treatment of space and location. This investigation also invites a closer look at how he goes about representing the natural environment, into his use of the documentary form and into the blurring of boundaries between ‘real life’ (whatever that may be), field work, and the making of the work of art. In the context of a wider study of documentary art it would be rewarding to look at how Thoreau went about his work. For example, did he decide to document his stay in the woods from the very beginning? If so was it possible for him ever to really step out of his role as documentarian? Did he write as he went along, keeping a regular journal, or did he fabricate the semblance of this? After all he must have kept notes throughout his stay, but I can find no mention of this. Did he ‘set up’ events and scenarios in order to heighten interest? A cursory investigation of early American documentary photography opened my eyes for ever to the element of fabrication in so-called ‘realistic’ documentary…. But I digress so let me return to Thoreau and sound.

In Nature Emerson gave us a world filled with spirit, art and natural splendour. But it was a world without sound. In Walden Thoreau offers a much richer universe, one in which sound predominates. Thoreau is drawn into the world of sound by the environment itself. He matures over the course of the book as a sonic artist of consummate skill and insight and he leaves Walden made whole by the experience.

All quotations are taken from The Illustrated Walden: Princeton University Press 1973.

‘Sometimes on Sundays I heard the bells, the Lincoln, Acton, Bedford, or Concord bell, when the wind was favorable, a faint sweet, and, as it were natural melody, worth importing into the wilderness. At a sufficient distance over the woods this sound acquires a certain vibratory hum, as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strips of a harp which it swept…The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it. It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood…’

Here Thoreau touches on a topic of contemporary interest to environmental sound artists, acoustic ecologists and social scientists. What is ‘natural’ sound and what is intrusive sound or noise? He allows the sound of the bells as ‘worth importing into the wilderness’. In my own experience church bells carry a raft of connotations, often even beyond those of belonging to a church. I favour the notion that at one time the acoustic horizon of church bell in remote rural areas mapped out the boundaries of a parish. Perhaps. I remember clearly gazing dreamily out of a hotel window in Bulawayo when a church bell rang in the distance, then another, and another. It  was Easter Sunday and I had forgotten. There followed a Marcel Proust madeleine moment in which the sound of the bells carried me back in time through a vast network of associations. That moment remains a seminal event in my life.

Thoreau examines the materiality of the sound, focusing closely on the modulation and colouration of the original by means of the pine forest itself, discriminating between original and modified echo, the ‘voice of the wood’. Natural sound as music – this is the very stuff of contemporary sound art.

I might go further and draw parallels between how the church bells mark liturgical time and carry connotations of human spirituality, communion and worship and how, over time, the woods come to do the same for Thoreau, though in a much more universal sense. The following passage develops these notions: the marking of liturgical time, the separation and close investigation of the features of a given sound, the musicality inherent in natural sound:-

‘Regularly… the whipoorwills chanted their vespers for half an hour, sitting on a stump by my door, or upon the ridge pole of the house. They would begin to sing with as much precision as a clock, within five minutes of a particular time, referred to the setting of the sun, every evening… Sometimes I heard four or five at once in different parts of the wood, by accident one a bar behind another, and as near me that I distinguished not only the click after each note, but often that singular buzzing sound like a fly in a spider’s web, only proportionally louder.’

Thoreau’s deep listening skills are of the highest order. In taking time and space to precisely document these details we realise the importance of sound in his representation of the environment.

Thoreau’s almost scientific examination of sound is balanced by frequent poetic and speculative flights. In a human sense there is something very natural and legitimate about this balance – any sound artist who has spent hours in the field will recognise the swing between close concentration listening strategies focusing on detail and more relaxed listening strategies which allow free play of the  imagination:-

‘I was also serenaded by a hooting owl. Near at hand you could fancy it the most melancholy sound in Nature, as if she meant by this to stereotype and make permanent in her choir the dying moans of a human being…’

‘I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men. It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight moods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognized’

Note the reference to nature’s ‘choir’. The notion of a ‘vast and undeveloped nature’ is one which fascinated many of Thoreau’s contemporaries in the world of art and literature and it lends conceptual strength to the work as a whole. (On this topic I recommend MERCHANT C., (2003). Reinventing Eden: the fate of nature in Western culture. New York: Routledge., and online.)

Finally, Thoreau shows a thoroughly innovative approach to working with sound through his own private sonic interventions in the environment, an approach which will resonate with many sonic artists and indeed with all lovers of solitude and nature:

‘When, as was commonly the case, I had none to commune with, I used to raise the echoes by striking with a paddle on the side of my boat, filling the surrounding woods with circling and dilating sound, stirring them up as the keeper of a menagerie his wild beasts, until I elicited a growl from every wooded vale and hill-side.’

Here we have sound presented as a substitute for conversation, and Thoreau is confiding in us. But I ‘m tempted to read this passage as a key to the work as a whole. In writing Walden, Thoreau is an artist in the process of creation. In the representation of an environment we are allowed the privilege of witnessing how the author/protagonist embeds himself in that environment. One of the qualities of this environment is its potential to be a wild, threatening undeveloped place of wilderness. With this in mind one then reads this passage as a very clever mirror image of the whole work. By placing himself centre stage, on Walden pond, and by physically intervening in the environment, stirring up the wild beasts from the woods around Walden, Thoreau offers us  a mirror image of the whole work, a distillation of the central concept, that of the artist in the act of creating the wild place with all its connotations, metaphor and symbolism.


2 Responses to “Nature writing and sound – part II”

  1. Have you read The Outermost House by Henry Beston? If not, you may like it… It’s early 20th century nature writing about living on a remote part of the Cape and there is an entire chapter – a sort of sound journal – dedicated to the various sounds or “sea music” that existed outside his small cabin … in the waves, surf, tides..

    Great posts here by the way!

    • James Wyness Says:

      Good choice and thanks. I was considering Roger Deakin’s Waterlog next , but fine writer that he was, he had little if anything to say about the world of sound. Beston is next on my list. I have it (unread) on my shelf but browsed through the other day (coincidentally) and I noticed immediately the references to sound so I’ll be reading it and blogging sometime soon.

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