Nature writing and sound – part III


Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813 – 1894)


While writers interested in visual media have for some time gestured towards a conceptualization of visual culture, no such parallel construct – sound culture or, simply, sound studies – has broadly informed work on hearing or the other senses. While sound is considered as a unified intellectual problem in some science and engineering fields, it is less developed as an integrated problem in the social and cultural disciplines.

STERNE, J., (2003). The Audible Past. Duke University Press, p3.

If she were alive today, Susan Fenimore Cooper would be spoiled for choice. She would have the free range of any number of  careers: environmentalist, photographer, ornithologist, documentarian, film-maker, sound artist. I rather like the idea of Susan Fenimore Cooper as an environmental sound artist, out and about in the field, extending her already superlative listening skills, probing the soundscape with the finest microphones.

You’ll recognise the name –  she’s the daughter of father James who wrote Last of the Mohicans. Overshadowed for many years by her father’s reputation, she is now recognised in literary circles as an extremely gifted writer.

Her world is alive with vital energy, colour, movement, and of course sound – sound perceived and sound imagined, from the tiniest murmuring deep in the hollow of a tree in the forest, barely heard at all, to the thundering cacophony of millions of birds in continental migration.  In her writing we are invited to engage with a sensual, vibrant and beautifully balanced representation of the natural environment – most unlike the one on offer from Emerson. Her writing, like that of Thoreau, is profoundly inspirational, especially  to the sort of person like me who spends hours in the field in all weathers listening and recording. Both writers have clearly embedded themselves firmly into their respective soundscapes.  Though some would have us believe otherwise, deep listening strategies have been with us throughout the ages and across cultures.  I’m encouraged to have that confirmed.

Her work demonstrates fine listening skills allied to subtle narrative technique. She possesses the rare skill of being able to  inhabit clearly defined yet detailed settings, conveyed to the reader by means of allusion to a variety of perceptual strategies, listening being of the utmost importance. In my reading experience, the distinctive subtlety and clarity of her style is matched only by the likes of fellow American Ernest Hemingway and the Scottish anthropologist Victor Turner.

Most readers will head directly for Rural Hours and rightly so. I chose to wander along the path less trodden, investigating instead A Dissolving View, Later Hours, Otsego Leaves I – III and A Lament for the Birds, all brought together in Essays on Nature and Landscape.

In A Dissolving View she writes of ‘the music of the woods as the seasons change’, observing how each season has its own sonic characteristics:-

There is a difference in the music of the woods as the seasons change. In winter, when the waving limbs are bare, there is more of unity in the deep wail of the winds as they sweep through the forests; in summer the rustling foliage gives some higher and more cheerful notes to the general harmony; and there is also a change of key from the softer murmurs of the fresh foliage of early summer, to the sharp tones of the dry and withering leaves in October.

A year’s work summed up in two sentences.

Otsego Leaves is an exquisite series of three pieces, each going further back in time. The final piece, The Bird Primeval, is remarkable for its quasi-cinematic treatment of the subject and its consideration of sound in the narrative. The reader is invited to occupy a particular  space, that of a dominant and nurturing elm tree, and at the same time to look at it, and listen to it, from a variety of vantage points . Susan Fenimore Cooper is clearly writing here from direct experience. The richness and legitimacy of sonic detail is incomparable – we are treated to the sounds of birds entering and leaving the hollow upper part of the tree, to the murmur, roaring and rumbling of swallows as they breed and raise their young, to the elm as resonating chamber.  Finally in a passage of the utmost elegance, we witness passing deer, bear, wolf and panther who pause to wonder at and listen to the tree. Wild nature as a listening Narcissus, self-absorbed in the act of listening to herself.

I’ll finish by mentioning another astonishing passage, this time from A Lament for the Birds in which she refers to accounts of the roosting grounds of native wild-pigeon, ‘the uproar from this roosting ground being heard at a distance of three miles’. Her imagination is drawn to the sound of reported flocks ‘covering 240 miles of country in length’:-

so vast as to obscure the sun at noon as though the country lay under an eclipse, while the ceaseless rapid motion of millions of wings produced a loud roar like an approaching tornado…

I invite the reader to take time to read her work at leisure.

Next up, Aldo Leopold….


4 Responses to “Nature writing and sound – part III”

  1. sroden Says:

    hey james,
    thanks so much for posting these writings. i didn’t know her work at all, and what you’ve posted is indeed amazing stuff. thoreau’s words on sound in nature have definitely resonated over the years, but it’s great to discover someone i’ve never read. i’ve been collecting landscape/sound/listening fragments from fiction/literature of the same time period and there is a gaggle of beautiful things, but it seems rare to find somewhat of a nature writer delving so deeply into sound. great stuff!

    • James Wyness Says:

      Thanks Steve. You’re most welcome. I suppose it’s a fresh way of reading some of the fine writers out there and acknowledging our shared heritage as ‘deep’ listeners. I’m aware of your fine work and am not surprised to find that you and others have their own sonic scrap books. Keep an eye out for the next post on Aldo Leopold.

  2. You will find many other writings by Susan Fenimore Cooper, as well as links to other, in her section on the James Fenimore Cooper Society website at

    I fully share your belief that she is a remarkable writer; and have a particular fondness for her only novel, Elinor Wyllys (on our website — but it is not especially nature-oriented). But I have been tracking down (and putting on line or making links to) her writings for many years.

    Hugh MacDougall
    Corresponding Secretary
    James Fenimore Cooper Society

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: