The shushing surge of waves rushing and receding? The hypnotising ever rising melody of the skylark? The chuckling and running of a stream over rocks on its journey downstream? Which natural sound would you preserve forever if you had to? To choose for a museum of sound? I have just heard one of my favourite sounds, the screeching of swifts overhead. One swallow apparently doesn’t make a summer but a company of swifts, wheeling in and out of each other calling, surely does. I was swiftly rushing myself, with a list of jobs to complete in my allotted time today and I could so easily have missed it. Somehow it broke through the fog of my busyness and brought me up short, all work concerns dropped – for a moment. Oh, but what a joyful moment. There’s my favourite, well one of them, but what is your go to soothing, joyful or uplifting natural sound?
Our modern world is filled with sound, typically alerts and alarms, traffic and 24 hour news, ringtones and reminders. Our phones and our cars have beeps for every occasion. Noise is the norm and it can be very hard to find peace and quiet. Noise isn’t just a frustration of life it can also be harmful to us, as it is stress causing when constant, leading to high blood pressure, difficulty sleeping and switching off, as well as heart disease. Can you remember the last time you heard the sound of silence? It is a precious and rare commodity in these busy times, dare I say it a luxury. It is no surprise that the greatest respect we can pay someone is a minute’s silence.
In contrast, the sounds of nature can be immensely calming for us with an increasing number of studies showing (let’s be honest, probably what we already know) that nature sounds can have huge positive effects on our health. Of course nature isn’t generally silent, but the sound of the dawn chorus, or a babbling brook or leaves rustling in the wind is a soothing balm to our busy minds and can actually increase connections in our brains and decrease our fight or flight stress response. Research, published last year used brain scans, heart-rate monitors, and behavioural experiments discovering that pleasant and familiar nature sounds calm down our sympathetic nervous system (associated with fight or flight) and engages the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting rest and recovery for our bodies. Listening to your favourite natural sounds also improves focus and concentration.
Preserving natural sounds isn’t as crazy as it might sound on first hearing. In National Parks in the US there are ‘Sound Ecologists’ whose job it is to monitor soundscapes. As humans we are dominated by our sense of sight, if we are fortunate enough to have this sense. Landscape is a well used term in language, but soundscape not so much. In fact, my spell checker does not recognise it as I write it and has created a red wiggly line under it. We are used to beautiful sights assailing us but less so do we recognise sounds so readily. Last week, I was up in the darkness at 4:15am for International Dawn Chorus Day. What a privilege to witness the natural world waking up as the light levels rose, pin pointing each bird as it started its work for the day, until the sound reached an orchestral crescendo in surround sound. There was nowhere else to be but here, nothing to do but listen to this beautiful soundscape, it soothed my mind and restored my equilibrium.
During my long illness and time alone last year, I discovered that I have tinnitus or a ringing in my ears. Whether it came on naturally last year or whether it had been there before and I just hadn’t noticed it - and now could with all the quiet, solitude and greater attention through my mindfulness - I don’t know. But now, when I am sitting quietly at the start of the day that is the closest sound I can hear. Training my attention through sound is something that I do, focussing on the nearest sounds and then expanding out to those furthest away - with somewhere in the middle one of my family snoring on. I am cultivating a deep gratitude for this sense that I have that I can so easily take for granted. To have been able to hear my babies’ first cries; my husband proposing to me; my daughter telling me she loves me. My son has had impaired hearing for all of his life so far and it has had a profound impact upon his life, his speech, his interactions with others and his engagement at school. At his last audiology appointment we discovered that both his ears are now within the normal range and it is truly the best gift. You can tell from one look at his face, and in his behaviour, the wonder of being able to hear properly for the very first time.
Today, I am reflecting on the joy of my sense of hearing, really taking pleasure from the sounds that I can hear (even the ones I could label as noise) and taking a moment to sit in nature and listen. I also intend to listen, really listen to those I meet, listen to the sound of their voice and the story they have to tell. Incidentally, what was your favourite natural sound? I recommend seeking out time with it as soon as ever you can. Your life, or at least the quality of it, may just depend on it.
“We should think about soundscapes as medicine. It’s like a pill. You can prescribe sounds or a walk in the park in much the way we prescribe exercise. Do it twenty minutes a day as a lifetime approach, or you can do it as an acute stress intervention. When you’re stressed out, go to a quiet place.” – Joshua Smyth, Biobehavioural Heath Psychologist at Penn State
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