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The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Humans Outside.
I’m not going to say I spend a whole lot of time noticing my sense of hearing. In fact, I think I probably spend a lot of time purposefully NOT noticing it. The world is loud, y’all. Think about how much time you spend trying to drown it out. Even as I’m recording this, I’m wearing headphones and closed up in my padded podcast closest so the sounds don’t get in. I often wear noise canceling headphones so I can’t hear my kid whistling down the hall or the dog snoring on the bathroom floor a few feet away from my desk.
When I’m outside I am trying to drown out the sound pollution of cars driving by, airplanes overhead, other people talking, whatever. I spend so much time trying to ignore the sounds I don’t want to hear, in fact, that I fear I have lost the art of listening.
That’s something I started thinking about as I have spent a week here and there purposefully leaning into my five sense one at a time while I’m outside. I started this experiment in sensory intentionality inspired by my conversation with NYT best selling author Gretchen Rubin, which you can hear on this podcast and Ill link in the show notes. Gretchen recently wrote Life in 5 Senses, and our episode focuses on how leaning into them can change your outdoor life. I wanted to experience it for myself.
First I spend a few weeks observing my sense of sight and taste — I felt how the vast expanses of the land around my calmed my brain, and the delight of encountering and foraging wild food during some of our adventures. I’m not going to lie — foraging is a little addictive and I’m sitting here thinking about raspberries on bushes and blueberries in the mountains even right now.
Next, I leaned into sound. I wanted to know what would happen if I took time and intention to really pause and just listen — to turn off the noise of outside input or to strip away the sound barriers I use to block things out. What would I notice? And I took it a step further, too, whipping out my phone to record a few sounds here and there that especially caught my attention.
What I found was two fold– that there is – of course – value in taking a pause to listen and let your brain rest and linger over natural sounds. And that doing so is really, really hard.
As I sat and simply let my ears pick up the sounds and my brain take them where it wanted to go, what I found was the relief provided by something researchers call “soft fascination.” It’s the zone where mind wandering happens. If our sense of hearing is what we use to crowd out things we find unpleasant or annoying, it can also be what we use to let in what is restful. I found this to be especially true while listening to bird song or the patterns of water. Here are a few clips of some of the things I heard out there.
Those things are not the absence of noise — they are noise of their own. They provide texture and something to almost camp out on, without providing complex information input. They are repetitive — something that allows for excellent soft fascination — yet also simple. And they made me feel calm, like Ive given my brain a break.
But listening to these things was also really hard and took more intentionality than simply looking around or using my sense of taste on some delicious trail-side berries. I had to very actively pause, literally or figuratively turn off whatever else was going on to keep me from hearing these sounds, and actively listen. That meant actually stopping a book I was listening to during a recent hike to hear the wind while I sat with a snack. And it meant pausing the monologue in my head during a rainy paddle to hear the drops on the water.
Taking these steps was worth it, though — even if it was just a few minutes. When was the last time you heard, I mean really hard, the rustling of the leaves in the trees, the crunch of your step on the grass or in snow, the bird song or the rain. Take a few minutes this week to really listen and see what it does for you.
Then, report back with what you heard on Facebook or Instagram using #humansoutside365. And you can find all of my photos and musings there too, by following Humans Outside. Until next time we’ll see and maybe even hear you out there.