Acoustic Ecology ~ The Core of Democracy?

(With gratitude to Rex Nelson for the finches and the old mill)

Something fell into place for me this past week, when I listened to Gordon Hempton interview with Krista Tippett on her show On Being. The experience was one of finding a missing thread to weave with the various threads that have been dangling from my fingers over the last year or two. Just putting the two words “acoustic” together with “ecologist” was enough to give me chills. The topic was silence, and how do we listen to silence. Silence – not as absence of sound, as in a vacuum – but silence as presence, the presence of the sounds of the natural world.

Calling silence an endangered species, one on the brink of extinction, Hempton begins with the recognition that he, as most of us, have had the wrong impression about what listening means. We think it means – we’re taught this early – that we focus our attention on what we, or someone else, has already decided is important before we’ve even heard it. At the same time, we’re taught to screen out what we deem unimportant before we’ve even heard that. Hempton calls it controlled impairment. “To listen, truly listen, “ he says, “is to be attentive to all that is around me; it’s what it means to be alive as an animal in a natural place.”

I encourage you to listen to the interview, because Hempton invites us and accompanies us into a natural silence, one which marks the absence of the noise of modern life, a silence rich with the sound of the wind through the needles of a white pine, the sound of a gentle rain on a canopy of maple, the calls of the songbirds. “Wildlife is as busy communicating as we are,” he says. But he’s not just speaking in terms of messages traveling back and forth from one creature to another. For a human to walk into natural silence is to her place, what it means to be in a place, or of a place, to engage truly the experience of place.

It was when Hempton began to speak of the importance of silence and place, that I experienced the integration of many threads.

In my writing over the past couple years, I have been suggesting (insisting?) that it’s not possible for humans to do the work of environmental healing that’s required of us, unless and until we know our proper place within the biotic world – not as separate from it – and certainly not as a species of privilege and entitlement with license to behave as though the world belonged to us. I guess I’d call that my first premise – it’s way past time to relinquish our sense of human primacy.

To know our true place, and to behave as though we really knew ourselves as an intricate part of a system far greater than any we ourselves could concoct, is a question of justice – the word eco-justice is beginning to roll off people’s tongues – which leads to my second premise. Eco-justice isn’t just a “take-a-number-and-wait-your-turn”. Environmental justice is the ground from which all aspects of social justice can emerge. Environmental justice is primary. If we don’t soon get this, we’ll continue in our pseudo-democratic ways (witness the recent vote in Virginia, in which a highly qualified Thorne-Begland’s bid for a state judgeship, with bipartisan support, was voted down because he’s gay) to bestow rights and then renege, diluting the quest for justice to little more than self-promoting and self-serving bigotry.

If it is true, and I am convinced that it is, that eco-justice is the birth mother, and if it is true, which I know to be true, that most humans consider ourselves superior to other life forms, equally true that some humans consider ourselves superior to other humans, then – like silence (there is a connection here, on its way) democracy itself will continue to become an increasingly endangered species.

So, I can say, and have, without apology, that a true sense of place lies at the core of democracy. In the words of Terry Tempest Williams,

“The open space of democracy provides justice for all living things – plants, animals, rocks, and rivers, as well as human beings.”

That humans are part of a living web of intricate eco-systems is not news. We’re beginning to get it in a cerebral kind of way, that we are of no greater or lesser value than any other part. I’ve used the image of a dung beetle. Rebecca Baggett says pretty much the same thing in this excerpt from her poem Testimony:

I want you to understand that you
are no more and no less necessary
than the brown recluse, the ruby-
throated hummingbird, the humpback
whale, the profligate mimosa.

But Gordon Hempton insists on the live encounter. To walk into silence and just be here. No goals, no agenda, “it’s a big challenge for adults,” he says, “when it comes to silence. We’re too busy being somewhere else.” Again, controlled impairment. “In a silent place, he says, “minus the distractions of our contemporary culture, we get to meet ourselves.”

And here comes the hammer (it’s at about minute 38 in the download), “research shows that in noisy areas, people are less likely to help each other. In noisy places, we become isolated, and we exhibit anti-social behavior. Because we are cut off from a level of intimacy, busy not listening, busy not seeing, we are unable to open up and be where we are.” In other words, we have lost our sense of place.

But . . . lest we despair, urban activism is teaching us something new and hopeful about listening, and its symbol is Occupy’s human mic. The human mic is all about listening. It’s about relinquishing the cacophony of what I call clutter noise, the kind that jams the air waves, for the sake of communicating critical information to one another. It’s about claiming our rightful place within the human enterprise. In an odd but parallel kind of way, it’s about walking into the silence.

Just as knowing our true sense of place as members of a living web lies at the core of democracy, so then, does silence lie at the core of democracy. One informs the other.

The implications stagger me. Building democracy has a different starting point than I’ve ever imagined. Healthy democracy can only emerge from the security which comes from knowing our place. Silence is the portal to place.

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