Losing a Wild Soundscape 

Hiking the Appalachian Trail this summer has been a musical experience beyond anything I could have predicted. I’ve now hiked over 300 miles along the state line of North Carolina and Tennessee, arriving in Virginia yesterday just in time for the shocking gun-like echo of fireworks. Before I get to that, let me share with you what I got used to hearing on the trail before stopping in Damascus for the 4th of July (quite accidentally).

The Music of the Woods

Every morning as the sun rises, there is a loud, boisterous crescendo of bird song from a few hooting owls to all of the birds in all of the trees chiming in to welcome the new day. It lasts about 30 minutes, and it is the most predictable and beautiful alarm clock I’ve woken up to on a daily basis–one I have not yet successfully slept through. The elation of a flourishing crescendo is one we easily identify with when we listen to music: it can make us feel a sense of accomplishment, of heroism, or of overwhelming bittersweet happiness that brings us to tears in movies. These are feelings I often encounter in nature and it’s not just due to a view of a lifetime; rather, the wild soundscape that I find myself suddenly harmonizing with is what makes me feel so alive and interconnected with the circle of life. As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in Nature, there are many moments in the vast wilderness when I feel “the currents of Universal Being” flow through me. Nature has always been a variety of religious experience for me and harmonizing with nature is an experience I recognize when I read Emerson.

However, not all sounds in the wilderness are ones I harmonize with; for example, the low growl of a coyote we disturbed one morning (I was first out on the trail with my father in the Smokies) sounded immediately alarming, as it was meant to be. I’ve been huffed at by bears and snorted at by deer (the latter was actually the worst of the two because it sounds like the wheezing of an empty water bottle being squeezed), and hissed at by snakes. I’ve also made warning sounds to scare off bears and coyotes, from banging my trekking poles together to singing “We all Live in a Yellow Submarine” by The Beatles over and over again.

And then there are sounds that leave me in humble wonderment. Coyotes near Roan Mountain began howling just after sunset, and I could hear them all partake in the collective call across miles and miles around me. Some were extremely close and some reached an unearthly high pitch. That was a tremendous moment of music I’ll never forget. Another night, a very windy night, I could hear the roots moving in the ground as the trees creaked and swayed back and forth in the strong breeze on a ridge. The very ground beneath the ear to my pillow was moving, moaning even, like the heaving breast of Walden Pond beneath the ice that Henry David Thoreau listened to from his bed during winter nights. The music of the coyotes and the trees at night changed me as a listener. Music is not an art limited to human creation; rather, it is all around us if we are willing to enter a state of active passivity, or active listening. As Emerson writes, “all I know is reception.” Perhaps if we unplugged our audio systems and took out our earbuds more often we would feel more connected with the world around us, and better know our impact on our surroundings. All too often we tune out noise pollution with louder tunes rather than seeking quiet, meditative spaces.

Noise in the Woods

At the beginning of this adventure it seemed realistic that I would still hear cars passing by as I walked away from my drop-off point…but now I know that I can hear cars at least 5-6 miles away, and the loud sound can be deceiving when I still have 2 hours to go before I get to the road I already hear. The Appalachian Trail stretches over 2,000 miles of backcountry, but the AT also crosses multiple roads, highways, bridges, back yards, and driveways. It’s a bizarre and unsettling experience to suddenly arrive at a fast-moving concrete world that has been living on without you and will keep living on while you slowly trek through miles of beautiful trees, flowers, grass, and rocks. As my trail buddy Moose said, the AT is kind of like Narnia. I feel protected by the walls of forest trees, entering a magical place where I return to child-like innocence with simplified needs, my greatest joys being sunsets, picnic tables, toasted marshmallows, and dry clothes.

The wild soundscape of this country before colonization and before the Industrial Revolution is nearly gone. Even a sneeze from me is loud enough to quiet the birds briefly, so amplify that noise to heavy metal machinery and it’s a wonder we still hear birds singing at all. Birds have also picked up our sounds, singing out car alarms and walk signals. It’s a joy to whistle back and forth with a robin, taking turns with the same two notes in a game of musical tennis, but then I wonder if I’m doing more harm to the bird than good. I’ve also lamented having stolen the feathers from the birds, as Thoreau has written, by using a down sleeping bag. The railroad interrupted his thoughts and brought him a feeling of loneliness at Walden Pond not unlike the strange sense of homesickness and repulsion I feel when I hear a large truck cruise by at high speed. The trains still go by Walden Pond today (though perhaps more frequently) and quiet the birds for several minutes after they have passed. It is hard to feel any solitude in the woods when I hear planes overhead and cars below, then I wonder if the bears mind the sounds of planes and cars.

Thoreau understood the consequences of the railroads and recorded both seeing and hearing the wilderness disappearing. In my next post, I’ll talk about Thoreau’s influence on John Muir and the “Leave No Trace” policy of AT hikers. Until then, Happy Trails!

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