31 May 2006

Sounds and silence

What strikes me is the silence. It’s not the absence of sound; instead, the silence arises from what I hear, from between the sounds, from the nature of those sounds. A car grinds up the hill and accelerates away; the whine fades and the river returns. Sparrows behind the kennels, in the shrubs down the bank—a persistent, monotonous argument going on and on. A piwakawaka [1] jumps and flits on the top wire of the fence and another calls from somewhere near the edge of the terrace, only its voice apparent. Sounds that draw attention to the silence in which they’re embedded. When the world’s full of noise you don’t hear what’s said softly, you miss the subtle sounds: racked by dissonance, you can no longer listen.

A tui [2] begins calling from the scribble of leafless poplar branches. It’s an astonishingly complex medley, full of bells, coughs, chuckles, melodies, and stolen voices. Watch carefully and you’ll see it singing, yet you might hear nothing—some notes and phrases are beyond our range of hearing. A bird, singing silence.

Tigger appears from somewhere, smelling of hay and something else—perhaps fabric softener. I can’t figure out the chronology of his sleeps; whether it was hay first and Olive’s washing second or the other way around. He rubs his head against my shins and purrs loudly, denying any guilt. The sound reminds me how, yesterday, I met Charlie again. Turning the corner at the No. 3 Line junction and seeing him there, sitting on a old log in the sun. Probably had his ear on some small rustle in the long grass lodged by the weight of old rain. I said hello as I walked over and he answered, waiting for me to scratch his chin and ruffle behind his ears. He leant into my hand, trusting I’d support him—if I’d moved my hand he’d have toppled off the log. Eventually I had to pick him up and carry him to the trailer by the house. He was perfectly happy to be carried; not so happy when I walked off, carrying the sound of a small protest.

A lone swallow [3] swoops past without a sound. Out beyond the terrace two kahu [4] circle on wide wings. Sometimes you only hear what the world’s saying when it’s silent.

Eventually Tigger stops purring and sits on the edge of the verandah with his back to me, looking out at the brilliantly green paddock. Small movements of his ears; locating things I can’t hear. I wonder what his silence sounds like.

Another car; a far off aeroplane behind clouds; strident spur-winged plovers [5] somewhere out of sight below, probably in the paddock by the bridge. Then the silence slides back. Te Awaoteatua stream rushes over its stones. Sheep in the driveway crop the grass with a methodical rip-rip-rip, tearing the top off the autumn flush.

Sometimes you only notice things when they’re no longer there. When the wind dies, for example, and the soft rattle of cabbage tree leaves ceases; when the bumble bee fumbling and buzzing along the verandah finally settles on a blue clothes peg—then you notice the silence.

[1] New Zealand fantail, Rhipdura fuliginosa.
[2] Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae.
[3] The welcome swallow, Hirundo tahitica.
[4] Australasian harrier, Circus approximans.
[5] Vanellus miles novaehollandiae.

Photos (click on them for a larger image):
1. Poplar grove, Te Awaoteatua Stream, Pohangina Valley.
2. Charlie; small, strong, and beautiful. Quite apart from the fact he's Charlie, he's also a burmese. This is significant for me.
3. Dualism.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor


zhoen said...

Funny how cats see us as immovable objects, and startle when we move suddenly.

yllstonewolf said...

what a lovely, peaceful post. contemplating the noises that embrace silence. love reading here!
ps...i'm so sorry about the livejournal calling you spam!!! it can not know you. seems a recent development - they change things without telling me! i'll see what i can do :)

Debbie Lee said...

This is a wonderfully nuanced meditation on sound and silence, hearing and listening. I like, especially, the final paragraph: “Sometimes you only notice things when they’re no longer there. When the wind dies, for example, and the soft rattle of cabbage tree leaves ceases; when the bumble bee fumbling and buzzing along the verandah finally settles on a blue clothes peg—then you notice the silence.” Silence as the memory of sound.

Tracy Hamon said...

Sometimes I notice what's here. Nice!!

KiwiSoupGirl said...

Serene - that is how your post left me feeling, Pete...and that beautiful feline....! You have truly done Charlie justice with that photo - a lovely being.

I love your theme on silence - memories of sounds, as Debbie Lee put it..exactly! I've struggling with finding silence, at times, and it took me a while to realise that absolute silence does not exist - that internal noise happens constantly also. Ever been in a quiet place, and space, and been able to hear the blood pushing through your body with every single heart beat...?

Thanks so much for the contemplation you've initiated - as always!

Duncan said...

This post really strikes a chord with me Pete, the old saying silence is golden is so true. Did you ever read the Ray Bradbury story about the man who only wanted quietness, in a world of the future dominated by continuous noise and non stop communication. It's a beauty, and very prophetic. I reckon we are just about at that point now.

Duncan said...

That chord was meant to be a very soft melodic one, something like the breeze whispering through casuarina needles ;-)

Anita Daher said...

Lovely. Here's to the sounds in between.

bev said...

It's good that you don't miss those subtle sounds between the dissonance, Pete. When I go out walking in the evening, I try to focus on the peent of Woodcock in fields, or the distant booming of the Bittern in the creek, rather than to the intermittent sound of tires and motors on the highway, or the scrape of a jet overhead. I find it a bit like going hiking and trying not to let the sight of the trail periodically ripped up by ATVs dominate my thoughts (although at times that's difficult for me to do). There's so much that's good about the natural world, that we should look for and appreciate those subtle silences and lightly trodden paths where we find them.

lené said...

I really like where you bring me with this piece--thinking about times when the absence of sound brought the awareness of silence.

Are you familiar with the study of acoustic ecology?

Laura said...

I just wanted to tell you that I really enjoy your writing. Very moving and thoughtful prose. And lovely pictures!

Suzanne said...

Really great post, thought provoking for me. And that cat, what can I say, that gaze, wow.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks everyone — I've been settling in at Eastbourne again (with Dirk and Miep and the amazing views...)

Zhoen: Well, of course — cats expect us to do exactly what they want, so it's no wonder they're surprised when we do something different.

Thanks YSWolf, nice to know I'm able to bring a little peace into the world :^) (I'll try commenting again; will see what happens.)

Debbie: great phrase — silence as the memory of sound. You're onto it. And thanks for the specific feedback — it definitely helps me.

Tracy — thanks for noticing! :^)

KSG: yes, I have... and if my memory serves me correctly, I've heard references to " the roaring of the void" in buddhist-related literature. I've also heard of meditation being likened to being locked in a closet with a lunatic with a megaphone... ;^D

Duncan: No, haven't read the Bradbury story, but you've reminded me of Tove Jansson's story in one of the Moomintroll books — The Hemulen who Loved Silence. It's utterly delightful. And I know exactly what you mean by the sound of the breeze through Casuarina needles — spot on!

Thanks Anita; in a few minutes I'm going to turn this machine off and enjoy the view, the silence, and the cats...

Bev: I agree totally, and it's curious you should mention the potential for being distracted by human influence. I walked along the coast today, and felt those distractions intruding... but eventually I began to reflect on what was happening, and they became unimportant. There's likely to be a post there soon...

Lene: No, I hadn't heard of it, other than in the narrow sense relating to things like the interpretation of bird song. I'll have a look around; thanks! :^)

Laura: Thankyou! :^D Pleased you enjoy what you see and hear here.

Hi Suzanne :^) Charlie's really something special — much like every burmese cat I've known. And I'm very pleased the post has provoked some thought.

Suzanne said...

It even provoked a post on my own blog, linked to your post. :-)

Peregrina said...

Pete: what evocative writing! "... the scribble of leafless poplar branches", "the long grass lodged by the weight of old rain", all the other vivid word pictures. I'll swear I was there, too, and saw, heard, smelt and felt it all.

As soon as I read this post I was reminded of something Daniel Barenboim said in the first of this year's Reith Lectures (titled "In the beginning was sound"): "The physical aspect that we notice first is that sound does not exist by itself, but has a permanent constant and unavoidable relation with silence."

It's the principle of reciprocity, isn't it? The balance that we find in the physical world? Sound defines silence, silence defines sound; light defines darkness, darkness defines light; the space-between defines shapes, shapes define the space-between; and, in photography, aperture defines shutter-speed, shutter-speed defines aperture. It's part of the connectedness of things.

Just after reading this post I had to go into town and I found I was consciously listening to what was going on around me, rather than just hearing it as background noise. The pulsing thwack of a pile-driver on a building site, the hissing rush of a stream of cars trying to make the next intersection before the lights changed, voices, all the noises generated in a busy, populous place. More sound than silence, but each individual sound defined before and afterwards by its absence. Presence defined by absence. It was a new way of thinking about it. Thanks. Your posts always seem to provoke thought.

I note you've also illustrated this idea of reciprocity through the photographs you've included. Perhaps they can be thought of as the visual counterpart to the aural phenomenon that you have written about? The poplar trunks are defined by the spaces between them, Charlie's face is sharply defined against the out-of-focus background (as well as having his shape defined by the different colour behind him), and the black patches on the cattle are defined by the white - or is it the other way round? Complementary space, the space we tend to ignore because it is not the subject of our interest, is sometimes referred to as "negative space". This term seems to belittle its importance. There must be a better word. It's something the Japanese understand: for example, in their black and white illustrations, the area of white has its own significance.

I had another flashback when I looked at your poplar photograph. It reminded me of the Ansel Adams image, "Aspens" (1958). They're different images, but have similarities. A pattern of two, perhaps?!

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Suzanne! That's an excellent photo on your post, and it's great to hear the bird while seeing the photo. Our sparrows are common house sparrows — beautiful if you look carefully, but it's hard to find much that's inspiring about their call (I won't say "song" — it isn't!)

Peregrina: Thankyou :^) I agree about the reciprocity; in fact, I was thinking about exactly that as I walked the coast yesterday. Silence and sound; the way each can draw attention to the other. And we have a very close-to-home example of the importance of complementary space in art and culture — it's such a strong element of Maori art.

I know the Ansel Adams photo you mention... it's quite an honour to hear my photo reminds you of his. When I saw the light on those trees I knew it was something special, but it wasn't until I looked at the photo later that it reminded me of Adams' aspens photo. But I'm sure it was there in my subconscious, and I wonder what, or how much, difference that made.

lené said...

The discussion about reciprocity is really interesting. I had never thought about sound and silence in that way before.

Here's a link to one acoustic ecology site: http://www.acousticecology.org/

It's been a while since I looked through it, but when I was researching the sound absorption qualities of different plants, I remember finding some of their work interesting.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Lene; I checked it last night, and also looked at the Wikipedia entry. I think I now understand a bit about what acoustic ecologists study, and there are certainly some intriguing subjects there.

adagio said...

You have some stunning feline friends Pete.

Amor said...

The discussion is very interesting.
Good work.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
Just returned here for a read after Tara's Aboriginal friend had commented on how much he enjoyed it. Your blog is a real treasure.
I remember once standing in the bush outside Parks Peak hut and listening to the "silence". After a few minutes I seemed absorbed by the environment, almost part of it, and the natural state of the ridge emerged again. The different levels of the wind, the beech branches creaking and groaning, the birds resuming their work, the rustle of the waxy leatherwood leaves. Your post has taken me back to that moment. Kia ora Pete!
Ka kite ano,