From noise-cancelling headphones that block out noise to soundbars that turn our TVs into mini cinemas, everything we do seems to take away our ability to just listen to what’s around us.
I’m as guilty as anyone. Too much noise in the world? I pop on my Bose headphones and the white noise takes it away. In fact, I was just about to do that. Nextdoor’s twins are having a who-can-cry-the-loudest competition, which isn’t conducive to writing. But at the same time, the magpies are chattering, the bees are buzzing around and the wind is skittering through the trees. So I took off the headphones and just listened. The twins fell asleep and nature took over.
But the world is so noisy
We hear thousands of sounds a day. Some are welcome — sounds, some aren’t — noise.
But, if your natural reaction is to block out the noise, you might miss out on a lot. You also won’t be in a position to recognise when noise is out of control in your workplace, city or neighbourhood.
Open plan offices are evil. They’re terrible for people with hearing issues and can result in less in-person communication. When my old employer turned our office into an open-plan hell they didn’t think about how people would react to the additional noise — we started wearing headphones. Pop on your headphones and suddenly you’re less approachable. So no one talks to each other. Those brief chats that lead to great ideas stop. We also just sat there like automatons tapping away, in our own worlds, in silence. If my employers had just listened when they made the changes they might have been able to correct them.
Human-made noise is everywhere. Noise from traffic, planes and building sites crowds out natural sounds in our towns and cities. I get why covering our ears is more desirable. But this is just ignoring the problem. If we can’t hear it why would we do anything about it?
So why should we take off the headphones and listen?
Natural sounds are great for your health
Meditation apps sing the praises of natural sounds. Bad day? Listen to the sea. Feeling down? Here’s some bird song. Which is great, but they should only be used when you don’t have access to the real thing.
I get that they’re not always accessible — which is why we turn to Headspace and the like. I live in a land-locked county in England. My best chance to experience water sounds locally is a brook that slithers across the town, passing near my house. I found this brook by listening — following the bird song, listening out for the trickling and babbling. When the world is a cacophony of noise, this little strip of water is the most tranquil place on Earth. I sit and just listen to it. My head clears, my heart rate lowers, my tinnitus quietens, my creativity reawakens.
Even in the busiest of cities you can find quiet, calm, natural spaces — it just might take a bit of searching.
For our health we need to listen.
Nature needs you to take out your earplugs
And it’s not just about human health. Nature needs us to listen. Nature needs us to stop and notice when something’s not quite right. Nature needs us to notice when the bird song we hear every year gets quieter, or stops altogether. Or the water stops flowing in the brooks and streams because the plastic waste has finally plugged their path.
The Kauai O’o A’a has been extinct for nearly forty years — habitat loss and non-native species introduced by humans meant this Hawaiian songbird didn’t stand a chance. You can still hear the sound of the Kauai O’o A’a in this 1983 recording of the last known bird.
The Kauai O’o A’a had already been declared extinct twice before it was last heard in 1987. Perhaps if someone had just listened sooner they would have realised they didn’t hear it as often, looked into the reasons why, perhaps done something about it. Lots of ‘perhaps’ but it takes one person to just listen to make a difference.
If we stop and listen and all we hear is traffic, then we need to do something about that. If you can no longer hear the chirps of swallows, or they arrive late or there aren’t as many as last year, we need to do something about that.
For nature’s sake we need to listen.
I’m not saying we should chuck our earplugs or headphones. My nephew is autistic and uses them when the world becomes too much. Although there is a flip side to using them too much which includes developing problems such as misophonia.
As with everything it’s about balance. I know, how boring. Earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones are great for some travel experiences. The quiet carriage on English trains for example (possibly the noisiest place on the planet). But we don’t need to use them all the time. Why not go for a walk and leave your headphones at home? Or ditch the earplugs for the day once or twice a week?
Right now I’m sitting in the garden. The baby starlings are whistling and trilling. A bumblebee is probing the Angelica flowers. Pigeons are scrapping over the bird table, their wings flapping and clapping in mid-air. There’s a rumble of traffic skirting over it all. A plane niggles its way into my conscious. If I put on my headphones the human-made noise will disappear. If I put on my headphones the natural sounds will disappear. If I put on my headphones how will I know when the bumblebees stop coming? How will I know when the birds stop singing?
Please, just listen.