Biophony and Mindful Listening
July 17th, 2023
By Sr. Maxine Pohlman, SSND, Director, La Vista Ecological Learning Center
Early in June as I sat on the porch in the morning listening very carefully to the outdoor bird symphony, I heard an unusual sound, “chuck, chuck, chuck”, and I thought, if this is a bird it is new to me. I doubted that, so I researched vocalizations of chipmunks since they have been quite active around the yard lately. Sure enough, I learned that chipmunks use that call when there is an aerial predator around, and I had just observed a hawk in the trees! I also learned that if the predator is terrestrial, an alternate sound is chosen. I delighted in becoming more familiar with chipmunks that entertain me throughout the day, and I was captivated by their caring for other chipmunks with this warning sound.
Recently I have been spending some of my morning meditation time listening intently in the backyard, thanks to learning about the ecological soundscape. This name includes three distinct sounds we hear all the time and usually just lump together: biophony, the collective sounds produced by all living beings in a particular area; geophony which includes all nonbiological natural sounds like wind, water, thunder; and anthrophony, the sounds we humans generate like music, language and noise. Soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause coined these words, calling them the voice of the natural world!
Krause’s study of natural sound led him to see the importance of expanding
our perceptions beyond the visual, giving us a deeper experience of the wider world which he says is always more complex and compelling than we think. He points out that careful listening “rivets us to the present tense – to life as it is – singing its full-throated choral voice where each singer is expressing its particular song of being”. I hadn’t thought of mindful listening as riveting me to the present moment, but this message called me to include careful listening in my morning meditation, expanding my mindfulness to include so many lovely voices singing their songs of being. And I find what Krause found – creation is way more complex and compelling than my mind can wrap around.
There is one more thought about listening to all forms of sound that I want to include, and it comes from Thomas Berry who links us to an often ignored source of our ecological crisis: We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers, we are not listening to the wind and stars. We have broken the great conversation. By breaking that conversation we have shattered the universe. All the disasters that are happening now are a consequence of that spiritual ‘autism.’
May the practice of mindful listening help heal our broken world.