Yesterday I stood and watched as an ancient, irreplaceable wood was destroyed. I hadn’t gone to listen, but to bear witness and yes, to hope that by doing so, I may be able to come to terms with my own sorrow. Sorrow for the trees, the bats, the foxes, the badgers, the plants, the insects and the newly nested eggs that will now never get the chance to hatch into birds. Sorrow also for us: that we, as people, don’t realise or care what we are doing, what we are losing. Actually, that’s unfair: many do realise and have spent countless, heart-breaking hours fighting against the destruction of Jones’ Hill Wood and too many other natural habitats that have or are about to share its fate. But we have “leaders” who can re-route HS2 to save a golf course, but not to save ancient woodland and the creatures within it.
As I stood there, I could hear power generators, voices of the HS2 contractors and most of all, I could hear the saws. Other than that, it was eerily quiet. Its sounds crazy, I know, but I wanted the wood to hear something other than the sounds of its own destruction. So I sang.
I was tired and the error was mine, but I didn’t really check much about this site in advance. So, I was perturbed when I arrived to find that Saint Andrew’s well (refurbished by the Women’s Institute in 1988) consisted of a tap and a trough. There was no sign of the spring itself. Worse, it was on the main road through the village. Still, I was tired, it had a seat and so I sat on it.
I became entranced by the aquatic life forms in the trough in their spiralling dance with themselves. I must have stopped listening altogether because the next thing I knew I was immersed within a strange sound: something like a dog drinking. Hold on, it WAS a dog drinking. But in the moment between the hearing and the identification, the sound took hold of me as if there was no distance between it and me. It was a very odd and unexpected experience.
I looked up to see a black and white pointer and its owner. “Do you want any more to drink, Sasha?” the owner enquired. Sasha obliged with a few more gulps, during which I debated whether to mention the aquatic life forms to her owner. Then Sasha and owner trotted off.
But what had happened to me? Had I been actively listening at that point, instead of gazing mesmerised at the creatures in the trough, would Sasha’s drinking have had the same effect on me? I don’t think so. The nearest I can come to explain it comes from a book of Zen stories that I read once which talked about how an unexpected sound can trigger a breakthrough moment of kensho, or enlightenment. The sound could be a rooster, the creak of a floorboard, someone’s sneeze in the meditation hall, or even a dog drinking. Indeed, “any sound that finds little or nothing of you in the way and fills you completely can let you in directly to the shocking open secret: ‘what is left that can be said to hear?’”1
Accidentally enlightened by a Christianised well in a small village in Somerset? Let’s keep that one an open secret too.
1The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, Edited by Florence Carlow and Susan Moon
Wistman’s Wood is a special place. It is one of the highest oak woods in Britain, but its not like any other oak wood I’ve ever visited. The oaks grow through crevices between large granite boulders called clatters; as a result their growth is stunted and their trunks and branches are contorted. Both the clatters and the oaks are covered in lichen and moss, which lend a particularly vivid greenness to the wood. It’s a weird mix of the fecund – Hildegard Von Bingen may have called it viriditas, the green creative life force – and the misshapen and stunted.
But I confess, despite the interesting natural features of the wood, I was even more drawn to its folklore. ‘Wisht’ means weird, uncanny or eerie and the wood is associated with the mythic Wild Hunt. I’ve heard of people having strange sensations of malevolence directed towards them; of feeling watched, or even being driven out of the wood. What would such a place sound like?
I arrived about 8pm on a suitably windy and damp summer evening. Out of respect – and self-preservation – I asked, as usual, if it was ok for me to enter. I received a positive response and did so. I had the wood to myself.
It took me a while to set up my tripod for a photo and I became annoyed with myself for messing about and wasting time when I had come to be still and listen. So I put my camera away and sat on a clatter. At this point, I was unaware of the presence of a large adder population in the wood, so take care if you do the same.
The more I have listened, the more I have become attuned not just to sound, but to all vibrations. This includes feeling, sensations and “knowing.” That’s how I can confidently say that I was invited into the wood. There wasn’t much to hear here that was audible – the wind, the odd raven call – but there was a lot going on on the non-audible level. I was truly surprised how benign the wood felt. I felt not only that I was welcome, but that the wood was happy that I was there. Yes, I did feel a presence behind me, but it was not threatening.
I heard voices: a young couple appeared. The woman was complaining about the speed they were hopping across the clatters and that it would be his fault if she broke an ankle. They disappeared. Then a family with an unhappy child arrived. The child was also upset about the terrain and was crying until his father picked him up. It took them longer to pass me and I could hear the child still whining for a while, but eventually they too were gone. What did they think of me sitting there? Did they wonder what could there be to do sat in the one place? Maybe they knew about the adders? What did I think of them? Well, truthfully, I felt sad for them, rushing through such a magical place, without stopping to simply be there, with wonder, reverence and more than a little joy.
I was in the mood for a waterfall. But, as I’m sure anyone who’s read any of my posts so far will already have anticipated, I wasn’t in the mood for a crowded one. Venford Falls, sometimes known as Dartmoor’s secret waterfall, seemed to fit the bill nicely. When I told my landlady I was off to find it she gave me that look that says “good luck cos you’ll need it.” Turns out, with good reason.
I realise now that the instructions I was following were the wrong way round. Written by someone else who wanted to keep the falls a secret? Not knowing this at the time, though, I began to get disheartened as the landmark I was looking for failed to materialise. I noticed a trail through the undergrowth that veered off to the right and decided to follow it. I was convinced that it was a wild goose chase and was also becoming increasingly alarmed at the steepness of the path down. But then, almost without realising it, I began to hear something that sounded like a waterfall. Was this the first time in all my years of listening that I heard my intended location before seeing it?
And there it was. The falls themselves are small, but very beautiful. There was just me and a mouthy green woodpecker. Having convinced myself that I was about to go home empty eared, I was beside myself with happiness. Best of all, for the first time in a very, very long time, I was in a place entirely free from human made noise.
Waterfalls are wonderful for listening to. As I listened I began to hear voices as if I was hearing a choir of water spirits: bass, tenor, alto and treble. Then each section began to break into separate parts until there were several multipart fugues going on at the same time. I teased myself by trying to follow an individual part, but there always came a point where my ear became delightedly confused about which voice it was trying to follow. That may have been why the woodpecker was laughing at me.
Eventually, however, despite the insect repellant, the midges got the better of me. Venford Falls would only tolerate human visitors for so long.
Finding Venford falls
From the north of Venford Reservoir, follow Venford Brook on your right towards the Dart River. There is a stand of trees to your right: when they stop, look for a path that curves off to your right and follow down to the brook. Be warned: the path is very steep and slippery and mobile coverage is patchy, so please tell someone where you are going.
A Neolithic earthwork, a ruined Norman church, a line of ancient yew trees and a reputation for supernatural occurrences: what might this place sound like? Well, turns out the only thing you could hear on the day when I went was a didgeridoo.
I don’t set myself up as an expert in listening to the land, but I’ve learned a few things in my time and if I were to share a tip or two, today’s would be: don’t go listening on a solstice. There’s something about solstices, equinoxes and the Celtic festivals that brings out a desire to mark the occasion with musical instruments that are meaningful for the player and annoying for everyone else. Its usually drumming circles, so at least today was bit different. I normally avoid listening excursions on these days, but I was here to speak at a festival just down the road at Gaunts House and today was all I had.
I hung around for a while to see if the didge guy would give the rest of us a break, but no, he was in it for the long haul. So I wandered a bit listlessly into the ruined church and then over to the yew trees. Despite my mood, I was soon captivated by them: people had transformed them into a shrine with offerings of clooties, prayers, images and tokens. Some of the messages touched me deeply, especially the many left in honour of deceased pets. I thought of my own beloved dogs and my eyes filled up for them all over again. There was an aura of peace and I felt grateful for having my dogs in my life and grateful for the space to feel grateful. Perhaps today was about listening to the heartfelt feelings of those who had left offerings in the trees and a teaching about how the voice of prayers can also become part of the spirit of a place.
While making my way down to the sand dunes it occurred to me that its not very often that you can make a trip to listen to a particular species of mammal. I suppose that I could find a field of cows to listen to, maybe some horses. But truly wild mammals? That’s quite a rare and special experience. Even more special in the case of seals.
As a child, I was a sucker for folk tales and songs about selkies: magical creatures that are seals in the water and humans on the land. When full time humans and selkies meet it doesn’t usually begin or end well. Sometimes humans are lured into the sea by the haunting song of the selkies; sometimes the humans appear to get the upper hand by stealing a selkie’s skin while the selkies are dancing in the moonlight. The poor selkie is thereby obliged to stay in human form and marry the thief who stole their skin. Inevitably, the skin is found and the selkie returns to the sea, either leaving offspring behind or taking their children with them. Either way, there’s sorrow for those destined to remain on land. Anyway, those are the tales. I always wondered where they came from. What was it about seals that inspired such legends? Was it just their dual identity as sea creatures that give birth on land? Maybe it had something to do with their strange beauty? And, indeed, what was this haunting, but elusive seal song that was often alluded to in the story? Was I about to find out?
The first two sounds that hit me was the wind and the sea. For a moment I was completely enveloped by these, until the wind, the sea and I seemed to be one entity. Then I heard it…strands of song emerging from within the wind/sea/me sound. It was incredibly moving and arresting. It was also distinctly musical. I detected three main phrases: a downwards glissando of a fifth; an upwards glissando of a second or third, which sometimes descended again and sometimes not; and two repeated notes. The pitch was remarkably consistent too: most phrases started on the quarter-tone between C and Db. Before A was raised to 440, the seals would have been vocalising pretty near to C (sea?) natural itself. One longer phrase lodged itself into my head and I was still singing it to myself later on that evening. I eventually wrote it down and it went like this:
Had I been alone one evening on the shore and caught a snatch of that song through the roar of the wind and the sea, would I have thought I was hearing someone singing? You bet I would. I think I would also have struggled to know whether the singer was human, animal, or some magical hybrid of the two. I also think that I would have felt a sadness or a longing come over me in response to the strange, haunting and mesmerising song; the same sad longing that whispers through all the folk tales about Selkies.
Have you ever sat listening in an art gallery? No? Then I highly recommend that you give it a try.
First of all, it’s deliciously subversive. You can bet that you are the only listener in a room full of lookers. You will hear the odd word as people discuss the art, sotto voce. Can you tell by listening who’s confident in what they are saying and who’s not sure? Can you tell who’s genuinely captivated by the art and who’s just read the book, done the course and parroted an opinion?
People who are moved by art SOUND different. They move and speak in a different way, their attention held outwards and inwards at the same time. They even sit or stand still in a different way, a way that has a quiet reverence about it. Try it and you will hear what I mean.
Before you ask, yes, I listen to paintings. Many of them, if not most of them, are unlistenable. Very few painters know how to paint for the ears, but some do. That’s one of the reasons I like it in the Blake room so much. We take Blake out of context now, with his plates and prints peered at in art galleries and his words prodded at in books. But his songs were intended to be sung and his prophecies were intended to be intoned and the images in his illuminated books were intended to represent the energies of his words in spiritual form.
If you get into this, try listening to Blake’s words. What you do see? Then, try his art. What do you hear? Do let me know.
I walked past Knavesmire several times on my way between my hotel and York city centre. A commemorative plaque situated near to the road informed me that it had been the site of public hangings until 1801.
On first acquaintance, I could tell that the place didn’t have any particular need of assistance and I had no interest in listening to it simply for the sake of it – a kind of aural rubber-necking, if you will. But eventually, I stopped. I noticed the flowers that someone had left on the plaque, but I also noticed something else. Can you see it too? How the benches, the trees, the paths, everything, was perfectly balanced. Interesting, I thought, and walked on.
Later that evening, I couldn’t stop thinking about the symmetry of the site. Was it a positive symmetry, showing balance and harmony, or an unnatural symmetry, showing constriction to the area’s life force? I couldn’t tell. At some time in the night, I had a vivid dream in which I dreamt that I was an “aural archeologist” investigating the symmetry question. One of the first things my dream showed me was that the plaque wasn’t situated exactly on the site of the gallows – it had last been about 2 metres to the southeast. Before that, the gallows had been reassembled several times in slightly different locations, but the strongest energetic imprint was from its most recent position. The design of the site, the placing of the raised platform, benches and path and the planting of the trees had indeed imposed a constrictive symmetry on the site, which was successfully containing its negative energies. But I could hear a low rumbling which – I knew in my dream – was the undercurrent of the trauma associated with the site that had not yet been cleared. If any of the surrounding containers were to change, the negative energy could well be released again.
When I woke up, I could still tune into the site as I had in my dream. The rumble was still discernible, but now I could also feel a tension between the plaque and the actual position of the gallows. Whoever had put the plaque in the middle had played a master stroke because it was pulling the energy into an uneasy, but relatively stable, alignment.
All of this is interesting enough in its own right. But what has really peaked my interest about the whole dream is that it has started me wondering about intentional remote listening. Is it possible to listen to places remotely? It’s certainly a question that is worth investigating further…
What often strikes me as I listen to the land is how much there is to be heard on the non-audible level. This can translate as feeling, sensation and “knowing”, as well as sound, words or music that is heard or perceived internally. A word that is frequently used to describe non-audible sound is energy and I’m sure many people habitually tune into the energetic signature of a place. When I arrive at a new site, as soon as I have permission to approach, I become aware of its energy. The energy is transmitted as part of the permission, actually, because this is how you know whether or not you are welcome.
As I tune in more deeply, I start to sense whether the energy is longstanding or recent. Usually, longstanding energy is a natural part of the place, whereas recent energy has been brought to bear upon it – mostly by human activity. There are also instances when human activity has caused a longstanding effect on a place’s energy. Sadly, when a place’s long term energy has been altered by humans, it is usually of a negative kind, such as that at battlefields and other places of significant trauma.
When I pick up recent energy, it can be either positive or negative. I have felt some very chilling energy left by human activity at a certain stone circle, for instance. I wondered what I would find today on Wearyall Hill.
Legend says that The Glastonbury Thorn sprang up where Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff on Wearyall Hill – the first land he reached on his travels to Britain. The Thorn that has grown ever since on Wearyall Hill is said to be a descendant of that first Thorn. The most recent tree was planted from a cutting in 1951. I say grown ever since, but in reality, the Thorn was tragically vandalised in 2010: subsequent efforts to revive the tree were also brutally thwarted as shoots of regrowth were continually damaged by hands and motives unknown.
I remember well the outpouring of grief for the Thorn at the time. I was prepared for the energy of the place to reflect this, but what I found was something very beautiful. There was sadness, yes, but most of all there was love. A lot of people had put a lot of time into intentionally healing the place – and it was tangible.
I felt moved to add a song. There was no need for me to sing of remorse or sorrow. That work had already been done well by others. Instead, I sang a simple song of gratitude:
Thank you for bringing us together Bringing us together as one In love of you.
One of the most wonderful things about being a Companion of Chalice Well and staying at Little St Michael’s retreat house is the freedom to be in the garden at any time, day or night, for the duration of your stay. I fell irrevocably in love with the peaceful and nurturing presence of the gardens the first time I visited Glastonbury over 30 years ago and on that day I bought a small goddess carved from a branch of one of the gardens’ yews trees. This figurine keeps me connected to the gardens even when I’ve not visited for several years. But this year, it felt time to go again.
The Companions of Chalice Well understand well the value of silence. There are no mobile phones, radios, laptops or tablets allowed in the retreat house and the upper room is reserved for silent meditation. I slipped quickly into a state of peace and tranquility.
I hadn’t planned to do so, but I ended up spending time in the gardens, alone, during the two liminal times of dusk and dawn. Around 7.30pm, I stepped out of the backdoor of Little St Michael’s and made my way slowly through the sections of the garden, ending up at the well enclosure just as it was getting dark. Sitting here, I could hear a robin chirping and a light breeze rustle the ferns. I could also hear the well itself. Its difficult to describe what a well sounds like – if you’ve listened to one too, you’ll understand. You can hear the spring itself trickling down the hill, but the well cavity amplifies it in a certain way so that it sounds both more immediately present and also further away. I imagine it would sound similar if you were able to stand inside a conch shell and listen to the sound of the sea. I was in my happy place and I re-iterated my vow to those present that I would continue to listen my way through life, striving to know more and more deeply that which ever sounded on an audible and on a non-audible level. I also whispered my desire to learn how to embody the peace enveloping me in that special place and share it out in the world.
The next morning I woke at 4am and couldn’t get back to sleep, so again I went out into the gardens. I spent some time recording the fountains on the lower lawns and in the Lion’s Head Courtyard on my Zoom recorder. I was hoping it would be quiet so early in the day, but there was already quite a bit of traffic on the A361 and I only ever managed to get about a minute’s worth of clean audio. I didn’t feel drawn to the well as I had the previous evening, so I went up to the Meadow and listened to a small but exuberant dawn chorus of robin, wren and blackbird, while watching the sun rise on the Tor.
On my way back to my room, I passed the silent minute bell. A plaque in the garden describes its purpose thus:
“Around midday and mid afternoon we invite you to take a minute’s silence with us.
A moment of silence A moment of reflection A moment of inner peace
On most days the ringing of a bell will signify these times.”
Here is a really good recording of the silent minute: