Listen to the Sounds

On Sunday, I took a walk through Inwood Hill Park—the last existing glimpse to the natural wonder that Manhattan once was. Tulip trees and red-backed salamanders populate these woods. Along the paved trail, a playful soul chalked in instructions for hikers:

"Listen to the sounds."

I stood inside the designated listening square and closed my eyes. To my right, I heard cars rushing on the not-so-distant Washington Bridge. I thought of pink noise. To the left was the nothingness of the salt marshes and above green leaves rustling. From all around, birds chirped, tweeted, and brrrrrd. The rapid-fire tock-tock-tock-tock-tock-tock-tock of a woodpecker punctuated the air.

There is music everywhere if you listen closely.

At the loop by the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, I read an informational sign. To paraphrase: Welcome to Inwood Hill Park. Trees and bushes are good for the park because they inhibit erosion, the loss of soil over time. Please follow designated paths. Making your own trail contributes to erosion as you are killing plant life by stepping on it.

When I started my adventure, I followed unbeaten paths to visual wonders: shorelines, boulder peaks, and bridges. With each step up an unused incline or down a soggy hill, I broke a tree limb, disrupted anthills, and made each pathway just a little clearer for the next human.

After reading the sign, I wondered, "What will happen to the music?"

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

Yeah, I know it's a bit Zen and all that - especially the epistles from us retired guys - but we can benefit from shutting off the motors (brain and mouth) to let reality around us seep in once in a while.  

The exercise you described is often used in photography classes.  Each day, draw an increasingly smaller radius around your front door and only take photos of things within that space. It's not so tough when the radius starts at 100 yards, but it's very tough when it gets down to one yard. 

Maybe those guys with Lenco TT's, two watt tube amps and single driver horns figured this out a long time ago.

dalethorn's picture

Hard to imagine a park like that in Manhattan. It must give developers real nightmares.

jrmandude's picture

If a tree falls in Brooklyn, does it make a sound?

Here is a good book about listening:

"Before John was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane"

Bill Leebens's picture

It reminded me of some of the quiet places I go to in Florida.

The difference is that in Florida, warning signs aren't needed--because everyone knows that if you go off the path, something will EAT you.

Steve Eddy's picture

I'm a big fan of the "music" of our surroundings as well. I live in a suburb a bit southeast from downtown Sacramento. This particular area was built in 1950 and is populated with a lot of mature tress, shrubs, etc. so we're blessed with a pretty good variety of birds. Several species of sparrows, house finches, goldfinches, scrub jays, mockingbirds, crows, flickers, woodpeckers, mourning doves, hawks, vultures, etc.

Though the one remaining open field was built up in the 70's so I haven't heard a meadowlark around here since then and the've been developing the old rail yard and I haven't heard any killdeer for a while. Sad.

Last year I shot some video of the sparrows that line up on our fence near one of our feeders. I also captured the audio with my little TASCAM DR-05 portable digital recorder. There was one shot that I particularly liked. Something had spooked the sparrows and they all flew away, except for one lone sparrow who flew up onto the fence, standing there by himself as if to say "Hey, where'd everybody go?"

I made that into its own video. The soundscape features, in addition to a couple species of sparrows, some crows, and I think a mockingbird, the low rumble of the nearby freeway, the neighbors in the back of us out tending their uh... "vegetable garden" (this is California were cultivation of medical marijuana is legal by state law), a train whistle off in the distance (at 00:13).

Just for fun, I decided to splice in a little snippet of a recording I'd made on New Year's Eve. :)


dalethorn's picture

A very cool birdie video it is.

tevirs's picture

There happens to be a great new album out by "The Sounds". Street level advertising?

dan m's picture

While you were up in Inwood did you drop by Cloisters to hear Janet Cardiff's The Forty Part Motet installation? I heard this in Barcelona and it was awesome. Real surround sound. I'll be heading there soon for a repeat.

Ariel Bitran's picture

but this sounds like a worthy adventure before the weather gets too chilly for the cloisters.

John Mitchell's picture

Thanks for reminding us of the soundscapes all around us.

When our children were young, we would sometimes vacation in Sequoia National Park in California and hike through the woods. The echoing sounds of the birds and the wind blowing through the leaves had so much depth that I felt as if I were walking through a space of more than three dimensions.

I recently took a walk in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and while listening to the various sounds surrounding me, it seemed to me a concerto of existence. There were distant and muted sounds of birds and people, and clearer sounds nearby, all spread throughout a large and open auditory space. The effect reminded me of the way hills look when driving along the California coast, their appearance softening with distance, with gradations of color spread along the length of the coast.