All Ears in the Garden:
Landscape as Soundscape
It’s easy to forget that a landscape is also a soundscape. One summer we were working away in the garden, so absorbed in our earthy labours that we really didn’t pay attention to the mixed bird chorus punctuated by the occasional shriek from a jay –until it stopped, as abruptly as the flick of a switch.
We both looked around in the sudden uncanny silence, trying to figure out what had happened. Then my husband pointed to the sky. High above us, drifting languidly on the air currents, were three hawks. We watched as they wrote ever larger circles in the sky, eventually disappearing behind a ragged row of tall spruce trees.
We are all seekers of balance and harmony. And isn’t harmony an element of sound, and also of a healing space where we go to resolve dissonance in our lives, thoughts and emotions? To hear waves breaking on a beach or wind whispering through the leaves is to hear natural harmonic sounds that resonate deeply within us.
Ross Barrable, a Canadian now living in Colorado, is a maker of wind harps and sound gardens. He writes, “Listening with focused attention to harmonic sound has the capacity to stop the incessant, internal run of the mind. This quality of sound can draw the attention if only for a moment, to rest on an inner stillness that holds a depth of peace not normally experienced in the outer world.”
The wind or Aeolian harp (named for Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds) is traditionally a wooden sound box loosely strung with 10 or 12 gut strings. All tuned to the same pitch, they resonate in the wind to different harmonic chords.
Barrable creates modern wind harps out of bronze, titanium and stainless steel using the principles of sacred geometry. Alone, or arranged in a carefully designed sound garden, these elegant acoustical sculptures bring the harmonies of earth, wind and sky to our ears.
Even if we don’t live close to the ocean’s watery heartbeat, we can bring the sound of water into our gardens – be it gentle bubbling or rushing cascade. That, in turn, brings the birds, with their trills and peeps; frogs to add their bass notes; and dragonflies landing, with a tiny whir, on the warm waterside rocks. In a bid to attract pollinators, flowers flaunt their alluring colours and fragrances, thereby filling the garden with the hum of bees.
Added notes to the garden tone poem include wind chimes or bells, paths of crunchy gravel and restless ornamental grasses. Attune your senses to the constant rustle of leaves. The great English gardener, Gertrude Jekyll, who was practically blind, found that every tree has a distinctive song. Or take a lesson from tropical gardeners: grow large-leaved plants such as cannas or butterburs near a window or gazebo so you can hear the rain drumming out endless improvisations on them.
Of course, not all sounds are pleasant – noise is a problem even in rural areas. Sound is heard as vibrations (waves of sound pressure) travel through the air to our ears. Tiny cilia (receptors) then transmit signals to the brain, which interprets and creates meaning out of them. It usually becomes noise when the intensity, measured as decibels, exceeds comfort level.
Two people talking normally registers about 65 decibels, a vacuum cleaner 75 decibels and a car horn 100 decibels. A pig’s squeal can hit 115 decibels and a jet engine 140 decibels. Physical pain for humans begins at 130 decibels, though prolonged exposure to noise levels of 85 decibels can result in permanent damage. Noise pollution can cause irritability, fatigue, sleeplessness, stress, increased blood pressure, tinnitus, ulcers and indigestion.
Some of the worst noise offenders are the machines created to cut trees, blow leaves and mow lawns (a chainsaw produces 116 decibels, a gas-powered blower 110-112 decibels and a power mower as much as 120 decibels ). Yikes.
For gardeners of large properties, tractors, bushhogs and whatnot are labour-saving necessities. But for most of us, raking instead of blowing leaves is better exercise. Reel mowers are lighter and more efficient; electric mowers are quieter by half and non-polluting. And perhaps that tree really doesn’t need taking down at all. As Roger Swain reminds us, the Amish have a phrase for this kind of gardening – they say, “We are the quiet on the land.”
- Barrable, Ross, Listening to Harmonic Sound.
- Noise: How Loud Is It?
- Now Hear This. Youngstown State University Dept. of Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety. Oct. 14, 1998
Aeoleus Wind Harp (9ft, 10 in) by Ross Barrable, Soundscapes International
Metatron Wind Harp (8ft) by Ross Barrable, Soundscapes International