“Music is perpetual, and only hearing intermittent” – Journal, February 8, 1857.
Regrettably, Henry David Thoreau did not own a tape recorder. Were he alive today, he might be found with microphone in hand, producing amateur recordings of ambient sound. However, he did record sound, perhaps the deepest source of his veneration of the natural world, in writing. Pre-empting the fields of soundscape ecology, Thoreau engaged in novel forms of sonic perception which reveal a disciplined ear that was open to the vibrations of an ordered, harmonious cosmos. Thoreau’s attentiveness to ambient sound, especially his extensive writings on bird song, reveal his unique ability to perceive the component particulars of a given environmental soundscape. His written descriptions of sonic phenomena signal a development beyond his early transcendentalist consideration of sound as a singularly spiritual correspondence, toward a balance with a more empirical, universal method of recording. In studying his method of deep listening and subsequent written representation of sound, we can trace Thoreau’s development of multiple eco-acoustic theories, including a synergistic view of subject-object orientation, acoustic niche theory and human-animal co-presence, all of which reveal a rare ear open to the sonic possibilities produced by the birds of Concord.
Readers of Thoreau know that he was an astute observer of all natural phenomena. His writings, especially his journals contain valuable records of his findings, etched out in exquisite descriptive detail. As such, Thoreau is today considered one of the first major interpreters of nature in American literary history, a patron saint of environmentalists. However, he was aware of the limitations of his activity as a naturalist, indeed of the limitations of the human perception and language he used to record his collections. In a Journal entry from November 20, 1857 he noted that, “Here I have been these forty years learning the language of these fields that I may better express myself” (Searls 479). In recognizing the limitations of the written word, Thoreau correctly identifies sound, “the language of these fields,” as something distinct and worthy of his attention. This natural language requires learning, or a special type of listening to gain access, possible only if the observer prepares the whole self to perceive it. In Thoreau’s words, “The body, the senses, must conspire with the mind. Expression is the act of a whole man” (Cramer 92). This consideration of the whole man indicates a balance between the mind of an empiricist and the invigorated imagination of an inspired poet. Perhaps this combination of perceptual techniques allowed Thoreau to more regularly hear the perpetual music of the natural world.
The “I” and the Ear: Developing the Technique and Learning to Hear
Before investigating Thoreau’s writings on sound, it is essential to first understand the component parts of Thoreau’s philosophy, which would have impacted the way in which he perceived his natural environment. To do so, one must investigate his transcendental inheritance. One can find some of the early development of Thoreau’s sonic philosophy in the writings of Emerson, who was a towering figure in the polymath’s life in Concord. Thoreau, often described as Emerson’s empirical opposite, moved gradually beyond the core of what Emerson put forth in his seminal 1836 work, Nature, which identified nature as man’s spiritual counterpart, arguing that natural phenomena contained both spiritual and material significance (Emerson 8). Ultimately, Thoreau developed a greater ability to integrate self and nature, whereas Emerson was rooted in the human perspective. In his 1844 essay Experience, Emerson describes a synchronic connection between the perceiver and the perceived, in which, “Thus inevitably does the universe wear our color, and every object fall successively into the subject itself” (Emerson 210). While this synthesis seems to suggest a human-natural co-presence as a mode of being and as a sense of being, the idea that the object “falls successively” into the subject creates a distinct hierarchy of the perceiver over the perceived. This stab at the concept of subject/object synthesis signals Emerson’s understanding of a universal cosmic vocabulary, where humans and natural phenomenon are intertwined, but Emerson’s understanding is invariably rooted in the experience of the human, whereas Thoreau’s is considerably more open.
In Experience Emerson goes on to consider how, “The subject exists, the subject enlarges; all things sooner or later fall into place…let us treat the new comer like a travelling geologist, who passes through our estate, and shows us good slate, or limestone, or anthracite, in our brush pasture. The partial action of each strong mind in one direction, is a telescope for the objects on which it is pointed.” (Emerson 211). Emerson’s subject is a hungry one, a subject that consumes the world around it, subjugating it to the sense-world of the perceiver. For Emerson, a lecture or a bird song might reveal to the listener the inner essence of his own perception, the listener’s “good slate.” This is not to discount Emerson’s mode of perception; indeed, he recognizes the ability of external objects to serve as an unexpected teacher, which must be listened to or perceived attentively, without too much interference. However, his mode of perception nearly always favors the human consumer.
There is no doubt Emerson’s thought left an indelible impression on Thoreau’s mind, although after 1850, Thoreau’s approach to nature became markedly empirical. A growing commitment to exact observation saw more lists and solidly descriptive text emerge in the Journal (Searls 139). While Emerson’s primary consideration was how nature might subserve humanity, Thoreau realized a different epistemological aim. Thoreau’s intention was to define, with words and rough data-collection, nature’s structure both spiritually and materially, for its own sake, and in a form that was as close as he could get to nature’s own language.
What set Thoreau’s mode of perception apart from Emerson’s? Ecocritic Lawrence Buell claims that Thoreau’s turn to the empirical represented his ability to overcome not only the limits of his classical education and his early transcendental idealism, but also an intense preoccupation with himself, his moods and his overall identity (Buell 172). Buell states how, “this narcissism he surmounted by defining his individuality as the intensity of his interest in and caring for physical nature itself.” (Buell 172). In his enthusiastic studies of Thoreau’s auditory capabilities, musicologist John Titon further develops this claim, arguing that Buell overlooks the way in which Thoreau’s listening body “integrated self and nature…it was not so much a surmounting of narcissism as an understanding of the relations between self and environment by means of listening and co-presence” (Titon 146). Here, Titon underlines the unique role of the notion of co-presence and of auditory economy at play in Thoreau’s writing. Thoreau was aware of the multiple acoustic agents of any environment, all jockeying to define their sonic niche: different species of birds using different calls to identify their kin, the drones of crickets or “dreaming toads,” even human sounds of the deep cut made their way into Thoreau’s ear. How would Thoreau make sense of such a heterogeneous orchestra? To develop his ear more wholly, so as to pick apart the components of this sonic tapestry, Thoreau needed to cast off his early mentor’s influence and develop a mode of perception all his own. He did so in his shift to the empirical.
Thoreau describes this shift in the Journal, where on September 2, 1851, he considers “A writer, a man writing [as] the scribe of all nature – he is the corn & the grass & the atmosphere writing.” (Cramer 92). Here Thoreau is constructing a new model of literary perception in which he is not merely recording nature or taking its dictation, but what Sharon Cameron describes as Thoreau’s desire to “incarnate [nature’s] articulating will” (Cameron 47). This empirical shift indicates a new openness to whatever aspects of the sonic environment present themselves to the perceiver. Thoreau’s new mode of sonic perception was one that rejected common listening habits, described in a Journal entry from March 30, 1853 where, “the walker does not too seriously observe particulars, but sees, hears, scents, tastes, and feels only himself” (Searls 193). Thoreau’s receptivity to bird song, his ability to listen and truly hear, was not just brilliance; it represented a technique that required practice, a form of sonic meditation, and a hyper-awareness of sonic environment. This was likely an outgrowth of his lifelong note taking, a highly industrious practice, a competence of the whole self, and a complete knowledge of particulars. His writings following 1850 feature even more detailed records, lists, sketches, and written meditations, all distillations of his sauntering in which he would often lose himself in these particulars.
Lost indeed, Thoreau seems to have encountered limitations to a purely objective approach. In a Journal entry from August 19, 1851, Thoreau indicates his frustration with this new approach, writing that, “I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct and scientific; that, in exchange for views as wide as heaven’s cope, I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscope. I see details, not wholes nor the shadow of the whole. I count some parts, and say, ‘I know.’ The cricket’s chirp now fills the air in dry fields near pine woods” (Cramer 89). This is not to say that Thoreau completely abandoned his poetic transcendental roots in his shift to the empirical, quite the opposite. This awareness of the limitations of pure objectivity was likely useful for Thoreau, who seemed to develop a hybrid approach that incorporated both poetic and empirical gestures.
In fact, the gestures in question denote an observer who defies binary categories of individual acoustic representation, and the text itself is generally hybrid, oscillating between didactic “manifesto” aims and empirical scrutiny. Thoreau’s complex, detailed, and even contradicting moments are akin to the auditory opacity of a wandering mind, unable to focus completely on a bird sound or some other natural element. By willingly becoming lost in a sonic environment, Thoreau thereby unlocks a new method of sonic perception, effectively rendering his mind empty and open, ready to be swept away by sonic particulars and their subsequent poetic or spiritual evocations.
This concept of losing oneself in an environment can be found in more modern acoustic study, especially in the work of John Cage, an American experimental composer and sonic artist. Cage wrote how “[You] should be ready for a new experience, and the best way to be ready for a new experience is to be attentive and empty. By empty is meant open — in other words, the like and dislike of the ego doors should be down. And there should be a flow so that the experience of listening can come in” (Kostelanetz 235). Here the similarity between Thoreau and Cage’s sonic philosophy is striking. Both were interested in allowing the untrammeled language of nature to unfold, without infusing too much of the human will into the listening process.
Thoreau’s language was a listening language, not meant to define with authority, but to describe, letting the world take him along for the ride. In his essay Poethics, Gerald Bruhns develops a crucial distinction between using words to grasp the world and using them to inhabit it, and considers John Cage’s interpretations of Thoreau to do so. Cage says how “Reading the Journal, I had been struck by the twentieth-century way Thoreau listened. He listened, it seemed to me, just as composers using technology nowadays listen. He paid attention to each sound, whether it was ‘musical’ or not, just as they do; and he explored the neighborhood of Concord with the same appetite with which they explore the possibilities provided by electronics.” (Cage ix). Cage correctly identifies Thoreau’s ability to disintegrate a sonic environment into its particulars. For Thoreau, the difficulty came not in the perceiving; he was well trained in this. It was transposing natural sonic artifact in a manner that would not anthropomorphize the sound to a significant degree. If Thoreau was always in the business of learning the language of nature, he was also responsible for translating it for an audience that did not have such eco-linguistic access.
The Human-Animal Language: Linguistic Co-Presence through Bird Song
In his 1991 work, The animal that therefore I am, Jacques Derrida suggests that ‘The idea according to which man is the only speaking being… seems to me at once displaceable and highly problematic. Of course, if one defines language in such a way that it is reserved for what we call man, what is there to say?” (Derrida 116). Here Derrida hints at a human-animal linguistic co-presence, in which language should be, and is liberated from its strictly human connotation. He then attempts to rectify the faulty mechanisms of human language by placing possibility at the core of language, stating how “If one reinscribes language in a network of possibilities that do not merely encompass it but mark it irreducibly from the inside, everything changes. I am thinking in particular of the mark in general, of the trace; of iterability, of différence. These possibilities or necessities, without which there would be no language, are themselves not only human.” (Derrida 117). The possibilities described by Derrida contain linkages to Cage’s modes of attentive listening, wherein the observer is “Ready to hear what there is to hear, rather than what [s/he] thinks there’s going to be to hear” (Kostelanetz 237). By placing openness and attentiveness at the core of one’s listening, the observer then attains a state of what Charles Junkerman describes as a condition of “auditory disponibilité.” (Junkerman and Perloff 52). Unlike word-bound speech and writing, sounds have the ability to communicate directly, in what Thoreau calls a language “without metaphor” (Walden 411). Thoreau attempted to infuse his writing with this language without metaphor, a sort of economical prose, which only took stock of the necessary, self-evident elements of his thought and his surroundings.
Few examples illustrate Thoreau’s impartial, yet undeniably imaginative representations of nature better than his written descriptions of bird song. In a Journal entry from May 3, 1852, Thoreau recounts a sonic environment, where he hears “the first brown thrasher, -two of them. Minott says he heard one yesterday, but does he know it from a catbird? They drown all the rest. He says cherruwit, cherruwit; go ahead go ahead; give it to him, give it to him; etc., etc., etc. Plenty of birds in the woods this morning” (Searls 132-3). Here Thoreau is truly nature writing itself, indicating the presence of multiple sonic actors, considering what today we call acoustic niches, and the transcribing of the sonic characteristics of bird song itself. In doing so, Thoreau taps into multiple senses of observation, and defines multiple forms of sensorial experience, establishing a dichotomy between the song described and the cognitive effects it provokes. Thoreau uses human language to describe the rhythm and cadence of the bird song. The text connects to the reader, who is invited mentally to perform the songs described on the stage of the mind, and experience them, once-abstracted, on a cognitive-sensorial level. This transmutation appeals to the reader’s creative intelligence, promoting the virtual reproduction of the act of listening. Thoreau thus allows us to travel to the woods without moving, to give us a clue of what to listen for on our next jaunt into the forest.
The primary presentation of bird song in Thoreau’s text is as an interjection, a piece of supporting evidence. However, there are moments where Thoreau dissects the sound, anthropomorphizing it through its transformation into written language, integrating it into a human-animal hybrid language. In a passage from Walden, Thoreau describes, “For sounds in winter nights, and often in winter days, I heard the forlorn but melodious note of a hooting owl indefinitely far; such a sound as the frozen earth would yield if struck with a suitable plectrum, the very lingua vernacula of Walden Wood, and quite familiar to me at last, though I never saw the bird while it was making it. I seldom opened my door in a winter evening without hearing it; Hoo hoo hoo, hoorer, hoo, sounded sonorously, and the first three syllables accented somewhat like how der do; or sometimes hoo, hoo only” (Walden 263). In describing bird song as an essential aspect of the lingua vernacula of Walden Wood, Thoreau unveils the existence of hybrid and co-dependent sonic realities, in which bird song is normally withdrawn into the mélange of background noise or overshadowed by human noises.
Thoreau found music in the natural world, it was his muse and his endless source of free entertainment. In a Journal entry from June 22, 1851, Thoreau recounts that, “I awoke into a music which no one about me heard…To the sane man the world is a musical instrument” (Shepard 44). American modernist composer and musical theorist Charles Ives writes how Thoreau’s susceptibility to natural sound “was probably greater than that of many practical musicians…Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear ‘the symphony’” (Ives 77). Ives’ assessment of Thoreau rings true, especially when reading passages of the Journal where Thoreau was deeply moved by common bird songs. Perhaps his favorite winged performer was the common wood thrush, of which he writes fondly. On June 22nd, 1853, Thoreau wrote how, “As I come over the hill I hear the wood thrush singing his evening lay. This is the only bird whose note affects me like music – affects the flow and tenor of my thought – my fancy and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It is a medicative draught to my soul. It is an elixir to my eyes and a fountain of youth to all my senses.” (Cramer 192-93). This description, while admittedly poetic, indicates a powerfully evocative communion with nature. For Thoreau, this song is not only a natural artifact, for it also retains much of the spiritual significance that both he and Emerson articulated in their transcendentalist visions. He goes on to write how, “[the wood thrush] changes all hours to an eternal morning. It banishes all trivialness. It reinstates me in my dominion – makes me the lord of creation – is chief musician of my court…All that was ripest and fairest in the wilderness and the wild man is preserved and transmitted to us in the strain of the wood thrush. It is the mediator between barbarism and civilization. It is as unrepentant as Greece.” (Cramer 193). The music he describes provides the reader with an opportunity to join him on a dynamic and synesthetic exploration.
Unlike Wordsworth, Keats, and Coleridge, Thoreau does not solely use birds as a romantic-symbolic mode. He does not profess an American “Nightingale”, and keeps his writing more rooted in the real, remaining generally focused on relaying the sonic environment. However, he does describe bird song in a poetic form. In a Journal entry from May 17, 1853, Thoreau draws a comparison between his beloved wood thrush and history’s most famous poets, stating how, “The wood thrush has sung for me sometime. He touches a depth in me which no other bird song does. He has learned to sing and no thrumming of the strings or tuning disturbs you. Other birds may whistle pretty well but he is the master of a finer toned instrument. His song is musical not from association merely – not from variety but the character of its tone. It is all divine – Shakespeare among birds and a Homer too.” (Walden Woods Project). Furthermore, in a Journal entry from April 2, 1852, Thoreau describes numerous acoustic actors in a single sonic environment. He writes, “The sun is up. The air is full of the notes of birds, – song sparrows, red-wings, robins (singing a strain), bluebirds,- and I hear also a lark, -as if all the earth had burst forth into song. A few weeks ago, before the birds had come, there came to my mind in the night the twittering sound of birds in the early dawn of a spring morning, a semi-prophecy of it, and last night I attended mentally as if I heard the spray-like dreaming sound of the midsummer frog and realized how glorious and full of revelations it was” (Searls 120-21). Here Thoreau evokes the prophetic voice of birds, but only as a semi-prophecy. He recognizes the limitations of the romantic-symbolic mode as if to say that the poetry of Keats on the nightingale, Browning on the thrush, and Shelley on the skylark are all splendid, and all evoke charismatic metaphor, but are the birds really singing for us? Nevertheless, Thoreau was clearly moved by bird song, and his descriptions of it indicate his oscillation between the empirical and romantic.
Thoreau was also preoccupied with the effects that bird song produced on the human ear, and the broader effects that sound had on its surroundings. On February 20, 1857 he pondered, “What is the relation between a bird and the ear that appreciates its melody, to whom, perchance, it is more charming and significant than anyone else? Certainly, they are intimately related, and the one was made for the other. It is a natural fact. If I were to discover that a certain kind of stone by the pond-shore was affected, say partially disintegrated, by a particular natural sound, as of a bird…I see that one could not be completely described without describing the other. I am that rock by the pond-side” (Searls 438). This relationship between the bird and the ear, in which one cannot be fully described without the other, in which they are complimentary, indicates a profound awareness of human-bird co-presence. The listener needs the subject as the singer needs the audience. Instead of a classic subject/object-oriented view, Thoreau takes the co-present, or synergistic view. When he writes “I am that rock by the pond-side” he indicates that the subject and object complete each other, that they are harmonious, part of a larger being, that of the cosmos. Listening is therefore not an activity purely of the individual mind, which represents one’s immediate reality, but an immersion in an acoustic environment that mobilizes all of the instruments of the mind and perception, thereby challenging a long dominant dualism of subject/object orientation. The act of listening is rooted in co-presence, a fact which Thoreau explored, whether he realized it or not.
Thoreau was nature writing itself; he was tuned in. The song of nature was his symphony, the wood thrush, his first chair. Sometimes it is hard to think of the Journal as anything other than a sweeping romantic life project. Why bother taking down all this information? Modern readers are lucky that someone so attuned to the cosmos happened to take notes. Among the final lines of Thoreau’s Journal include his admission that, “All this is perfectly distinct to the observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most” (Cramer 438). Over the course of his life he used that observant eye, but his scrutiny was at the same time auditory. In fact, all of his senses were used to drink up the particulars of any given environment. His life’s business was paying attention to experience, finding wonder in it, and recounting it either in his Journal, his published works, or his public oratory. Thoreau developed a grand and unifying vision which recognized a reality he called “the frame-work of the universe.” (Walls 300). Thoreau’s astute sense-perception afforded him privileged access and understanding of this framework, especially in terms of his perceptions of sonic environment. Concepts like co-presence and acoustic niche theory are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insights, which have been recognized and documented by scientific and philosophical communities, many of whose practitioners are undoubtedly Thoreauvians.
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