Learning to listen

Authored by Sarah Bell

There’s far more to the natural environment than meets the eye, but how can we encourage people across the sighted spectrum to delve into this sensory world?

I recently came across an initiative called ‘Silent Space’; a not-for-profit project piloted in 2016 that provides opportunities for peaceful reflection in public gardens.

For a couple of hours a week, the gardens reserve a quiet area where visitors are encouraged to switch off their phones and cameras, and pause conversation. In this way, the spaces provide opportunities for stillness in the often busy contexts of people’s everyday lives.

Feedback received during the pilot phase of the project highlighted the value of allowing visitors’ senses to focus on the variety of sensations that unfold within the gardens. The Silent Space initiative is now supporting additional gardens to develop their own quiet areas.

This got me thinking more about how we listen to the sounds of our environments and what we could learn about this through the Sensing Nature project. In particular, I began to think about a phenomenon called ‘echolocation’; a sensation of ‘feeling’ sound, not just with the ears but seemingly with the whole body as a form of vibration or pressure in the air.

The late Professor John Hull described this as a:


“sense of presence… of pressure upon the skin of the face, rather than upon or within the ears… some strange kind of perception’ that gives ‘a sort of generalised sense of the environment.”


Karis Petty, an Anthropologist based at the University of Sussex, has written about echolocation in a blog for the Woodland Trust, drawing on her PhD fieldwork with ten visually impaired walkers in the East Sussex countryside.

One of the walkers, who had experienced sudden and dramatic sight loss at the age of 24, began teaching Karis to echolocate. Initially, she used clicking sounds within woodland settings to demonstrate the process of consciously analysing a specific sound as it bounces back from surfaces within the immediate surroundings, such as trees or the forest floor. 

Over time and through careful practice, the acoustic signatures of different settings may become increasingly apparent through echolocation - the strength and tone of the sonic ‘bounce’ varying with different surface and woodland densities. The resonance of human-produced sounds, be they voices or footsteps, provide a constant stream of auditory information for echolocation, making actual clicking unnecessary as the process of ‘feeling’ sounds bounce in this way becomes more habitual.

Karis has written about this process in detail in her book chapter, 'Walking through the woodlands: Learning to listen with companions who have impaired vision', published in 'The Auditory Culture Reader'.

So if you come across a Silent Space, perhaps use the opportunity to tune into and practise this whole body listening; how do the sounds of your footsteps interact with the elements of nature around you? How do they bounce back to shape your sense of space and place?

This is one of many sensations that we’re hoping to learn more about through the Sensing Nature project.