4th February 2024
By Arimbi Winoto
According to the Eastern Kulin nation calendar, we are currently in Biderup or dry season. Despite this, as I write, my water tanks are nearly full, and I am waiting for this latest rainstorm to let up before I go check how full the creek is running. It is after the end of year business and the rush of Christmas and half of naarm/Melbourne seems to have disappeared down the coast. It’s the perfect time to wander creek paths, find a spot and sit and listen to country.
First Nations elder, Miriam Rose Ungunmer Baumann, from Nauiyu in the NT, respected elder and 2021 Senior Australian of the year, introduced many of us to the concept of Dadirri – deep listening and awareness (to ourselves as well as country). Of course, anytime is a good time for listening – but it’s somehow easier when there are fewer competing demands on time. For me, that’s summer.
Because it does take time : a little while to slow down… to not be so distracted by the visual world. It takes a little more time to then filter out human associated sounds in the soundscape – voices, dogs, road and air traffic, cricket balls being smashed around!
I’m then more aware of birdsong – first of all, trying to identify the different species, then what those voices may be conveying – territory, calling for a mate, babies demanding attention, warning calls … In the summer, there are loads of active insects – flying, singing or munching away on their favourite foodstuffs. Often, their sound is the main indication of their presence and abundance, as is the dry rustling sound of little reptiles scurrying away as my footfalls vibrate the ground, advising of my presence : skinks, blue tongues, or even the glide of a snake hoping to get away before it’s seen.
If out in the evening, I can hear the deep “oom” of tawny frogmouths, the heavy leathery beat of batwings, or the many frog calls, especially after rain. I can only distinguish two species with any confidence (one of them the lovely onomatopoeic pobblebonk, of course), but I’m sure there are many more.
Merri Parklands, Northcote, photograph, by Jane Miller
We mammals tend to focus on our ears to convey sound to the brain to be interpreted into meaning of varying importance, but there is also bone conducted sound. Other animals also rely on receptors in their skin. Sound is basically just the movement of air (or of fluid if underwater) at particular frequencies and we have our individual, as well as species, prescribed sensitivity to this. I wonder if it’s possible, with practice, to change our thresholds of sound perception and hear more. We can distinguish the different sounds air makes depending on what it’s moving through – the whispering (or sometimes roaring!) sound through the needles of sheoak groves, or the rustle of the sclerophyll leaves of eucalypts, compared to the sound made through the softer and broader leaves of elms, poplars and oaks in full summer leaf.
Bird wings too make different sounds depending on flight patterns. Their different wing beat sounds characteristic of swooping magpies, acrobatic wattlebirds, or the beat of crested pigeon wing flaps as they take off.
Water sounds vary with depth: rushing over rocks or the weir, or moving past snags or rushes on the creekbanks; the sounds made by ducks landing or taking off; cormorants, or a grebe, taking a dive.
I love watching magpies in their classic listening pose – that concentrated turn of the head, ignoring human presence, listening for the sound of worm prey moving through wet, dry or crumbly soil. They may also be using their sensitive feet and bones to conduct this movement sound to the ears and brain, to precisely locate the depth and position to pierce that sharp beak down for their meal.
Sitting in the summer warmth is the perfect time for some concentrated listening to the earth and all it’s living things. We can often hear more than we can see and hear before we see things. In this way, sound directs where we focus our attention and sight. In the same way as the magpie is alert to the location of prey by it’s sound, a certain pitch and frequency of a noisy miner call may cue me to look up for the possible sighting of a sparrowhawk flying overhead. The awareness of and attention to our rich soundscape gives us a direct link to the biodiversity we are a part of. Deep listening is a skill we can develop. It starts with sitting still and even closing our eyes to listen and attune our ears, bodies and minds to connect more fully to the nuances of our natural world.
Merri Creek, Northcote, photograph, Jane Miller