Playdates with God: Acoustic Ecologist


Each day is a tide and it washes over me, body and soul, in one fell swoop. I stagger under the weight of time…aching with the heavy of each moment. On Sunday, I preach about prayer, and I am preaching to myself. 

“I read somewhere that the average American Christian only prays four minutes a day,” I say. And quickly I try to tabulate my own minutes invested.

I cannot still the tide. Each day leaves me wrung out and there is no energy, no creativity, no flood of words to harness. 

Gordon Hempton, a self-proclaimed acoustic ecologist, says that silence is an endangered species. In an interview with radio host KristaTippett , he describes real quiet as presence—not an absence of sound, but an absence of noise.

I grew up thinking that I was a listener except on my way to graduate school one time, I simply pulled over making the long drive from Seattle, Washington, to Madison, Wisconsin, pulled over in a field to get some rest and a thunderstorm rolled over me. While I lay there and the thunder echoed through the valley and I could hear the crickets, I just simply took it all in. And it’s then I realized that I had a whole wrong impression of what it meant to actually listen. I thought that listening meant focusing my attention on what was important even before I had heard it and screening out everything that was unimportant even before I had heard it…In other words, I had been paying a lot of attention to people, but I really hadn’t been paying a lot of attention to what is all around me. It was on that day that I really discovered what it means to be alive as another animal in a natural place. That changed my life. I had one question and that was how could I be 27 years old and have never truly listened before? I knew, for me, I was living life incredibly wrong, so I abandoned all my plans, I dropped out of graduate school, I moved to Seattle, took my day job as a bike messenger and only had one goal, and that was to become a better listener.

Hempton has traveled all over the world to record what he calls “the last quiet places”. Rain forests, prairies, volcanoes, ocean shorelines, islands—all these have a language that he has learned to speak.

In my harried and time-stretched world I listen to his words with a tiny ache. There are no rain forests in this world I live in. The closest mountains are a good day’s drive away. And the ocean? Too far. But then, Mr. Hempton says something that speaks to my heart.
“…we have a very discreet bandwidth of supersensitive hearing and that’s between 2.5 and 5 kilohertz in the resident frequencies of the auditory canal,” he tells host Krista Tippett. “Is there something in our ancestors’ environment that matches our peak hearing human sensitivity? Because most of what I’m saying right now, except for the “s” sounds and the high-pitched sounds, falls well below that range. And, indeed, there’s a perfect match: birdsong. Birdsong.”

Could it be that my ear was created for birdsong?

I want to be an acoustic ecologist. I want to hear the world around me. Isn’t this a way to listen for the voice of God? To be still and know? 

The back yard is my laboratory and the clover invites me to recline. The sky is that saturated blue I squeeze from my paint tube and the clouds dim its bright hue in stops and starts as they roll through. When was the last time I lay on my back and gazed up at the sky? I am dizzy with the quick moving white and the scent of summer hay in the air. The wind whispers through the trees and a dim memory stirs from my childhood: my sister and I, on a sloping bank doing this same thing; searching for pictures in the clouds. I feel the fingers of time let loose their hold on me and spiral back to those younger days. I close my eyes and smile—let the sun kiss my face. 

That’s when I hear it. The sweet song of a chickadee. And it sounds like a prayer to me.

How do you embrace the God-joy? Every Monday I’ll be sharing one of my Playdates with God. I would love to hear about yours. It can be anything: outside, quiet time. Maybe it’s solitary. Maybe it’s loud and crowded. Just find Him. Be with Him. Grab my button at the bottom of the page and join us:

The Playdates button:

Comments

  1. bluecottonmemory says

    My husband and I, some of our sweetest moments together, are sitting outside – sometimes in the early morning, late afternoon, or star-night – and just listening to the cicadas, tree frogs – and the birds – he listening for his turtle doves and me my cardinals:) You are so right – in hearing the birds, I seem to hear Him!

  2. OutnumberedMom says

    Sounds like a prayer to me, too. This really speaks to me, Laura. Let’s meet near some trees someday…

  3. sojourner says

    I’ve been trying to listen more and liked the reminder to listen to birdsong. I will be listening more, trying to still the noise in my head. (ajourneythroughhisgarden.blogspot.com)

  4. says

    Your posts and photos have inspired me, Laura to pay better attention to the world God created and to really listen as I pray. Lately I’ve been taking prayer walks, since I’ve read and seen many of yours. There’s something so beautiful just walking, listening to Him and soaking up the beauty of His creation. It has brought me much joy lately. Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. says

    I love that poem by Dickinson that says that hope is a bird with feathers that perches on our soul. There is something very hopeful about a bird singing a happy tune. 🙂

  6. says

    Have you seen “The Big Year”? It’s been out a couple years but we watched it for the first time this weekend. It appears to be about birding, but down deep, it’s about listening too. Great post, Laura. I want to invest more in the silence, in God.

  7. says

    You know I like birdsong too. 🙂 Especially when one of the Carolina wrens visits or the young cardinals cheep on the back porch. Hempton sounds like my husband’s kind of person. I’ll have to check out that interview and pass it on to him.

    The particular kind of silence you describe here is one thing I miss about long walks outdoors. Perhaps by the autumn I will be back on the trail. We’ll see.

    May you find some deep breaths of listening silence this week and find with them refreshment for your aching soul.

  8. Mia says

    Dear sweet Laura
    I feel the longing of your heart, dear friend! Our Lord brought me to a place where I am quite sensitive to many sounds through my illness, but despite that, He has also brought me to a place of peaceful quiet in Him! That is such a great gift from our Pappa’s hand. What a wise guy this is.
    Much love XX
    Mia

  9. pastordt says

    This stuns me, Laura. This is what I’ve been discovering, here in my late 60s, much later than this man’s 27!! Just sitting and listening the sounds of the birds is one of my very favorite prayer/worship experiences. Who knew that our ears were designed to hear it? Thank you, thank you. (As always, dear one.)

  10. Megan Willome says

    So lovely, Laura. Yes, I do believe your ears in particular were created for birdsong.

    I heard that interview. Krista Tippett is so good!

  11. Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk says

    What a lovely invitation. Thank you, Laura. I have felt carried by the birds this spring and summer as we sold our home and moved and though we now live across from a convenience store with a postage stamp backyard, I am so thankful to hear the birds welcoming us each morning and I swear, though the neighbors aren’t too friendly, there’s a maple tree out front that gave me the warmest welcome.

  12. kendalprivette says

    i actually live in a quiet place, where, when outside i only hear what nature has. and those birds. yes. prayer.

  13. Jody Ohlsen Collins says

    Laura, I have been watching the birds a lot when I can steal out to the deck and stop to listen. I think you’re right–we were created to tune our eyes and ears towards creation. God give us your Spirit to continue to listen for what’s real….
    ‘Acoustic Ecologist’–that would be an interesting occupation.

  14. Laurie Collett says

    We were delighted that an owl lighted on our fence, not more than 20 feet from our lunch table, and visited for awhile! Thanks for hosting & God bless!

  15. says

    I haven’t seen it, Lisa, but now I want to! I love all things bird. Just an amateur here but praying one day I have more time to go a little deeper. This interview really spoke to me in a lot of ways. I’ve been more aware of quiet as “the absence of noise” since hearing it.

  16. says

    I find it amazing how birdsong calms my spirit–especially after hearing this interview. And, yes, you are right, Jody–all the gentle sounds of nature. I’m not sure, but I think Mr. Hempton may have coined that term “acoustic ecologist”. Yes, interesting indeed 🙂

  17. says

    You are the blessed one, Kendal. I grew up in such a place. I think that is one reason why my heart is tuned that way. This kind of quiet helps me listen for God. Prayer, indeed.

  18. says

    I’m so glad to know you’ve sold the house and have moved on in the process, Kelly! It must have been chaotic getting to that maple tree. So nice to have a welcome like that 🙂

  19. says

    Wasn’t that a great interview? I listened to the unedited version when I was thinking about this post and it gave me a few giggles. People are just people, after all. I think we are all weird. In a good way.

  20. says

    I know, Diana! I know. I told Sam at our last retreat in Texas that I am only just beginning to understand those people who constantly seek the fountain of youth. I’m only now just opening up to learning–it feels like. And there is so much to learn.

  21. says

    I think such a place must be a sweet place, Mia, because you must seek the quiet much more deliberately than the average person. We should all be so sensitive.

  22. says

    Thank you, Becky. I know how hard it is to find the quiet when the house is full of little ones. Doesn’t each season hold its own sweetness, though? I always love reading your stories 😉

  23. says

    I hope you do get back on the trail by autumn, C. But you know what? I sure did find rest just laying on my back in the back yard. Be still, He says. And I find it to be true. I listen better that way sometimes.

  24. Nancy Sturm says

    My summer has been such a blur of busyness that I haven’t had much time to stop and listen. How I remember lying on my back as a child, watching the clouds. It was so lovely to just absorb all that beauty. I’m so ready to “be still and know that [He is] God! Thanks for a lovely post.

  25. says

    Graduate school? Done! 3,000 hours postgraduate internship? Done! Full LPC license? Done! I am in process of building a private counseling practice since June. I am sharing office space with a counselor who will retire sometime in the future and applying for insurance panels. I was sooo busy the last 3 years and now……I have lots of time on my hands. My adventures have mostly centered on learning to be a counselor and connecting to my client’s stories. Which led me to painting as self-care. Never painted before 2011! God lead me to that form of creativity, worship, and healing. I’ve been looking for ways to share b/c I have all the paintings stacked around my house! This journey has been long and I am looking forward to what God has in store for me as I turn this corner. Looks like you have continued and had adventures of your own. I have missed staying in touch with the blogging community. What is the most exciting change you have gone through over the past 2 years?

  26. Nancy Kourmoulis says

    You put into words what I feel as I sit here on the porch this morning catching up. I hear the goats maaaa, crickets chirp, birds singing in the trees, and “it sounds like prayer to me.” Always love your words Laura!

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