It was three in the morning when I woke up, annoyed that it was too early. After tossing and turning uselessly for a while, I got up and opened the window. An inescapable possibility weighed on my mind.
The empty, foggy street was oppressively silent. In the summertime, I’d prefer the street lights to be turned off so I can see the Milky Way better, but that night it felt more comfortable to have them on, even though their sodium orange color felt slimy and old. I gazed out a little, and looking downward there – of course – was a cat, very still, its round, wide-open eyes staring at me as if I’d caught it doing something bad.
Psst psst, I called, extending my hand and rubbing my thumb and index finger together – the sound and gesture I’ve made all my life whenever I see a cat. It wanders and circles, very cautious. I hear a long, distressing meow bouncing off the houses, undoubtedly announcing another small feline in the vicinity. Whenever I open my windows at odd times, there’s a cat: on the roof of the house in front, underneath my neighbor’s car, or on the sidewalk, like this one. And they always semi-freeze and we share the most awkward eye contact. What else is out there on this hazy night?
I considered my idea again and looked down the street towards the lake shore. The fog bank was immense, a huge monster. It would greatly reduce visibility, but that didn’t bother me; I’d be walking anyway.
I fantasize about wild boar promenading though the village streets at night, long after the zig-zagging men with red punching eyes have finally deserted the streets, but before the farmers drive their pickups to their plots of land. In practice, there isn’t time enough for that, but I kept dreaming about it and that gave me the incentive I needed.
Finally, with my gear stuffed in my backpack, I find myself walking down the nighttime street, heading for a spot I’d been curious about for a while, on the other side of the lake. I’d seen herons, cormorants, and magpies there, and heard starlings, goldfinches, and hoopoes. Inside my head, I argued about what was actually moving me to do this on such an ugly and uncomfortable winter night?
Reaching the beach’s edge, everything was completely still. Even the reflected lights were wide, solid strokes on the water; no texture.
The path I took had no lights, so I stopped to let my senses adjust. The noisiness of my coat became evident as I was swallowed by a cold silence. The tinnitus in my right ear said hello and I tuned into my own breathing.
My eyes and ears scanned for boars around the water, as I had frequently seen their hoofprints here. On my first night in the village – a much friendlier night – I had had a brief encounter with a red fox here. Now, I heard nothing but my own body. Not even the trickle of a single leaf. Sound was against me. It was like walking into a big, dark mouth, ridiculous headlamp in my hand, illuminating the ground occasionally for safety. It was now very dark, so I stopped again, letting my sluggish eyes adjust for a moment.
Suddenly, the heavy silence was finally broken by the shrieking call of a heron, immediately multiplied three or four times by the water and the soft, rounded geography of the dehesa. Herons never sleep, it seems. More than once, I’ve heard them at night, even from as far away as my house. Again, I wonder about the secret nocturnal life of the animals in my village. Do they change their schedule because they’re bothered by us? How fun that would be! I imagine a small group of boar playing cards and making jokes about people, about how overcomplicated we are. And sometimes so evil.
Pressing on, my boots became splattered with mud from a puddle. It hadn’t crossed my mind that everything would be wet, so I began to detour the water by moving onto the grass, producing a different sound. Looking ahead, I knew my direction but wasn’t quite sure where I was heading. I’d never been here specifically but I decided my destination according to acoustics (of course). I wanted to make a good recording and was hoping to be surprised by it.
Eventually, I found myself approaching one of my favorite type of areas, populated by store pines, where many birds congregate and sing endlessly on summer afternoons. Even before reaching the trees, I startled all the doves in them: they shifted abruptly and beat their wings, creating a rain of wingbeats as I walked beneath. Though I didn’t feel great about disturbing them, it was a beautiful, even magical moment.
Beginning to think technically, I felt rushed: where should I place my microphones? Here? There? Should I go closer to the water? Or check to the left? What would better conceal the faraway road noise, just in case? I started mounting the gear but then changed my mind; the spot didn’t seem balanced enough for my liking, so I decided to try nearer the water. I traversed the shore in a U-shape and considered the geographical concavity, shaped by changeable water levels and the immense dam that forever changed the landscape and lives here since it opened over 20 years ago.
The space around me replied to more loud heron calls. Then, as my head became occupied making decisions and inspecting the environment to ensure a perfect recording, the silence around me was momentarily erased in my mind and I tried to bring myself back to that dark big mouth. I tried to bring myself back to that big, dark mouth. Here, away from the street lights, things felt somehow more harmonious.
But – a splash. A fish had simultaneously disrupted the silence outside of my head and the cacophony inside of it.
Only silence and water ripples: so evocative! I felt comfortable and sat listening through my headphones. When I didn’t know this land, I was afraid of every sound. Now, I could pay more attention to the recording than worrying about safety.
I heard the first chirp of a bird, one that I didn’t recognize. I love to record dawn choruses from their first chirp. Who decides which individual will sound this morning’s short alarm? Is it always the same bird?
And then, a dog barked. Three times. I don’t need to describe it here: you know exactly how it sounds. If you are a field recordist yourself, you know exactly how I felt. And you also know what happened next: more dogs joined in. The arch-enemies of peaceful nature recordings. I visualized a spectrographic display of this soundscape. I know where in the frequency range the dogs’ barking would be and, against a silent background, it would be an easy job, even though the very sound of them is distressing. I felt so upset.
I focused on listening, but they were all I could hear. I hoped they would calm down when the birds started to sing more.
A very faint line of light emerged on the horizon. Nautical twilight.
The sound of the fish and water was so wonderful! If only the dogs would shut the—
My heart sank to the pit of my stomach. What a terrible idea to subject myself to on a winter morning. At least I was outside, ‘in nature’ – but now I could hear sheep bells, and the calls of several individuals, both older and younger. They’ve always sounded pretty comical to me. But I had come here, at this inhospitable hour, to record pure nature – not livestock!
The birds in the pines weren’t willing to meet my expectations, either. Once in a while, I heard a little owl, but it was faint and distant.
A huge mosquito found its target on my wrists and ankles, causing crazy itching which made it a challenge to stay still. When a plane passed overhead, I took the opportunity to quickly scout the other side of the trees and defend myself from my tormentor.
I don’t remember when the gunshots started, but let’s say it was around this point, on top of all my other frustrations. I didn’t realize there would be hunters in this area. Though I knew I wasn’t in danger because it was far away enough, hearing this and imagining that, with every shot, someone was seeing an animal – like I wanted to see them – but choosing to pull the trigger… I felt extremely disheartened, but, in context, had to remain without judgment. Being an outsider I can’t be judging their values and life with my “city girl” morals.
The sun has lifted itself completely but I didn’t even notice it rise, so much I was inside my own head.
I felt defeated and decided to head home.
It was at least partially sunny on the way back, and I encountered the sheep that I had heard earlier (accompanied by a fat goat!). They were heading somewhere together – to church? It was Sunday morning, after all. They all stopped and stared at me. Not at all like the ominous cat stare from earlier on in the night, but with their loony expression, some still chewing grass. The younger sheep seemed to be relying on the older ones for instructions.
Giggling, I continued on my way back into the village. Goldfinches and sparrows were singing in the orchards, along with some magpies, and even an oriole. I could hear people beginning the day in their houses, and when I finally reached my street, my neighbors – the starlings – were already putting on their morning performance with their usual high spirits – a concert that opens the scene for each day. I wondered whether they had added any other species’ songs to their repertoire today. Either way, the architecture of the village and its construction materials enhanced my enjoyment of their songs. The sound reflection between the houses is significant – for the attentive ear – but not lengthy so it feels like it adds some chimering to whatever sound happens. At the café further down the street, some local men had started their daily routine. These sounds had become very familiar to me over the past few years: the plastic chairs dragged in the cement; the doors opening and closing; their voices, jokes, and laughter; their spontaneous recitals of local songs. Even their vehicles.
Suddenly, I couldn’t help but feel guilty: why was I chasing a soundscape that omitted the friendliness of the locals and their daily habits, pretending that their culture didn’t exist? For the sake of a ‘pure sound’? The resident starlings chose to inhabit these streets, so why shouldn’t I be honored to record them?
In order to make beautiful recordings in a conventional way, I had closed my heart to my immediate surroundings. It was inevitable that, at some point, I shift my perspective and open my mind beyond these self-imposed limitations on my field recording craft.
Entering my house, I opened the curtains, letting the sunlight in. The starlings were still singing as I pondered what all this meant for the future of my field recording practice. Perhaps a more empathic approach to listening? That could simply be representing the reality of the soundscape. Or share it more with all my neighbors.
When I went to sleep that night, I imagined the boars playing cards while the herons served drinks and the little owls watched from the corners – all commenting on the lesson I had learned during my failed field recording trip.
Photos by Melissa Pons
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