Music Vs. Nature: What We Want to Hear & Why

As a species, humans tend to be visual. A researcher in Emory University’s Ophthalmology Department put the matter to me recently this way: “The eyeball is the part of the neurological system that sticks out of the body.” So it seems only natural that we speak, write and remember the Appalachian Trail in predominantly visual language. For instance, it is a national scenic trail, and Benton MacKaye described the purpose of hiking it as “To walk; to see and to see what you see.” Yet one of the overwhelming experiences of hiking on the Appalachian Trail is the aural or sonic qualities of the trail environment.

Most people heading to the trail today live in an urban or suburban environment where extraneous artificial noises (sirens, car alarms, trains and airplanes) are a normal part of the outdoor sound scape.  The Appalachian Trail’s ancient, natural sound scape is encroached upon by urbanizing noise pollution in many places, but if you walk far enough you will find space and time to absorb the horror which is silence or near silence. I say “horror” because most urbanized people getting into the back country react to this silence by talking (to oneself or strangers), hooting and howling (because all of us are primates) or strapping on headphones and listening to music or talk radio or audiobooks. The initial reaction to the sound of nature is to block it out. In cities we must learn not to listen or be overwhelmed. In the woods, it takes time to unplug from the assault of advertising’s relentless blathering and imaging; political hoopla, and the voices of everyone back in the so called real world who have rented space in our brains.

The society addled hiker can hear, if he or she listens, the voices of thousands up thousands of birds, insects– and larger animals. The creeks and stones speak too. The wind and the sky have a voice, and it is the loudest voice because it speaks with water. The ubiquity of Thunder and Lightning or Clouds and Rain as motifs in the religious/mythological beliefs of pre-urban peoples around the planet suggests that our ancestors heard these natural sounds too, but they didn’t have mp3 players like a modern hiker does. Today, someone can hole up in a tent and blast techno music into their ears and shut out the sound of the woods at night. Yet, on a long hike, after the hiker is talked out, sick of all her music and too tired to dwell on the past, the sound of the woods finally penetrates and saturates the human psyche. I would suggest here that there is an ancient (proto) human in each and every one of us that is pleased by the immersion of the psyche in the sounds of nature; and a long, immersing wilderness experience can have a profound effect on the noise inside a person’s head. The sound of sanity is silence. The sounds of nature, to borrow a phrase from Robert Bly, are “News from the Universe.”

One natural sound of the trail I remember most often is the sound of the summer woods at night– so many non human voices. I remember too the rather sobering sound of the Smoky Mountains at high altitude in a late winter snow storm: utter deathly silence interrupted by howling wind. I recall hearing the voices of hawks and owls; the call of Canada geese in New Jersey glacial swamps, or loons in Maine; coyotes and crows. The sound of the rain is more pleasant than the mire of a rainy trail. The sound of water dominates the Appalachian Trail, whether it is in the air feeding storms, falling as rain or sleet or snow, the relentless sloshing of hiking boots in wet leaves and puddles– and waterfalls. To be absorbed in this aural environment is to be washed of the madness of the overpopulated, artificial urban hive. In my life in cities (New York, Louisville and Atlanta) I seek out the natural sound scape in urban green spaces, but these can not compare with the wilder sections of the Appalachian Trail. Along parts of the AT in Maine, the terrain is remote enough so that the sound of an airplane passing overhead is startling.

On my 2011 hike from Georgia to Maine, I accidentally erased the contents of my MP3 player. I was hiking through Fahnestock State Park in New York, delirious from the heat and my sweaty, dirty fingers pressed buttons they should not have pressed. All my jams– gone in an instant. I almost cried, but I was sick of all of my music anyway, and in a few hours I forgot about that stuff. It was pleasant to have technology to lean on for the company of comforting sound, but if a hiker stays out long enough and acclimates to the natural aural environment, the mountains and forests will provide their own comforting soundtrack. I was lucky to camp with Woodrat (GA-ME ’95) in Georgia in 2011. An ecologist, he could hear bird and insect sounds in the woods, identify the species and provide a wealth of information about what we were hearing. Woodrat was a guy who could listen to the woods and pick up many more “channels” from Mother Nature’s broadcast than most people I knew.

I have included here for the edification of the reader, a top ten list of my favorites tracks deleted from my MP3 player on that fateful day in Fahnestock:


#10: “Monk’s Dream” by Thelonious Monk, 1962.

#9: “Water Flowing from High Mountain” (traditional Chinese folk music) by Cheng Yu, 2005

#8: “Roll Muddy River” by The Osbourne Brothers, 1967

#7: “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” by Franz Liszt

#6: “Darkness on the Edge of Town” by Bruce Springsteen, 1978

#5: “Who Do You Love?” (a live Cover of the Bo Diddly blues classic) by the Doors, 1970

#4: “Hold ’em Joe” by Sonny Rollins, 1965

#3: “Jimmy James” by the Beastie Boys, 1991

#2: “Blue Skies” (an Irving Berlin standard) by Willie Nelson, 1977

#1: “Achilles Last Stand” by Led Zeppelin, 1976






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