The Art and Habit of Listening: Reflections on Earth’s Wild Music by Kathleen Dean Moore
By Rachel Schwartzmann
Ordinary Story is a monthly series by Rachel Schwartzmann that features musings and conversations on one of our favorite ordinary habits: reading. In the third installment, Rachel reflects on Earth’s Wild Music: Celebrating and Defending the Songs of the Natural World by Kathleen Dean Moore.
Before the pandemic, my daily walks looked like this: shoes on, headphones in, external noise out. I curated songs, podcasts, and talks of my choosing while taking in the bustling sights (and drowning out the bursting sounds) of life in New York City. I walked quickly and confidently, devoid of the anxiety that now seeps into similar tasks.
Throughout this time in isolation, the way I approach most ordinary habits has changed. Walks have become more contained, so whenever I feel a pull towards something other than the insularity of my usual route, I read. I read voraciously, eager to step into the worlds of people and their passions—anything that exists beyond the confines of my apartment. I've lived a thousand lives through reading and learned to exert my energy and curiosity in new directions. Recently, I came across the essay collection Earth's Wild Music: Celebrating and Defending the Songs of the Natural World by Kathleen Dean Moore. I was intrigued, and shortly after finishing the book, deeply moved.
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Earth's Wild Music features new and selected essays from Moore, which are divided into four sections—aptly titled “Tremble,” “Weep,” “Awaken,” and “Sing Out”—and her poetic blend of reportage and personal reflection stays with you. Moore writes with an attentiveness that moves between empathy and accountability. She doesn't reconcile the atrocities of climate change but offers wisdom (and warnings—these come in fact form at the end of each essay) that encourages readers to contextualize the environment in our everyday lives.
The earth is not merely a planet we inhabit—it is an ecosystem we listen to, and in return, it listens to us. And this unbalanced exchange has shown us time and time again how human disregard gives way to environmental devastation. This is a story we all know, though we can't seem to listen or learn.
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The pacing of Moore's writing makes a compelling case to stand up, speak out, and at the very least, head outside for a walk. When I reflect on how I move through the world today, and after a year of social distancing, I've learned to take stock of my environment. As I write this, New York is coming alive again. There is vibrant foliage and sparkling light and muffled laughter under masks. I walk—with headphones in and hand sanitizer at the ready—and weave through crowds suppressing my unease and the acknowledgment that health threats may still lurk at every corner.
Yet as daily life resumes, I've been thinking about Moore's essay, “Listening for Bears,” in which she explores how attentive listening can change—and even save—our lives. In the piece, she writes:
Each of us is so much more than we think we are—this body, these sorrows and hopes. We are air exhaled by hemlocks, we are water plowed by whales, we are energy ejected from stars, we are children of deep time. Our ears tremble with wind through treetops. Our eyes flash with sunlight through rain. How can we be fully alive, if we don't pause to notice, and to celebrate, all the dimensions of our being, its length and its depth and its movement through time?
Contemporary culture has granted us tools that prioritize ease over anything else. But the world we are slowly returning to will not be easy to navigate, and it will require the cultivation of new (and responsible) ordinary habits to get us through. How and when these habits will emerge is yet to be seen. Yet this book has awakened a dormant truth I (and many of us) had forgotten: We must listen—to each other, to the world.
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At the end of her piece, “Songs in the Night,” Moore recalls an exchange she had after speaking to a group of National Park Rangers. (“I once spoke to a convention of National Park Rangers, people who love the land if anybody does—intently, pragmatically, in the rhythm of their daily lives," she writes.) Afterward, one ranger praises Moore's sentiments but ultimately offers a caveat: to swap love for “listen to.” (“I like what you say, but I wonder if you couldn't say it without using the L-word,” he muses.) Moore considers this and ends the essay with the following:
Listen to. To hear with thoughtful attention. To hold something close, to attend to it, to be astonished by it, to devote your life to its mysteries, to name it precisely, to wonder how it comes to be. To stay awake to it. To move closer to it in the wild and twittering night. To let it cover you and keep you safe. To me, listening is starting to sound a lot like love.
It's hard to grapple with the current state of the world, let alone love it, but Moore's deeply contemplative storytelling is a balm—and because of her book, I am now rebuilding a habit of listening. Luckily, spring creates the perfect conditions: To listen to the rustle of leaves on slowly-blooming trees. To the blare of construction work in competition with morning birdsong. To the howls of children running freely through Prospect Park. To the whoosh of bicycles zipping past sidewalks. To the whispers of your own breath with each step, signaling that you are alive and participating in this world.
It is both a maddening and beautiful thing to be here—but I'll now take a page out of Moore's book any day. I'll also take my headphones out, and amid the chorus of earth's wild music, I'll listen to the soundtrack of the life I've been missing all this time.