What I’m hearing

Something has shifted. The air remains still but the light slap, slap, slap of water across the rounded stones on the shore just below me has changed. The rhythmic slaps have become a larger splash, then a gurgle. Repeated. Splash, gurgle.

I put down my reading and look. Sure enough, the tide is rising, the water of Barkley Sound lapping up over a previously dry bank of rocks, then trickling back with each gentle swell.

rock in water

The fact that I notice is part accident, part synchronicity. I’m on a kayak trip on the edge of the Broken Group Islands in Canada’s Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, minus the kayak. An earlier accident has rendered me unable to fold myself into a kayak but the trip was pre-booked, so while the others are off paddling I have my choice of deck chairs here at Sechart Lodge.

Synchronicity because my awareness of sound has been primed by the reading I brought along to this quiet outpost accessible only by boat. I am reading an interview with Bernie Krause in The Sun magazine.  Krause has spent a lifetime recording natural sound.

The stillness of Barkley Sound, early evening, from Sechart Lodge.

The stillness of Barkley Sound, early evening, from Sechart Lodge.

Here at this small lodge, my accident has given me an opportunity. During the day, there are few man-made sounds. There’s the muffled hum of an electrical generator, burning jet fuel, tucked into a shed in the woods behind the lodge. Our hot meals and hot showers have an energy cost but also a sound cost.

Every once in a while, I hear the soft rumble of a rubber tire on wood plank decking. A lodge staffer is trundling wheelbarrow loads of cardboard down to the floating dock, loading them into a big plastic bin. Three times a week the merchant vessel Frances Barkley chugs 20 nautical miles out the inlet from Port Alberni to drop kayakers and supplies, and to pick up gear – and recyclables – going back to town. Today is a pick-up day.

A flag above me on a pole gives a light flap only when the leaves in the trees have already stirred and signaled a rising breeze. Mostly, the soundscape is a natural one. Jays and flycatchers. Water lapping the rocks.

This soundscape has become a new luxury of our world. There are few places, now, quieter than this. In a place he calls “One Square Inch of Silence,” acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has led an initiative to establish a no-fly, no mechanized sound zone. I mentioned my longing to visit ‘One Square Inch’ in a recent article in Terrain magazine. Then again, maybe I should just let it be.

Bernie Krause points out that silence isn’t our true goal. The goal is to really hear natural sound. Birds, trees, rodents, fish snapping, insects. And deeper than that, the nonbiological sounds of our planet – moving air, water, even the movement of landforms. Krause has recorded the sounds of glaciers. When we are still, our sonic world expands.

I stash The Sun and explore the trail past the generator, walking slowly and quietly through tall woods of hemlock and Douglas fir.  Blackberries at trailside and bear scat have me wondering whether I should start talking aloud to myself or whistling. The only sounds are high in the upper canopy, leaves and birds. The trail emerges onto a logging road, a route where trucks haul timbers down to the waterfront to be peeled, slid into water booms and tugged up Alberni Inlet to pulp and timber mills. But in this dry summer season, the gravel road too is quiet: logging is shut down until the rains return, the risk of fire through valuable timber too high.

Further up the hillside, I pick out the sound of running water and a steady mechanical ticking. This would be the creek that emerges down by the lodge. A small channel splashing down an incline, turning a water wheel. In the rainy season, the creek surges and is powerful enough to generate electricity for the lodge. Now, though, both the creek and hydro-generator are on a gentle idle.  The water and the water wheel, the natural and the mechanical, in this instance merging into a kind of harmony, one lilting, one methodical. Uncharacteristic of our world, of course, where the soundscape is dominated by the mechanized and electronic jangles, with brief gaps when a birdcall or natural sound might chirp through.

We are a loud society. Recently, the company famous for the rumbling, roaring Harley Davidson motorcycles introduced a new, electric, motorcycle. It could have been virtually silent. Yet they chose to artificially add an ‘iconic sound’ that mimics jet engines. Jet engines on our streets – and not a peep from our cowed populace. This is what Krause calls “the violence needlessly perpetrated by our civilization on the ecology of the planet.” For he makes a strong case that natural sound is a necessary, functional and deeply meaningful part of our world’s ecology.

Meanwhile, sales of noise-canceling headphones climb.

I make my way back down to my chair overlooking the pier. I once again hear my fingers on the pages, while in the background the floating dock creaks and groans, its notes shifting as the tide swells beneath it.

From above, a crinkling. Three or four leaves are making their way down from the high, swaying limbs of a cluster of alders. Then another, single leaf: click, click – pause – click, and as it flutters by my shoulder, just a papery whisper.

The leaves are a dry, dark green. Their falling says autumn.

I hear far-off voices now, the cadences of human conversation, the rhythms of talk too faint to fall into sentences and words. The sounds rise and dip in little waves and I raise my binoculars to find the source: three kayaks have just rounded the north side of Canoe Island, heading toward the lodge.

The returning kayakers will ask if I have been bored. “We don’t know how to be still anymore,” Bernie Krause says. “So we’ve got to learn the great benefits of stillness again.”

To those who ask, I will say I have been learning.


Image credits: stone in water courtesy Naomi / morgueFile; Barkley Sound by Lorne Daniel


  1. Debby Devlin says:

    Beautifully said, Lorne. Sounds so peaceful. I so love the sounds of nature and remember when I used to be able to walk at Nosehill park here in Calgary and once on top of the hill, no longer hear traffic, especially those pesky motorcycles. Now that is no longer an option, unless you find one of the gullies deep inside the park. I am so annoyed by it all!! And I can’t believe electric Harleys are going to be even noisier that those hogs!

  2. Ros Annis says:

    Hi Lorne:
    I just happened to be sitting here at 8:30 pm with no TV, no sounds from next door(s) very unusual!. looking at emails and then FB, and started reading your post. I could hear all of those sounds, all seem to be in my very recent experience and memory but thy aren’t really. Some from way back especially water lapping on stones and the sounds of insects and birds
    in the woods, sounds that seem to have almost vanished in my present life.
    Thanks for that , it has made my evening very peaceful as well as quiet.

  3. Sharon Sandvig says:

    Beautiful piece, Lorne! I love silence and am especially priviledged to live in a nook of southern Chile that offers silence regularly. I relish it and am so glad you found a spot to as well!

    • Lorne Daniel says:

      Thanks Sharon! Nature’s sounds are often a victim of “progress” so I hope your corner of the world can retain some respect for quiet.

  4. It is always so fascinating to hear what others notice, experience and feel, especially in a place that is as close to my heart as the Broken Group Islands. Even if we are all looking at the same thing, each of us records that moment from our own point of view, with a different life story leading us to that time and place.

    Your stunning photos and excellent imagery bring a smile to my face – thank you for sharing this with us, Lorne. You are always welcome on any of my trips.


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