Listening to the bog

 “The soothing sound of a stream has many voices, the soothing green of mosses likewise. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see” Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss

If streams and mosses have many voices, then whole acres of bogland must be truly symphonic. From our human perspective, how can we better listen to the many voices of the bog, hear its musicality, and appreciate the songs of its inhabitants? From the obvious sounds of birds on the wing and frogs croaking in springtime, to the more subtle flows of water, squelching and gurgling, ebbing and oozing, and all the varieties of rustling, chanting, whispering, buzzing, humming, and breathing that emanate from the bog. Sounds both resonant and discordant, human, animal, insect, and landscape colliding and jangling together in a giant lyrical refrain, a hymn to life.

How can we better listen to the many voices of the bog? Aldo Leopold tells us to sit quietly and listen, to think hard on everything you have seen, and try to understand it: “Then you may hear it – a vast pulsing harmony, its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the seconds and the centuries”. Leopold’s words have their own beauty and power, helping us to appreciate the magnificent temporalities of life and landscapes, bringing us to a deeper understanding of these places and ourselves.

I was reminded of the importance of listening to the bog after receiving a letter from a friend (link below). We often talk of “giving a voice to nature” because it cannot speak for itself. In this sense, we need to imagine ourselves into the life and perspective of the landscape. The letter begins: “It doesn’t seem that long ago since my first birthday, when my large ice blanket melted and I was filled with water. The very start of my bog days. I also remember when the big Irish Red Deer came down for a drink, followed shortly afterwards by a bear

I discussed the idea of “giving the bog a voice” with Jules Michael, an artist working with the Drummin Bog Project. Jules led an art project with local school children and other local artists which resulted in the ‘An Fraughan‘ exhibition. Children were given a plant or animal of the bog to ‘become’, which brought the bog and its species to life for them (I am fox moth, I am sphagnum, I am bog asphodel). Jules observes: “Is that what ‘giving a voice’ is? Giving us the opportunity, the privilege, to step into the bog’s shoes, and speak for it for a little moment. I think this also engenders a responsibility in us – it is a huge thing to speak for someone else. We had better make sure we are doing it with ‘their’ interests at heart and with as much equality as possible”.

This recognition of the need for equality across species and ecosystems reflects ideas about the rights of nature, and the rights of rivers, bogs, wetlands and other landscapes to be officially recognised as living entities.  At an Ecoliteracy workshop I attended, Cathy Fitzgerald commented: “A just, equitable, and sustainable future depends on caring for the wellbeing of all species. It progresses an expanded ethic, a ‘duty of care’ for all beings and living landscapes reflected in the Rights of Nature movement”. Rivers, glaciers, and mountains have all been officially recognised by national courts and legislatures as living entities with their own legal rights (See Giving Nature a Voice). As the letter continues: “Remember the bog beneath your feet is thousands and thousands of years older than you, and remember too all that I have witnessed”.

This shift to granting rights to nature is a radical but natural departure from the assumption that “nature is our property” under the law. Women too were once considered the property of men, and still are in some countries. New Zealand was the first self-governing country to grant women the right to vote in 1893, and also one of the first countries to grant mountains and rivers legal personhood (Giving Nature a Voice). Jules continues: “It isn’t as simple as ‘drawing attention to’ the bog. It’s to do with ‘inhabiting’. When we look from the other [bog] viewpoint, we learn something. We have to stop, slow down, and start to listen.  We have silenced the bog (and the wider natural world) because we don’t take account of what it needs on its own terms. We assert our top down thinking, subverting equality. If we start to listen to what the bog is telling us it needs, then are we giving it a voice”

The wonderful letter below was sent to me by a friend who looked from the bog’s viewpoint, and listened to what the bog was saying. The bog is the central narrator, yet throughout we see how human and bog identities mingle. It acknowledges and remembers the past, while saluting custodians of the bog in the present, balancing sadness for what has been lost with hope for the future: “Being a living bog, I have lived through many things. You and your friends have helped save my life. Today you have become a part of my history and I’m glad you passed my way”

Deep and active listening

Once we start looking (and listening), we find lots of humans giving voice to the sounds of nature and the bog. It is said that the listening process involves four stages: receiving, understanding, evaluating, and responding. Here are some ideas to start us on this sonic journey.

Re-peat – This youth-led collective are pushing for a peatland paradigm shift asking questions like ‘What would it mean if ‘to peat’ were a verb?’ And ‘How are landscapes poems?’

Mending the Blanket – A short animated film by Kate Foster and Pantea Arman with beautiful sounds and images of bogs and wetlands from around the world.

Deep Listening Walks –  Another artist responding to peatlands through sound, creating field recordings and collaborating with scientists to raise awareness through ‘deep listening’ walks.

The Untold Stories – The Listen to Nature and People platform seeks to open space for more careful, attentive and creative reflections about how we live in the world with others (human and non-human). Produced by the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature.

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