The Sound of Home: Sonorous Desert by Kim Haines-Eitzen
In Jo Walton’s 2019 fantasy novel Lent, Renaissance friar Girolamo Savonarola goes around Florence using his gift of prophecy to root out and banish demons. They do not exactly hide from him. Loud and in his face, the demons are detected first and foremost by their cacophony. Boldly bellowing in his ears, they are impossible for him to ignore. It is a swarming shrieking that fills up all the space in the rooms in which he finds himself.
For Savonarola, hell is an assault of sound.
In her new book, Sonorous Desert: What Deep Listening Taught Early Christian Monks—and What It Can Teach Us, Kim Haines-Eitzen thinks about the way hermits and monks in antiquity used to take to the hills and flee to the desert to remove themselves from the noise of everyday life; for in the midst of the city, how can a person hear the voice of God?
It wasn’t just the Christian mystics and desert fathers either. The Stoic philosopher Seneca described in great detail the noises coming from a bathhouse just below the room where he was writing, expressing his irritation at the distracting “babel” all around him.
Reading from early, mainly Greek, texts, Haines-Eitzen unpacks the way that more often than not, when an ancient seeker removed themselves from the hissing (surittousin) and roaring (brukhe) cacophony of everyday life in the world, it wasn’t silence they found. Often the deserts were ablaze with noise. There was the terror of thunder and the roar of pulsating rivers. But it was also beautiful in the music of birdsong and wind rustling through canyons.
As Haines-Eitzen herself spends more and more time in the sky islands of southern Arizona, as well as in the deserts outside of Jerusalem, she asks:
What does home sound like? How do we recognize home by listening? For each of us, the answer will be different. When I hear pigeons and doves at a desert spring, or the chatter of sparrows in a single acacia tree, I am reminded of my childhood. These days home is standing on a remote gravel road listening to thunder across the desert valley, the songs of birds in the late afternoon, and the calls of crickets at night, winds move through juniper sage and cactus.
Like Haines-Eitzen, sounds even more than smells connect me to place and “home.” I remember as a child in Los Angeles, I kept my windows open on warm evenings to listen to the peaceful sound of the crickets singing in the wet grass out back. Then later, living in Japan, it was frogs singing in the paddies on summer nights and autumn insects pining that grounded me in place.
In English, we don’t really have the vocabulary available to evoke the ringing, chirping and clicking sounds of all the autumnal “insect voices” (虫の声). Just as we don’t really have common expressions for our human reactions to the chorus of insects (虫の合唱), the crying of the bell crickets (鈴虫が鳴く), or the cicada rains (蝉しぐれ) . As a children’s song goes in Japan:
Frogs sing kero kero
Headaches hurt gan gan
To smile is niko-niko
To be excited is waku waku
To be hungry is peko peko!
To stare is jiro jiro
Without the precise words in English for this singing, I sometimes wondered if people back home could really hear the beauty of the autumn insects or appreciate the rain-like sound of the cicadas in summer.
I’d been living in Tokyo about five years when a friend’s father decided to perform a little experiment on me. Arriving one cool autumn evening at their home in suburban Mejirodai, he waved my friend away, telling her: “I want to have a little chat with Leanne.” Sitting down on the sofa across from him, he poured me a cup of tea. In truth, I can’t recall what we chatted about, but about twenty minutes into the conversation, he suddenly clasped his hand together in delight–with what could only be described as a childlike gleam in his eyes– and said, “Don’t you hear something?”
I was puzzled by this sudden turn of events. I sat quietly for a moment, listening– and then shook my head no.
He was incredulous (but I couldn’t help but feel he also looked quite pleased with himself) and said: “Are you telling me that you have noticed nothing unusual here this evening?” He cupped his hand around his right ear as if trying to hear a faint sound.
When I shook my head again, he giddily pulled out a small bamboo cage from under his chair. I immediately realized that he had a bell cricket in there. In fact, the cricket was chirping quite loudly!
How on earth had I missed it?
Marcel Proust wrote that “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
He should have added that it is also to have new ears.
I realized this during the early days of Covid, when time took on a stretched-out quality. To feel oneself slowing down was to discover new sounds. It became a kind of wonder to listen for the seasons changing or hear birdsong, or the peaceful sound of the rustling leaves in the palm trees. To catch the loud rustle of the grapefruit tree just before a huge, round fruit falls smack into the ground was a revelation the first time I heard it. And how did I reach fifty years old and never once hear baby songbirds chirping to be fed—like crickets! Covid became a time for me to see the world with new eyes and new ears.
It was during Covid that I became an avid birder. Birding alone and then later in groups, I have savored those moments when a bird is spotted, and we all grow instantly quiet. Frantically training our binoculars on the object of our desire, it seems we all are frozen in a great hush. With laser focus, we attune ourselves to the bird, on a hair’s breadth of losing it, aware of the tiniest flitter, flutter, and peep. It is enchantment. I love these free creatures of the air, symbolizing hope and rebirth, travelers from distant lands, inhabitants of a canvas of beauty and life in this great garden of earthly delights.
This Covid reverie ended abruptly when my next-door neighbor embarked on a year of very loud construction work. It was nonstop six days a week—sawing right up along our fence with massive clouds of dust and the screeching of saws and the roar of concrete being poured, on and on.
Haines-Eitzen discussed the deleterious effect noise can have on our mental states, quoting the World Health Organization in Europe which found that “excessive noise” is a serious threat to mental health. She writes of scientific studies that show such exposure can cause not just hearing loss but can lead to heart disease, poor sleep, and hypertension. It is a massive stressor. Sometimes even a kind of torture.
The opposite of noise, Haines-Eitzen points out, is not silence. Rather, it is the return of the natural music of the world. During last year’s relentless torture of noise, it wasn’t the silence I missed so much as the music of birdsong and the rustling wind in the palm trees.
One of my favorite writing teachers, Jack Livings—a great novelist himself—once remarked in our class that “our writing emerges out of our reading.” The class was called “The Devil is in the Details,” and it was designed to get us students to think about the way specificity and a sensitivity to detail can enliven our work.
To come alive to the world around us—the sights, smells, sounds—and then capture it in our writing is at the very heart of what it means to be an artist. For what is art if not an attentive noticing of things? This is certainly crucial when it comes to depicting the spirit of “place.”
Haines-Eitzen writes that sound is one of the primary ways we have of experiencing and situating ourselves in place. We find home in attuning ourselves to the sounds of that place. Even now the watery melody of crickets chirping in the wet lawn in early autumn nights transports me back to my childhood, as does the sound of swarming buzzing bees. Japan is the ringing of the railroad crossing bell heard when the world is hushed by snow or the high-pitched voice of the elevator girl in a department store. It is the revelation of the music of my memories.
The epigraph of the book is a quote from composer John Luther Adams’ book The Place Where You Go to Listen:
Listening is a primary mode of understanding. As we listen to the world around us, we come to understand more deeply our place within it. Our listening animates the world. And the world listens back.
I am interested in this kind of active and attentive listening, because being embedded in a “soundscape” demands a certain two-way, give-and-take hearing. It demands an attunement of oneself to the local environment and community, and to place. When you stop and listen, you come to belong to the land as much as the land belongs to you, even if just in that moment. The world is no longer a resource to be efficiently consumed. Instead, it is illuminated and embodied with voice and with sentiment. As Adams says, “our listening animates the world.”
When I was studying Japanese in Tokyo, my teacher, Suzuki-sensei, would always tell us to pay better attention—even though we thought we were! “Language comes from listening,” she said. “And before you can pick up the words, you will need to be a very careful listener,”
Suzuki-sensei once told us a story about the “sound” of lotus blooming that took place during the early Showa period, around a hundred years ago.
I was incredulous. Could the sound of a flower blossoming be heard with human ears?
Yes, she said. And it was popular for people to gather at Ueno Pond on early summer mornings to try and hear the lotus opening.
Blossoming out of a muddy or “dirty” pond, in Buddhism the lotus symbolizes every person’s hope of rising above their own mucky challenges to become more enlightened and perfect human beings.
“The lotus blossom each morning at dawn,” Sensei said with a smile. “So, if you really want to hear them, you must be there early, early in the morning.”
Deep listening is an act of honoring the other, environmentalist Kumi Kato argues in her essay “Listening: Research as an Act if Mindfulness” in a 2015 book, Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene. “To listen is a humbling act,” Kato writes, “for the ephemeral and transient quality of sound demands a degree of attention and focus.” The actual sound of lotus opening in the morning is of a much lower frequency than human ears can perceive. It simply is not possible to hear it. And yet the people of Edo still gathered to honor the flowers.
Kato discusses the way that ritual listening is under-prioritized in Western societies and explains that in Japanese kiku (聞く) does not just mean listening with one’s ears, but conveys the idea of an attentive appreciating of something with all of our senses, kiku (聴く). These two words are homonyms written with different kanji characters to distinguish between casual listening and listening as an act of appreciation. In this way the verb kiku is used for more than just “hearing” and includes broader acts of aesthetic discernment, such as judging the clarity of sake (聞き酒) or picking out the various fragrances in an incense blend（聞香）. These acts are all conveyed by kiku: “to listen by heart.”
In Japan, I studied tea ceremony for several years, and in my practice fūryū was a word I heard used often by my sensei and tea friends, held up as a value of supreme importance on the path of character-cultivation. In tea, having fūryū means you have the time to notice things. It is the time to write a haiku, or time to stop and smell the roses; fūryū is having the heart to stop and linger, to look up at the moon or the stars, or to lovingly tend to a way of life that is mindful of beauty and style. So often in the U.S. I hear from people complaining about how busy they are and how they have no time. This is a shame, for self-cultivation and self-reflection first and foremost is about taking the time, the time to breathe and the time to really look at things, to listen and smell and taste.
After all, isn’t there a difference between looking and seeing?
And how about hearing and listening?
Another important term from tea ceremony is matsukaze: matsu means “pine,” and kaze means “wind.”
“Winds in the pines.”
The great tea master Sen no Sōtan (1578–1658) said:
The nature of tea ceremony
Say it’s the sound
of windblown pines
in a painting
Wind in the pines is the sound the tea kettle makes when the water begins to boil. The “wind” coming in waves—shush, shush, shush—settles in the body, creating a feeling of harmonious peacefulness in the tearoom. Because the sound is so admired, small pieces of iron are attached with lacquer to the floor of the kettle specifically to generate the sound called matsukaze.
But you will miss it if you don’t attend to it.
Haines-Eitzen ends her book by suggesting that in our attentive listening, we will find ourselves asking questions about home and our place in the world. She writes that
The phenomenon of sound and the sense of belonging are both fluid, ever ephemeral, always changing. Sounds sound in our world and then they dissipate; our attachments to place changes over the course of our lives. These two ever shifting spheres inform one another profoundly, and they help us attend normally to memory and longing to the present ephemeral moment.
At the modern speed of life, most sound is either a distraction, a warning, or some kind of escape. It is either something we do not want or that we curate electronically. Yet sound is one of our primary connections to the natural world, to the most mundane sounds of life, to the background fabric of meaning we ignore. The sound of wind in the trees, songbirds singing, a tea-kettle boiling, crickets chirping, the wistful whistle of a distant train. All these sounds offer a moment to reconnect to the web of life we inhabit. And if we open our ears, occasionally we might hear sounds that delighted us as children, and briefly relive a shiver of pure enchantment. We might even find ourselves feeling truly home.