A midgy September afternoon in the Forest of Mar near Braemar. A group of adults and children stand still to listen. The flow of water in the distance is hardly discernible from the wind through the Scots pines. Around our heads the sound of a mosquito intensifies, then ebbs away. Next to a young birch we realise that the sound of the wind in the trees is made up of infinite numbers of individual leaves moved by the wind. The children excel in pretending to be animals and clatter over a boardwalk, rustle their feet through heather and squidge the cushions of mosses beneath the tall trees. Then we peck stones, rasp pine cones with twigs, rustle branches, listen to lichen and play tree bark percussion.
Our exploration of this part of the Caledonian forest was guided by Hear the Woods, a set of five text scores I wrote for this event and that aimed at creating a dialogue with the forest and that were, in part, inspired by Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening philosophy. The field work that led to the text scores revealed how sound can give us a strong sense of being part of place that extends beyond what we can perceive visually. The text scores thus encouraged us to explore both horizontal and vertical geography.
The piece of Caledonian forest we were in had many stories to tell. What’s more, we came up with a different set of narratives than we would have done if we had explored the forest only focusing on what we could see. Movement, and the interaction between textures this involves, turned out to be an important part of this narrative. The forest emerged not as a collection of seemingly soil-bound trees and plants, but as a lived-in ecosystem beaming with movement and life.
The way most of us think about the Caledonian forest is informed by the experiences we have when interacting with it on our visits. These experiences are often dominated by what we see. Shifting to sound as our dominant source of information provides fresh experiences and new perspectives on what the Caledonian forest may and could be.
The sound art workshop Hear the Woods was part of ‘Inhabiting the Woods, new research and creative practice in the Caledonian pinewoods’, a field-based seminar organised by the Department of Anthropology of the University of Aberdeen.
Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst