How well do you know the soundscape of your own neighborhood? Are you in tune with the seasonal changes, the cries of different birds, the direction in which they migrate, the flow of local river banks and drainage systems? Do you know when the neighbors come home from work and when their children leave for school? Do you know their names, or the names of the trees in your yard, or the thickets that grow behind them? What creatures live on your property, and what sort of sounds do they make? Where do they go in the winter ~ do they migrate, burrow, or die?
These are the sort of questions that interest Sebastiane Hegarty, whose series Four Walks Around a Year has just drawn to a close. His 25-minute walks around the Winnall Moors Preserve have now been captured for all generations, one recording for each season, each recording combining the sounds of multiple forays. Gruenrekorder’s website provides an elaborate description of the walks, along with complete lists of identifiable sounds: much more than one might guess without prompt. When listening to the project in full, one experiences an entire year in a hundred minutes.
Here’s the sound of footsteps on hardened ground, and birds singing their joy at the returning sunlight. It’s spring in the reserve, and there’s plenty of life in the moors. The African warblers have just returned; the workers are at their posts; the water is flowing freely in the river. Human equipment can be heard in the distance, never far from nature. Spring is a time to check the reserve and to see what has survived. Has the winter been harsh? Have all of the residents made it through? Has the grass received enough moisture to sprout? The people sound as happy as the birds. The layers are being shed, the windows are being opened, the populace is venturing outside. Children are gathering, crying, playing. “Don’t drop it on its head!” warns an amused gentleman; hopefully the child has not captured a swan.
Will summer be different? Indeed. Again we begin with footsteps and birds, but the soundscape has subtly changed. Hegarty refers to the turnover as “calendars of sounds”. Summer adds grasshoppers and wasps, ice cream trucks and active construction. A brief downpour affects the river and the leaves. As the initial burst ends suddenly, one remembers that this is not a single walk, but a patchwork; sounds are moved around in order to highlight their properties. Hegarty also writes about the absence of sound: “the ghosts of sounds no longer here.” It’s harder to hear what’s absent than what’s present, but the release trains us to concentrate and remember. The different timbres of precipitation make this the most immediately compelling of the walks, but “Wednesday evening bell practice” contributes an especially lovely angle. No offense to humans, but the lessening of voices in the summer walk is a draw as well.
To autumn now: crunch, bird, we’re off again, a similar introduction launching into the reverse of spring. Now the birds are saying their goodbyes, morose perhaps at the thought of so much travel. Or perhaps this is simply human projection. As Hegarty notes, the water sounds different: thinner, colder, in the author’s words, “sharp and slightly angular.” Shorthand radio conversations are interspersed with personal exchanges; the birds seem to retreat, having more important things on their minds. “A very good day today”, a woman declares. The traps have been set, more to help the local animals than to harm them, as conservation is frequently ironic. The natural soundscape is clearly quieter than the preceding installments, as the aforementioned ghosts have become obvious.
And finally to winter. The final installment begins with wintry tales, rescued from the archives. “Before this war we used to go skating”, reminisces an older man. And then it’s frost, ice, snow, and rain. Now that one has been trained, one notices the subtraction of flocks. Individual birds call to one another, either hardy or left behind; but the sonic field is wide open. When they are suddenly pulled from the recording in the fourth minute, one can’t help but wonder what has happened. Chalk, CO2 and crystallized air are amplified in the resulting crevasses. By the end, Hegarty himself grows melancholy, writing, “I have become a ghost listening to myself not now there.” The winter walk is a lonely walk, but it is not empty; to enjoy it, one needs the mind of Wallace Stevens (“The Snow Man”):
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.