The March "sustainability unbound" symposium on sustainability and the humanities, at the University of New Hampshire. has been on my mind for several weeks now. Planning my lecture, I've been thinking on what a humanities perspective might contribute to the discourse on sustainability. I don't mean to reference the interpretive turn in the fieldwork-based disciplines of ethnomusicology, folklore, and cultural anthropology, but a more traditional notion of humanities as a history of ideas concerning the human condition and the good life for individuals and communities. And this has led me back to the life and writings of Henry David Thoreau, a canonical author both in the literature of the humanities and of the environmental movement. I've noted in earlier blog entries Thoreau’s uncanny ear and attentiveness to the soundscape. For the past several weeks I’ve been re-reading what he wrote—and he wrote a lot—about sounds.
In his book, Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that words were signs of natural facts, and that particular natural facts were symbols of particular spiritual facts (or truths); thus nature was the symbol of spirit. He famously pictured himself communing with Nature as if he had become a “transparent eye-ball,” the poet seeing and then naming the spiritual facts found in the natural ones.
Seeing led Thoreau to botany as well as poetry. Although, like Hawthorne, he distrusted the cold, observing eye of science when uncoupled from the heart, he invested much time and energy in botany, and believed that natural facts, if considered long enough, and steadily enough, would at length flower into truths in the light of day. Sight led Thoreau chiefly to observation, notation and measurement; sound led him to ecstasy and the sublime. For Thoreau, these two realms were complementary, not opposed.
Yet he did not think of the air sounding the telegraph-harp as a metaphor “of” Nature; rather, it was Nature; it sang Nature. It sang Nature, vibrated his ear and put him into a sympathetic relation with Nature.
Hearing led Thoreau into those ecstatic moments of co-presence when he vibrated in tune, pardon the pun, with Nature. He did not spend his days teaching school, working in his family's business, or farming--although he was a keen observer of his neighbors and their farming habits. In the mornings he wrote; in the afternoons and evenings he walked, looked, listened, made notes. The little money he needed to live on, he earned as a surveyor. But it was sound that brought him into his most assured understandings of the natural world, and it was resonance that set him on his path to sustainability.