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Quiet Revolution

Su Hui-chao /photo courtesy of Laila Fan /tr. by Phil Newell
 
For more than ten years now ­Laila Fan has been going to hike the Jian­qing Historic Trail on Mt. Tai­ping about once a month. Back when she started, Fan used to take a sound recorder up with her, and as hikers and visitors walked past this way and that in their small groups, she could wait for moments when no one was around, when there was no man-made noise to cut her off from the sounds of nature.
 
Nature recordist Laila Fan is determined to reclaim our long-lost silence. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
Nature recordist Laila Fan is determined to reclaim our long-lost silence. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
 
But these days it is more and more difficult to hear the sounds of nature on the Jian­qing Trail. Since being labeled one of the world’s most beautiful hiking paths, on weekends and holidays the trail is no less packed with visitors than the North Peak of Mt. He­huan at the time the Yu­shan rhododendron burst into flower. The entryway to the trail is jam-packed with tour buses, vans and cars. So-called “nature lovers” come in an endless stream, in their noisy day-tripper way, completely obscuring the beautiful sounds of nature: gurgling streams, the bright and happy song of the green-backed tit….
 
Taiwanese generally are not very fond of solo encounters­ with nature. The usual custom is to gather a group of friends to go into the mountains or off to the ocean. That means loud laughter, constant conversation, and even playing music through speakers. They never give a thought to the fact that for nature, this is invasive and disturbing cacophony. Moreover, something very important is lost at the same time: natural silence.
 
Natural silence does not mean an absence of sound, but an absence of noise. In nature, tranquility still includes the sounds of animals and of natural forces such as wind and water interacting with plants. The most skilled naturalists can even distinguish the age of a stream from the “sheet music” formed by the arrangement of rocks and stones and from the “symphony” played over them by the water. In fact, John Muir (1838–1914), the “father of national parks,” once described nature’s streams and waterfalls as speaking “a most glorious language.”
 
The olive frog (Babina adenopleura) makes a sound so loud that it resonates across his entire dominion, small though it may be to us.
The olive frog (Babina adenopleura) makes a sound so loud that it resonates across his entire dominion, small though it may be to us.
 
Have you ever heard the call of the collared bush robin? What do you think he’s trying to say?
Have you ever heard the call of the collared bush robin? What do you think he’s trying to say?
 
Soundscape Culture Year One
No one knows for sure what will ignite their inner fire. When ­Laila Fan was in the US studying for her master’s degree in television, radio and film, she and a friend were walking in the woods when they saw a blue jay. As soon as she heard its song, completely inexplicably, “That sound struck me at once, and inside I felt as if something had clicked for the first time.” After returning to Taiwan she took up birdwatching and recording bird calls using a directional microphone. During her most fanatical stage, she routinely would be at ­Guandu or ­Wulai before 5 a.m. waiting for the birds to awaken. Her pattern was to close her eyes, and each time she recorded a bird sound, to grab her binoculars to find the source of the call. She would keep at it until eight or nine o’clock, then, while the rest of humanity was just rousting itself out of the house, head home to catch up on sleep.
 
“Listening to the voice of nature” was so intoxicating for Fan that she eventually resigned her job at Common­Wealth magazine and submitted a proposal to National Education Radio for a program called Nature Notebook, with herself as independent producer. But for her the program was merely a means to an end. Her real goal was to go into the wild, to get near and record the sounds she longed to hear. She wanted to mold herself into the kind of person who can walk into the forest and, just by using her ears, know which birds are chattering away. “I wanted to use my sense of hearing to sketch Nature.”
 
After Nature Notebook had been on the air only three months, Fan received a Golden Bell Award. But even then she still didn’t have an inkling of where “sound” would ultimately take her.
 
Seventeen years is no short period of time, and Fan’s role has evolved from nature audiophile and environmental writer to a participant in the environmental protection movement. After her daughters were born, she stayed true to form, carrying them up mountains and across rivers to make recordings. She has accumulated a rich store of direct observations in nature, read many books on environmental and ecological topics, and gained transnational reportorial experience. In an age when people mainly rely on vision to understand the world around them, “I have discovered that our education, environmental policy, and residential designs completely ignore the place of sound.”
 
Nature Notebook is a thread that links together people from all kinds of sound-related fields who had previously been working in isolation—entomologists, zoologists, marine engineers, forest rangers, ear doctors, musicians, historians…. Everything has come together in a natural way, and Fan has become Taiwan’s unique “point of convergence for all those involved with sound.”
 
But when Fan started out, she never imagined anything like this—gathering together a group of like-minded people and forming an association focusing on “soundscapes.” “I myself had no idea my life would reach this point.” But if she was to engage in dialogue with government­ agencies­, and advocate or influence policy, it was a step she had to take.
 
The Soundscape Association of Taiwan (SAT) held its first general meeting, along with the first joint meeting of the board of directors and board of supervisors, on March 21, 2015. Fan was named director, with Dr. Lin Tzu-hao, a cetacean specialist, as secretary-general. The SAT decided to devote their efforts in two main directions: “using artistic and cultural points of view to achieve harmonious development between humans and the environment”; and “working on the basis of bioacoustics and related research to promote policies for the conservation of biodiversity.” They aim to pay attention to both the construction and the preservation of local soundscapes.
 
At about that same time, ­Laila Fan published a new book entitled The Beckoning Silence: A Natural Sound Recorder’s Journey. This is the first nature book ever written in Taiwan to explore sound.
 
Next came the “Soundscape Rhapsody” lecture series. For each of six lectures, they invited one scientist and one artist to be together on stage. Subjects included insects, frogs, cetaceans, and mammals, and even “memories of urban acoustic images.” For example, Ding ­Tzung-su, an associate professor in the Department of Forestry and Resource Conservation at National Taiwan University and a master at distinguishing bird calls, and ­Chiang Po-jen, a zoologist who spent 13 years searching for the Formosan clouded leopard, talked about their encounters with muntjacs, flying squirrels, Formosan sika, and birds. Yu Jen-fang, an associate professor in the Graduate Institute of Medical Mechatronics at ­Chang Gung University and an expert in noise pollution, spoke about the effects of sound on the human brain and about the psychological effects of noise pollution. For the last lecture, Tsai Chia-fen, a flautist and an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at National Taiwan Normal University, premiered a piece composed by Hung Wan-chin that was inspired by the soundscape on Mt. Tai­ping.
 
In addition to the lectures, the SAT organized an unprecedented “soundscape walk” through ­Guandu Nature Park. Senior guide Wang Wu­lang took a tack completely different from that of the general “visual” guided tour. He led a group of adults and children in a stroll along the boardwalk that runs through the wetlands, and asked them to use lines and colors to “sketch” the soundscape they were hearing at any given moment. Lin Zi­hao brought along an underwater microphone specially designed for recording the Chinese white dolphin, so that even the sounds of insects that live in water habitats would not go undetected.
 
After that came “Episode I” of the “Soundscape Salon.” The first event, held at the Pagefly.books restaurant, was hosted by Li Zhi­ming, a writer who has devoted himself to “acoustic archeology.” He played old vinyl records of Tokyo’s urban soundscape, bell chimes, Buddhist chants, waves, the jungle….
 
The SAT also officially declared 2015 to be “Soundscape Culture Year 1,” the first year of their campaign to “rescue silence.”
 
After Laila Fan read Gordon Hempton’s book One Square Inch of Silence, a small stone ended up making an amazing journey.
After Laila Fan read Gordon Hempton’s book One Square Inch of Silence, a small stone ended up making an amazing journey.
 
Laila Fan takes a child to hear the sounds of Nature, aiming to help ordinary people gain a more refined auditory sense.
Laila Fan takes a child to hear the sounds of Nature, aiming to help ordinary people gain a more refined auditory sense.
 
This katydid is providing the world with a rhythmic groove that is all its own.
This katydid is providing the world with a rhythmic groove that is all its own.
 
This person by the lake is by no means alone, because thanks to an underwater microphone he is in touch with the sounds of a different world.
This person by the lake is by no means alone, because thanks to an underwater microphone he is in touch with the sounds of a different world.
 
The meaning of silence
Laila Fan has downloaded a sound monitoring and measuring program onto her smartphone, and is in the habit of turning it on everywhere she goes. She has discovered that even in a coffee shop, which ostensibly is a quiet place where people can chill out and read in peace, there are up to 70 decibels of noise (roughly equivalent to a passing car or a vacuum cleaner) from clattering tableware, background music, and conversation. “We are harmed by noise pollution but don’t even know it, and we miss out on many beautiful sounds.”
 
But who doesn’t want to find a quiet corner in the cacophony of our daily lives?
 
There are few things on earth as enchanting as a small wood with moss-covered ground.
There are few things on earth as enchanting as a small wood with moss-covered ground.
 
In that mysterious forest, sounds from many sources follow different frequencies on their way to resonant encounters with the human heart.
In that mysterious forest, sounds from many sources follow different frequencies on their way to resonant encounters with the human heart.
 
Close your eyes and you will enter a completely different soundscape.
Close your eyes and you will enter a completely different soundscape.
 
Cuifeng Lake, a mecca for listening.
Cuifeng Lake, a mecca for listening.
 
The book One Square Inch of Silence, by Gordon Hempton—an acoustic ecologist who has won an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement for his many nature recordings—had a tremendous impact on ­Laila Fan’s soundscape journey. She was so stirred after reading it that she immediately wrote Hempton a letter, and the two began corresponding. Later, Fan sent a small stone from the Xiu­gu­luan River for Hempton to place in Olympic National Park in the US. The backstory for this is that Hempton and the national park had reached an agreement to place a small red stone, gifted to them by a Native American tribal elder, in the park’s Hoh Rainforest, with the goal that at least the space occupied by this stone would be undisturbed by noise. This is where the “one square inch of silence” in the book title came from.
 
Fan chose the Xiu­gu­luan River in Hua­lien County because it has a very diverse natural soundscape as well as long stretches of stillness. And stone also symbolizes “silence” more than anything else in nature.
 
Hempton regularly goes to his “square inch of silence” to measure any possible sound intrusions. The most common are propeller aircraft. When he verifies the source of the sound, he writes a letter to the party concerned to explain to them why it is important to preserve natural silence.
 
Hempton argues that there are two kinds of silence. One is internal, a feeling of respect for life, which is at the level of the soul. The other is external, the feeling when humans put themselves into a natural environment, without modernity or intrusion by manmade sounds. The latter, the silence of listening to the sounds of nature—of hearing the chorus of birds at dawn as the sun caresses and warms the earth—is a right belonging to humans and all living things. But this is going to take education and leadership.
 
The SAT therefore has another dream: They want to form an “alliance” of “one square inch of silence” between the Hoh Rainforest and the moss meadow on the Cui­feng Lake Trail on Mt. Tai­ping.
 
One small step has been taken in another place in Taiwan to reduce noise pollution in nature: Under new rules governing Yang­ming­shan National Park, introduced in late July of 2015, visitors are no longer allowed to play music while hiking.
 
This is real progress, but Fan’s ambitions do not stop there. She hopes that the moss meadow will become a kind of sacred place for silence. She doesn’t want to make visitors speak quietly, she wants to ban talking there altogether, so that it becomes “the most tranquil place in all of Taiwan,” and Cuifeng Lake Trail can be considered Taiwan’s first “silent trail.”
 
Fan believes that acoustics can change the world, and that silence has a positive, nurturing power. Mother Theresa once said that silence is necessary for us to get in touch with our souls. To get in touch with one’s soul is, to put it another way, to come face to face with one’s real self.
 
Yang Jeng-tze, a professor in the Department of Entomology at National ­Chung ­Hsing University, once asked ­Laila Fan, “Why do you enjoy listening to the sounds of nature so much?” Fan thought for a while, then replied: “To rediscover myself, to rediscover my connection to the Earth.”
 
Silence is not the absence of sound, it is the absence of manmade noise that obscures the Nature’s choir of all living things.
Silence is not the absence of sound, it is the absence of manmade noise that obscures the Nature’s choir of all living things.
 
Listening to the journey of the land, it has a Zenlike vitality that can’t be put into words, but which, if you are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, you can intuitively feel.
Listening to the journey of the land, it has a Zenlike vitality that can’t be put into words, but which, if you are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, you can intuitively feel.
 
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama
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