Sonic Gardening

Rustling flora

Joe Swift recently had an interesting article in The Times about sound in the garden. Encouraging gardeners to open our ears, Swift talked about the joys of using all five senses in the garden and on my recent walking expeditions, I have found myself extending his ideas to the wider environment. Some things don’t translate – for instance the evergreens that may create a sonic environment ‘lacking any sound apart from the eerie echo of your own footsteps as you walk through it’ in the garden, create long corridors which echo spookily like tall, organic cathedrals when planted on the scale of a forest plantation. But Swift’s observation that running water creates distinctive and pleasing sounds in a garden is mirrored entirely by the instant aural joyousness created by waterfalls, streams and brooks when out walking in the wild. I have a recording I made in Glencoe last Winter of water bubbling under the frozen surface of an ice-stream; it is quite possibly my favourite recording ever.

Pheasants near an enclosure, which make an enormous flapping sound when disturbed en masse!

Like Swift, I also ‘never tire of the natural sounds of plants’ and I was delighted to read his account of the popping sound of Himalayan Basalm plants because – although they smell sickly, are invasive and shouldn’t be deliberately grown in the UK under any circumstances -I too have observed the joyous, dull pinging of their exploding seedpods when they shed their love at the end of the Autumn. Indeed before Mark and I understood the environmental impact of the plant, we gathered many seeds in order to create our own exploding flowerbed, to also include snapdragons and anything else we could find that would pop nicely. I think Swift rather over-emphasised the volume of the exploding sound as it is my observation that they do not ‘crack like a shot’ in my experience, but the little noise they *do* make is nonetheless very pleasing and worth gently nudging a few bulging seedheads to hear.

I learnt a lot from reading Swift’s words about his banana palms, (‘swaying and brushing the brickwork on the house’) bamboo, (‘vocalising the wind’) and tall grasses like Miscanthus (apparently ‘a slightly punchier and shorter-lived rustle.’) Reading about the corn on his allotment was lovely and reminded me of the way that corn has sounded in large fields that I’ve walked through recently. I also found myself nodding in agreement and remembering the specific, fuzzy, rough surfaces of Sunflowers when reading about his childrens’ plants’ leaves rubbing against each other. It will be no surprise to readers of this blog that I was deeply pleased to see him putting the phrase ‘garden orchestra’ together in relation to one’s selection of trees and shrubs.

My interest was piqued by his observation that he personally finds that ‘it’s the deciduous shrubs with plenty of space between the branches – such as philadelphus and japanese maples – which sound the best’ along with ‘the silver-leafed coyote willow, Salix exigua,’ and I loved his description of honesty pennies, with their ‘papery, rounded seedheads’ and the way they ‘flutter’ in the wind.

It was very encouraging to find an article that looked at how the garden sounds as well as how it looks.

I have been wondering myself whether the wind sounds a specific way in these restless days between Summer and Autumn (I think it does) and have been trying to discern whether Oak, Beech, Willow, Hazel and Pine sound different when rustled by the wind, or not (still not sure about this.) Walking through a field of blackening, indeterminate legumes on Monday, Mark and I stayed very still a few times to hear the nano-pops of the seedpods splitting open along the seams in their dry beds. And I have been noticing the different winds that catch the tops of very tall trees and that distinctive rustles that prevail in great fields of Barley, Corn or Wheat.

Mysterious leguminous plants with nano-popping seed pods

Somewhere on my Edirol I have a recording of wind in Hyde Park, roaming clearly and audibly across a whole avenue of trees in a casual, lolloping roll, and the first crackling sounds of dry leaves fracturing underfoot.

Stately trees ‘vocalising the wind’ in Hyde Park

So I am thinking alot about how to compose via walking; how to walk from one sound experience to another, within a specific season, within a specific landscape. And I am going to spend free moments idly imagining the ultimate sonic garden, where everything is planted for its sounds and the way it creates for the ears.*

I am very thankful to Joe Swift for writing such an evocative and imaginative article in The Times and I hope you enjoy his article too. It’s here.

*This, of course, in between imagining the ultimate knitting projects, where landscape and yarn are seamlessly interwoven in design, colour, origin and concept…

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