Listening to the Journey: Hypersensitive Hearing on the Trail

Sun on the Pacific Crest Trail

Since I started walking the Pacific Crest Trail seven weeks ago, I’ve undergone a number of physiological and mental changes. Living outdoors and walking somewhere between 10 and 20 miles a day has made my feet stronger and more agile (along with the rest of my body), my idea of what tastes good and my desire to eat is in constant obsessive flux, and my sense of time has expanded, too. One of the biggest changes that has occurred, however, relates more specifically to working with sound and music as a composer—an alteration in my sense of hearing.

Over the last few weeks, my hearing has changed dramatically. Sounds are much sharper and clearer, as well as more complex. I take time to analyze what I’m hearing and to react to it. This shift in perception is also part of an overall greater alertness in all my senses, such as vision—spotting the tiniest of things moving on the hillside or being able to make out a friend’s shoe print amongst others. A sea of sagebrush has greater relief and detail and parsing out the different shades of gray in clouds is easier—they seem infinitely more complex than any clouds I’ve seen before. Birds I may have disregarded in an everyday city moment now alert me to look up and see a rattlesnake on the trail. At other times, the perception of sound becomes downright psychedelic—hearing becomes not unlike the experience of certain ethnobotanicals. Occasionally voices seem to arrive out of water, echoing off a rock face; the particular way the wind sounds in trees will strike me as funny and I’ll chuckle endlessly at it, or a birdcall will echo in my head, morphing and becoming almost like a series of sine tones until I’m no longer sure what part is birds, what part is sounds in my head, and what’s happening in real time.

Part of this new sense of alertness in hearing comes simply from not being in a city environment for a prolonged period of time—the current, though ever-shifting sonic surroundings are for the most part without too much human intersection. That is to say, I have the luxury of experiencing one sound at a time usually—just the infinite sounds of the natural world that are all around us without the trappings of cars, refrigerator humming, phone buzzing, music in the distance, etc., that our busy sonic landscape is filled with in contemporary life. However, this new sense hearing also comes from a physiological alteration of my brain becoming better at picking out sounds, which stems from the pure endurance of what I am undertaking by walking great distances for days on end. When under duress our bodies pump a cocktail of hormones into our brains, a primal reaction meant to help us simply survive. These two factors intertwining are what is creating my current state of sonic perception.

This altered mental state finds a home in other arenas of endurance as well. Since the 1960s in Occidental culture, we find many people hunting that “runners high” or a similarly psychedelic perceptual brightening that comes from rock climbing or even roller coaster rides. In Japan, an esoteric sect of Tendai Buddhism utilizes running as an ascetic form of meditation—running for 100 days followed by isolated meditation for several days. Once when speaking to a monk, he described to me the sound of the ash falling from burning incense during the final days of mediation sounding like thunder. In my own Zen practice during a retreat once, I heard a thud behind me, but upon inspection later I discovered that it was simply the petal of a tulip that had fallen. So, perhaps endurance events and meditation, when intertwined, affect our hearing in similarly expansive ways.

The descent from 13200 ft Forester Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail

The descent from 13200 ft Forester Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail

Part of my project while on this hike involves attempting to instill bioregionalism via field recordings that I’ll surely use in the music I’m writing all summer, but more specifically through the music that my series of West Coast collaborators are writing. When we listen to field recordings, at least a small amount of this heightened awareness that I’ve been talking about occurs, and it opens up those doors of perception. Scott Worthington is the second of the eight composers to receive and work with my field recordings, and he had this to say about hearing, field recordings, sense of place, and his writing process:

I had never composed with field recordings before and making this piece gave me two strong impressions. First, I immediately noticed that, when played continuously, the recordings made me imagine being at the site of their creation. For example, in my piece, when I hear the birds fade in around one minute in and continue for a few minutes, I imagine sitting in a dense forest just after dawn. This isn’t a daydreaming kind of imagination; I am both transported and completely aware of my actual surroundings. Second, during and after writing this piece, my own local surroundings—in my apartment and walking around town—literally sounded different. I noticed the same kind of bird calls from the recordings. I heard sounds I’m positive I’d been hearing for the past year as though for the first time. Even traffic sounds different. I didn’t hear these “new” sounds as music, but they made me feel more attached to my surroundings in an aural sense (which is a sense I’m quite fond of).

Being a little less than halfway into the hike, I’m curious what other physiological changes will occur in relation to my senses—certainly an unknown factor, and one I’m excited to embrace. Perhaps, to paraphrase Gary Snyder, this sense of hearing and alertness that comes with living closer to the natural world is a reminder that, as living beings, we are not only invited to the feast, but we are also part of the main course. In this deep sense of alertness and awareness, we find the root of simply being alive, and at the moment this feels to me like the place where language and music arise from in humans—making order out of the perfectly balanced chaos of the earth.

Where’s Nat at? When he sent in this post from the trail, he was approximately where the red dot is.

Where’s Nat at? When he sent in this post from the trail, he was approximately where the red dot is.

Read Nat’s previous post here.

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4 thoughts on “Listening to the Journey: Hypersensitive Hearing on the Trail

  1. Warner Springs Monty

    Your Facebook post about sounds hypersensitive hearing on the trail caught my attention. I am also a songwriter and a lifetime ASCAP member. I also have hyperacousis and misophonia 24/7. You are the FIRST person I have found who has written about sounds and sensitivity on the trail. A cool thing that happens to me is when I sleep near a waterfall, I actually hear music clearly. As I am going into my end of the day relaxation and meditation I HEAR the symphomy. The first time this happened I walked up and down the trail looking for the radio, honestly.
    Do you get songs in your head for miles and only know a few lines of lyrics?☺

    1. Nat

      It’s wild what being out there does to your hearing, isn’t it? I have a feeling there are many others out there who feel the same, or perhaps have greater awareness of different senses than hearing – we’re all different I suppose. Thanks for your note!

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  3. Jeff Winslow

    Fascinating! Remember me to the hermit thrushes, masters of motivic invention who put many composers to shame. Plus they’re not afraid of simple or extended tonality either one. Just try finding one in Central – or Prospect – Park!


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