FOREST LISTENING ROOMS (2018-19)
An ongoing project, Forest Listening Rooms invites local communities in the Wayne National Forest in Appalachian Ohio to gather in public outdoor spaces and critically listen to sounds of the forest. This project contends that the simple act of listening to the forest’s past and present can transform its future. Visiting different sites of extraction and recovery, residents take guided soundwalks, listen together in silence, experience archival recordings of past residents, and share their own stories of the forest. It is made possible through a Contemplative Practices Fellowship from A Blade of Grass.
After 80 years of recovery, Ohio’s Wayne National Forest (WNF) is once again under threat. New hydraulic fracturing (or, “fracking”) leases are greatly expanding gas and oil extraction there. This project asks: What does social change sound like? What are the stories of the forest and the people who live there? Through listening, how might people change personally, and how might they change the forest? Building on composer Pauline Oliveros’ meditative and communal “deep listening,” and the directive “What did you hear?” from the sound art collective Ultra Red, participants engage in listening to natural soundscapes around them, archival recordings, and each other’s stories. Past and present become conflated, bleeding into one another to create a space where listeners can address and enact a new future.
The region is deeply divided politically and socially. Residents find themselves caught between fighting for jobs in an economically depressed region, and fighting to end decades of environmental degradation. These differences often correspond to the political spectrum, pitting right against left. Despite divisions, local residents come together over senses of shared places and pasts: histories of the towns and forest; stories of immigration and racial tolerance; and celebrating the region’s long labor history. Through listening, this project asserts the key to social change here necessarily involves connections and discussions over this shared past, the land, and the forest: public lands that can be reclaimed through many different voices of dissent.
In this video to the left, participants came to the Tecumseh Lake Trail (formerly the XX Coal Mine). We took a soundwalk together, paying attention to both the beauty and the scars present across the landscape: the sounds of animals, of the dense forest, and also the sounds of acid mine drainage in nearby streams, and the crunch of century-old coal underfoot. We then sat together in silence, listening for 15 minutes, followed by archival recordings of past local residents from the town. Finally, we had a “story circle,” and following the guidelines set forth by the Roadside Theater, we told each other our own stories about the Wayne National Forest: about land use, extraction, work, and family history.
Each part of this process is meant to build both a trust between participants –– who may come from different backgrounds, beliefs, or political convictions –– and encourage personal transformation through experiencing the sounds and silences of the forest. In each listening session, the forest became a mediator, a common point between participants, an opening to some small personal and social change.
At the heart of this project is a form of contemplative listening. Listening is an act of uncertainty. When we listen closely, we must be open, unsure of what sounds or words we might encounter. Straining to hear, we quiet inner voices and give up control, yet this unlocks new perspectives and visions; listening is thus an invitation to discover, change, transcend. These moments of openness and clarity are nowhere needed more than in our current political and ecological crises, where careful acts of listening have often ceased.
The project’s process is as follows: community members (including residents, miners, well-workers) gather in four outdoor spaces (or, “rooms”) in the forest, to listen in situ. Locations range from the cave where the United Mine Workers secretly formed, to a 130-year old mine fire, to a contemporary fracking drill site. In these spaces, participants experience soundscapes around them mixed with local archival recordings of past residents and miners (projected from audio speakers). Participants hear flowing water, bird calls, plantlife, industrial rhythms, and archival sounds of oral histories, disasters, and protest. Participants then listen to each other as they share their own experiences, hopes, and fears. These stories are recorded and remixed into future sessions, creating a continually expanding feedback loop. The result is a sonic map of the complex past and present of the forest, revealing thoughts, tensions, and emotions of its people.
Parallel to the project, I joined AmeriCorps as a way of serving directly in Shawnee and in the Wayne National Forest. I joined with a local organization called Rural Action, under their Ohio Stream Restore Corps. As a volunteer, I am working primarily with two organizations, Ohio’s Hill Country Heritage Area and The Winding Road; both are dedicated to improving the local economies of Appalachian Ohio.
Many thanks to A Blade of Grass, Jess Holler, Kevin Davison, Joel Oliphint, William Randall, and John Winnenberg for their support on this project.