Contributed by Jennifer Schine

This May, I had the opportunity to chair a session at the 2012 ISE Congress called, “Ecologies of Knowing the Biological World”. During this session, I presented a paper, “Soundwalking: Ways of Listening to the Biological World” and showed my short film, “Listening to a Sense of Place” (co-created with Greg Crompton). My objective for this presentation was to present acoustic ecologies of knowing the biological world through sonic interactions with ethnobiology. By attending to the soundscape and our listening habits, we can begin to explore different ways of understanding environments, resources, and ways of knowing and interacting with plants and animals, including how different knowledge holders engage and listen to their cultural and biological environments.

My MA research (and film’s subject) explores how our experience of listening can inform us about the transformation (and continuity) of resource-based living to environmentalism, and the contemporary importance of sound in the cultural history of British Columbia’s coastal communities. My ethnographic focus is on community-supported research with residents of Echo Bay, a fishing and logging community located in British Columbia’s Broughton Archipelago; an area that is now transforming into a remote tourism destination.

Here, I have been recording Billy Proctor, a renowned elder and pioneer in the area, who has spent a lifetime studying, living, and listening to the rhythms of the Northwest coast. I asked Billy to take me to places that were meaningful to him personally, historically, and ecologically and lead me on soundwalks. These encounters were audio-recorded and included Billy commenting on sounds that he heard, other senses that he experienced, and elicited memories, stories and knowledge about certain locations as we walked in situ.

As an alternative format, a soundwalk is an invitation for people to engage with the environment through listening. In its simplest sense, participants of a soundwalk walk silently as a group and listen as they are led along an acoustically interesting route. This practice has the potential to open up one’s ears to the ethnobiological relationships between people, living things, and the environment. Often, the sounds of a place go unnoticed—our body, ears, and ways of listening have become desensitized in our ability to shut out meaningless sounds around us. For many of us, we have stopped actively listening, entirely (Westerkamp, 1974). This has profound effects on how we perceive, interact, and engage with our environment, our community, and our selves.

For researchers within the field of ethnobiology, the act of attentive listening that occurs in a soundwalk can broaden understandings of cultures and the biological world, enabling its participants to move towards an acoustic awareness and to re-learn how to listen to the complex intercultural, environmental, social, cultural, political, and economic experiences of space, place, history, and voice. This film and presentation were an excellent opportunity to present ideas from the fields of acoustic ecology and communication in an interdisciplinary and international context.

Some of the most key concepts and methods in these fields have been developed at my home university, Simon Fraser University, over the past forty years, including the internationally renowned World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE) and the World Soundscape Project (WSP). This panel and presentation offered an acoustic framework for interdisciplinary research and practice across the sciences and social sciences, and specifically for ethnobiologists who are interested in how sound, listening, and the senses can be used in ethnographic work.

Reference: Westerkamp, H. (1974). Soundwalking. Sound Heritage, III/4, 18-27.