Attuning the Senses

Clouds over frozen lake

This multimedia essay on sensorial attunement is the seventh piece in the 2020 Visions: Imagining (Post-) COVID Worlds series, which aims to reflect on the uneven impacts of the “pandemic year” and to consider new futures that might be made possible in its wake. Series editors: Weishun Lu, Juniper Lewis, Richelle Wilson, and Addie Hopes.

Since March 2020, when the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic put the world into self-isolation, I’ve been living in a house at a lake close to the southern border of Ontario and Quebec. By the standards of contemporary urban life, it’s a remote place. It does not matter if you arrive from Ottawa or Montreal. You take the Autoroute de l’Outaouais from either direction, and then turn into one of the side roads. There you pass a smattering of houses and farms, and—once you’ve driven along a sizeable stretch of barely-paved road—you branch off into a small dirt road that later forks into an even smaller path. At an elevated bluff you turn right and, moving down a steep slope, you land on a tree-lined peninsula. That’s when you’ve arrived. With the visual, olfactory, and audible stimuli of city life gone, here your senses turn more easily to the colors, smells, and sounds of trees, plants, moss, water, rock, animals, and air.

Situated at the eastern tip of the rock-layered Canadian Shield, the forest here is filled with the textures and blue green hues of the North. There is red pine, eastern hemlock, balsam fir, a few varieties of larch. The spiky crowns of black and white spruce stretch towards the sky, and flashes of brightness shine forth from white birch and trembling aspen. Along adjacent wetlands and bogs, in summer you’ll find blue iris, bloodroot, trillium, yarrow, and daisies. Then the shallow part of the lake is covered with yellow and white lilies. In fall, goldenrod wraps the ground, and–should you be so inclined–you can collect hen-of-the-woods, morels, mica caps, honey and oyster mushrooms, and more. When you inhale, the aroma of the woods fills your nose.

Blue, green and gray lichen growing on a decaying log
Lichen’s emerald blush on wood. Photo by Author, December 2020.

Now it is winter. The smells and colors have become more muted. The lake has frozen flat. The white mass of ice, grey-brown shades of tree bark, and the dark green of conifers remain. On a sunlit but chill morning I notice how, from under the snow, a frozen piece of wood radiates forth. Lichens cling to its surface. It’s emerald blush produces luminosity. Set against frost-bleached rocks and trees, its color appears all the more bright. An amalgamation of two creatures—a fungus and either an alga or a bacterium—lichen is a light sleeper. From biologist David Haskell, I learn that supple physiology allows it to shine with life when other creatures lock down for winter. Unlike plants who make it through the cold winter months by packing up their cells until spring coaxes them out again, lichen simply surrenders. Its cells do not cling to water as plants, animals, and humans do. They swell on damp days, then crinkle as their air dries. When winter eases for a day, lichen’s luminosity contrasts with the winter-weighed sleepiness of other parts of the forest.

In November, I had moved into a depression. To soothe the pain I began walking across the land in a more focused or, you might say, dedicated way. Instead of gliding in a kayak through wetlands and bogs, as I had done in the summer, I now sat on boulders or walked along ice-frozen paths. Huddled in my coat, I watched wind-stoked gushes of snow flicking through the air. As the temperature dropped further, knee-deep snow made walking more treacherous and slow. I braced myself against tree trunks as I worked my way across banks of snow. Walking along the shore on the frozen lake, I noticed the ice-stiffened branches of high-wood cranberry, red-osier dogwood, willow, and aspen. Creeping wintergreen’s bright-red berries glistened in the snow. I imagined tadpoles, painted and snapping turtles that I watched in spring laying their eggs, and beavers hibernating beneath the ice. Now I can no longer see the huge piles of debris and sticks that, anchored in the mud at the bottom of lake, fortify the beavers’ snow-covered lodges. Somewhere I read that these piles work like cement, making the lodge almost impenetrable and remarkably well insulated. 

Pine needle seen through ice
A pine needle under a ring of ice. Photo by Author, December 2020.

As the world moved into stillness, its soundscape shifted. This shift announced itself not through sonic ruptures, but a gradual lessening in volume. While in April and May a jumble of voices—from the deep moan of bullfrogs to the boisterous hammering of woodpeckers—announced the passage from winter to spring, in summer the tremulous cries of loons echoed across the lake. When in September the leaves started turning, I listened to the honk of wild geese migrating to places in the southern US. Now all I hear is the chick-a dew of chickadees and churr of chipmunks. Polar wind ripping across tree crowns. The sound of ice pellets hitting the nylon of my jacket. And the crunch of my boots on ice.

A deep, hollow sound emerged from the lake. Like drum skin, ice is dynamic, and vibrates up and down when temperatures change. Its tone changes too. In November, glassy, see-through ice released a high-pitched sound when I chucked a rock at the frozen water. Now, as mounds of snow cover the ice, a chuck with a rock produces a lower resonance. The cold does not only bear down on bodies, but also bends sound. Years ago, when I did some research in the archives of the International Whaling Commission, I traced a variety of songs produced by humpback whales. One of the groans that vibrated forth from the lake reminded me of such a song. Humans often describe these songs as haunting because they are reminders of what we cannot easily decipher and see. Carried along by liquid sound waves, these tunes also reminded me that at the root of the word attunement lies an appeal towards a sonic orientation towards the world.

Chickadees. Chipmunks. The sound of ice contracting and expanding. Standing, sitting, watching, and listening in silence attuned my senses to other presences and beings: non-human, other-than-human, more-than-human. Although the ebb of sound, colors, and smell in the cold induces people to frequently describe life in winter in ways that mark it as stultifying and dull, the world around me was alive. Directing my attention outward towards this life brought into focus the sound of animals, color of organisms, and feel of air that otherwise I might have more easily bypassed. The paradox of stillness is that in its presence you become more aware of the presences of others that you might otherwise not have noticed. As I stood and listened at the lake’s shore, the wren that in December skirted me by a foot or two showed no alarm when it passed me by. For a moment we held each other’s eyes. And then sauntered along on our way.

Snowfalling in a snow-covered birch forest.
Spikey crowns of birch and spruce. Photo by Author, January 2021.

In asking us to look around rather than ahead, anthropologists, biologists, historians, and Indigenous and literary scholars have started to point to the significance of listening to help cultivate new perspectives. For example, David Haskell, whom I’ve mentioned before, incorporates practices from meditation to connect with the life that goes on in a small patch of old-growth-forest in Tennessee. I, too, learned from meditation, especially those associated with the collected concentration practices accentuated in zen. Here I find the feeling-listening practice taught by Martine Batchelor especially helpful. Feeling-listening recognizes that there is a tonality to our feelings, and that atmospheres and moods are marked by tones, vibes, and sounds. Exterior stimuli weave themselves into interior senses, emotions, and thoughts. There is no discrete boundary between what we habitually call the environment, our consciousness, and our senses.

I received one of my first lessons of this truth years ago when I spent several months with Chavchuveny women and men in reindeer herding camps in the tundra in northern Kamchatka. Every morning in winter I would travel by sled with one of my teachers to a ridge of rocks overlooking what to me then seemed like a vast expanse of iced white. There we would lie for hours on our bellies, looking carefully at snowy mounds and elevations, examining color shadings of snow and ice. A crack in the ice, hand-sized track of wolverine, undulating trail of lynx, and ice-stiffened twigs of shrubs were signs of the presence of others and points of orientation. The first lesson my teacher asked me to learn was to notice and read these presences and orientations. The second lesson I was asked to learn was perhaps more poignant and subtle. To recognize that only with the help of others can we find our way back. To the tundra camp. Home. 

At the end of one of the roads close to the house at the lake is a small cemetery. Consecrated in the mid-nineteenth century, its headstones commemorate the lives of French, Irish, Scottish, and English settler colonialists and farmers. For the few people who live at the lake and in surrounding houses and farms, these headstones tend to be material reminders of nineteenth-century migrations of great-grandfathers and mothers leaving behind a life marked by economic hardship and/or religious persecution. For my Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe friends, they are material reminders of colonial history and a violence that parceled out communal land into private property and modes of belonging. They also mark the devaluation of modes of knowledge in which humans are not separate from but are nature. Biological graphs and flow charts do not capture everything there is to know, and sensorial attunement to other-than-human beings is a vital practice to understand the flows of life all around us. Should such an attunement break, life is diminished.

A rural cemetery covered in deep snow
Snow-covered headstones as markers of migration and colonization. Photo by Author, January 2021.

Notwithstanding nascent developments in academia and public science, by and large sensorial attunement continues to be absent from the formal training of, say, anthropologists, biologists, historians, and others. It is not just our educational training but also our relationship to the world that may be the poorer for it. When at the lake with the help of a computer, I called up articles and photographs of flowers, mushrooms, birds, and trees that I was unable to name, I came across a lot of scientific writing that talked about animals and plants as sources for data extraction and whose values seamlessly overlapped with global commodity markets. It may just be the case that observational models and objectivist tastes for dispassion, dressed up as academic rigor, produce callousness in the world. The pleasure the painted turtle that I saw in September might have taken in basking in the sun has no place in such writing and thinking. Sensorial attunement may be shaped by cultural assumptions. But so are modes of research and knowledge that elide shared-ness–with all the joys and responsibilities that shared-ness implies.

We have to do more than reach into the depth of our personal wounds if healing is to occur. We may also have to shed some of our explanatory frameworks and scientific assumptions to open ourselves to the lives and knowledge of others. This is not an anti-science stance or retreat into the mystic, esoteric, or romantic. Rather, it is a way to not brush past the insights gained by learning in other ways. As a particular mode of attention, sensorial attunement brings into awareness the presence of others, non-human forms of being, networks of life. Sitting, watching, and walking in silence for so many hours and so many days peeled back some of the barriers between the world and my senses, intellect and emotions. By bringing to my attention the world around me, I also began to tone down the upheavals of my mind and see the world more clearly. As a practice, sensorial attunement is not arduous. But it requires the willingness to be open to what one might hear, see, or feel.

Audio: Sound of water moving under ice. Recording by author, December 2020.

Featured image: The lake at the southern border between Ontario and Quebec. Photo by Author, December 2020.

Petra Rethmann is a Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University. She teaches and writes on politics and materiality, history, memory, and art. Attention to writing is important to everything she does. She is currently working on three concrete projects: 1) an edited volume situated at the intersection of anthropology and art; 2) a book on art, trauma, and haunting, and 3) a study on the transnationality of politically conservative affects that aims to create possibilities for change. A future project will consider the conditions and effects of resource extraction, specifically coal, and how these effects articulate themselves in the Anthropocene. Website. Contact.