Written by Kim V. Goldsmith
Eyes closed, breath soft, body relaxed, our ears are tucked inside headphones directing sounds from the microphone on the metal wall, into our bodies. Cavernous, reverberating thrums pulse, twang and groan as the wind and movements in the soil beneath the converted shipping container play the structure like an instrument. Beyond the headphones, woodland birds call out, engine and tyre noise can be heard from the nearby road, suburban sounds of the weekend football game, whipper snippers and a dog barking drift to the edge of town.
This whole-of-body sonic experience was part of the MOSSES AND MARSHES soundwalk at the Tiger Bay Wetland near the Window on the Wetlands (WOW) Centre at Warren NSW—the new home of the MOSSES AND MARSHES exhibition for the month of July. The walk and an artist talk were part of the opening weekend of the exhibition and the last in the public program funded for the Australian leg of the project.
An earlier attempt to run a soundwalk in the Macquarie Marshes as part of the events program at the Outback Arts gallery in Coonamble was washed out in late May. There was a great deal of weather watching in the week leading up to the weekend of 2 July with rain forecast across large parts of NSW that has since led to considerable flooding across the State. What’s been bleak for travel and outdoor activity has been a boon for the wetlands.
Under gloomy (but almost dry) skies, 10 of us set off with a tub of listening equipment. There was lots of chatter as we made our way towards the wetland. It was at this point the listening part of the soundwalk started. My first directive was for everyone to be quiet and note what they heard on the short walk to the bird hide, as they were going to be asked what those sounds were and describe them. Sometimes we lack adequate words to describe what we hear. We have many onomatopoeic words in English but they often become clichés, like the wind sighing in the trees or the twittering of birds.
This exercise also prompted a discussion about what we consider noise and how that might impact the words we choose to describe sounds. Is it mechanical or man-made sound, or can natural sounds be considered noise too—thinking of how annoying crickets, dogs, frogs and cicadas can be?
Going back to the short walk to the bird hide, we talked about the direction of sounds and how man-made structures like the bird hide (a converted shipping container), levy banks like the one nearby, vegetation, and our individual ability to hear can distort our sense of direction or amplify/dampen sounds. This conversation turned to the design of urban environments through sound and the impact noise has on some species and their ability to communicate and reproduce.
Closing our eyes, we listened again—honing in on our auditory senses for sounds dominating the wetland environment of Tiger Bay. The questions that followed were about what we wanted to hear more or less of. Traffic, whipper snippers, and barking dogs were top of the list.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that more-than-human species are listening out for us as much as we’re listening for them, so there were not a lot of wetland birds to be heard. The frog song on the day was also distant. This was when I shared how much waiting and active listening goes into being a field recordist, well before you ever hit the record button. You need to be accepted into that environment before you’ll hear what you were expecting to hear…and not always then.
Before we pulled out the microphones to listen to the sounds of the bird hide, the trees, vegetation and the lagoon, we touched on a really important topic — the loss of acoustic biodiversity. It’s a big field of research, but someone who has written about it recently in a way that hits home is David George Haskell in Sounds Wild and Broken. Well worth the read.
Our microphone play consisted of using the LOM geofón on the bird hide with the neodymium magnet, as well as using the geofón’s probe in the base of a tree by the lagoon. We then pulled out an Aquarian H2a hydrophone for some water listening, placing it in the rotting couch grass on the edge of the lagoon, and then using a boom pole to place it into deeper water near the reeds. The hour was soon up before we had to return to the WOW Centre for the next part of the afternoon’s program.
The soundwalk experience certainly put me in country, utilising the underrated sense of hearing and hugely contributing to my experience of the place, in ways I hadn’t thought of or felt previously. My depth of experience was greatly increased by hearing the sounds previously unheard and quite unimagined. I loved the sound the wind made in a metal space—the bird hide, water moving in the pond and the breathing of the tree, or was it siphoning water, or both…?JUDE FLEMING, WARREN
Images: Cameron Porteous
The following audio samples were recorded the day after the soundwalk using the same equipment and locations. Some sounds heard on the day of the walk were not present the next day, such as the wind through the bird hide and gurgles at the base of the tree. There were also more birds present when I returned alone, picking up the sound of swamp hens and kookaburras through the geofón and hydrophone.
After returning for the artist talk inside the old church at the WOW Centre, I asked the walk participants what sound they remembered most from our time in the wetland. The answers were varied but those who responded expressed a sense of wonder and connection with this sliver of wetland on the edge of town. For some, it was an experience that will stay with them.
Kim Goldsmith’s approach, the scope of her activities and the detail gathered, demonstrated the complacency with which we can accept what we have as the norm. When sharing Kim’s point of view, and her deep listening, I am now more aware of the potential loss occurring in our natural world. This leaves me with a desire for a more abundant landscape visually, audibly and environmentally, and a recognition that all three are intrinsically entwined.JACK RANDELL, DUBBO
The video and sound works from MOSSES AND MARSHES will be at the Window on the Wetlands Centre (in the Visitor Information Centre) until the end of July 2022. The MOSSES AND MARSHES book and postcards are also available for sale from the WOW Centre during this time.
This MOSSES AND MARSHES event was made possible with support from the NSW Government through Create NSW. It has also been supported by the Australian Cultural Fund, Outback Arts, RiverSmart (Window on the Wetlands Centre), and the Macquarie Wetlands Association.