Deep Listening: sensing our environment

What does it feel like to connect with all the senses and sensations that your body allows? Sight is such a dominant sense for most people that we overlook the sensory information that hearing, touch and smell bring to our understanding. To consider our bodies in relation to the body of water: think about how our skin particles move through water and how water moves through us, leaving a salty residue. How does deep listening transform our perspective of Plymouth Sound? Does it give clues to the patterns and movements that drift with the tide? Do we hear the underwater drone of the motor boat, the traffic in the shipping channel, do we taste the chemical residue it leaves behind? How can deep listening enable us to become more sensitive to the water itself, and our bodies, and other bodies that move through, within and under this shared space?

These questions were the starting point for our second Sea Swimming Voices workshop, where we led our swimmers in a series of deep listening exercises, designed to explore our sensory connections with the sea as bodies in water – in relation to bodies of water. Creative exercises focused on sensations besides sight, using blindfolds at different points in the workshop to achieve this. For most of us, sight is the primary sensation through which we experience and mediate our understanding of the world. By focussing on sound, touch, and smell we encouraged an embodied understanding of our environment.

As researchers Eva McGrath and Laura Denning arrived at Firestone Bay, they met a diver, Dominic Robinson, sitting on a bench in front of Artillery Tower in a dry suit, attachments of pipes, gadgets, gauges, breathing points, weights. A small roped bag was beneath him and he offered Eva a scallop that he had gathered moments before from the sea bed. He described how he swam past a world of snakelocks, anemones, spider crabs, octopuses, eels that float away, just out of reach. He described how he has been diving out from Firestone Bay for over 20 years, as this sunken river valley creates the perfect diving conditions, covering a range of diving abilities up to 45 metres – and is a beach that is relatively easy to get in and out of. These underwater worlds are going to be explored with our swimmers in our next workshop, but this encounter created the perfect setting to consider all that is in, and out of sight.

The swimmers gathered again, by the beach, talked about their reflections on keeping a diary over the last month, and were honest about how that process has been for them. Swimmers shared how keeping a diary has encouraged them to be more reflective, to take a time of pause after their swims, to listen to their bodies, and note the changes over the days, over the seasons, whilst swimming with different people, with friends. We talked about our bodies as a sensorium, that means with all the senses, and our bodies as data collectors, as we listen, and look, and reach out to what is around us.

In our first exercise of Deep Listening, we gave each of the swimmers a blindfold, and invited them to cover their eyes and listen, for about 10 minutes, to sounds that surround them. Swimmers noted the different pitches and tones of the water, the gurgle sounds which would often echo from one side of the water to the other. For others, they listened in to the sounds of people, dog barks, snippets of conversation, talking, laughing, saying ‘they’re cold’, ‘can’t swim’, scurry of a dog, overwhelmed by the noises that we make. Some swimmers noticed the sound of cars, motors, drones of ships, punctuating the sound waves, in a way they have not ever noticed before. One swimmer described the sea as having a heart-beat that responds to everything on it: waves forms, sounds of waves responding to passing boats, people entering the water. This beat wasn’t a constant rhythm like a meditation drum, but was an ever changing, ever expansive rhythm.

But did closing down sight open up sound?

Sounds bring us back to reality, the city that we navigate and negotiate. But it can be hard to listen to external sounds, when there are internal to-do lists, thoughts. It can be challenging to listen.

For our second exercise, we asked the swimmers to put their blindfolds on again, and open out their hands as we gave them an object collected from the tideline: limpet shells, sea lettuce, kelp, bladder wrack, keel worm burrowed stones. They were invited to hold these objects, smell them, feel the texture, the woven patterns. Spending time focusing upon touch and texture brought memories from childhood up, of gathering and collecting limpet shells from the beach. The exercise led one participant to exclaim in surprise that sea lettuce could be found in the waters of Firestone Bay, and for others revealed the difference between what a swimmer imagined an object might be and what it was. They were surprised that the hard edges seemed to be painful, but actually there was a softness within. Some imagined that these objects looked different – they wanted the sea lettuce to be grey, to be green – willing it to be different, finding peace with what they were. Some weed, such as bladder wrack is an indicator of climate change, wire weed tangled and carried over from the Pacific along with imports of Pacific oysters.

With these exercises situated on the land, we wanted to listen closer to sounds from the water. Dr Clare Embling, a marine ecologist specialising in bioacoustics at the University of Plymouth had kindly lent Eva and Laura one of her hydrophones, a microphone that detects sound waves under water. Eva swam out with the hydrophone connected to a long cable, which Laura held on shore, so that the swimmers could hear the sounds from a slightly deeper part of the water – cable, transmitting sound from water to land, land to water. Participants found these underwater sounds gave them a sense of calm, of connection. They could tell when the sounds were coming from near the surface of the water and when they came from deeper down. 

Listening to sounds underwater then led to a discussion about where those sounds came from – sound pollution, vibration, tidal movements, bioacoustics (the sounds produced by the natural world). We thought about questions relating to water quality from our own, sensory, embodied perspective. Swimmers were asked to reflect: how toxic is this water? If Plymouth Sound was given personhood, how ill is it and what would it take to make it feel better? – inviting swimmers to respond to their encounters with debris/sewerage/oil/toxicity in the Sound, as through the National Marine Park, and through the efforts of MP Luke Pollard, there is a campaign to improve the bathing quality status of the Sound.

Being fully connected with the natural world, and with the ocean that plays such an important part in our lives in and around Plymouth, means connecting through all our senses. In this way we develop meaningful and long-lasting connections that help us commit to caring actions that benefit the water, those that live in the sea, and those of us who spend time in and near the sea.

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