When My Silence is On

 

by GIULIA LEPORI

View Giulia Lepori's Biography

Giulia Lepori is a gardener and PhD candidate in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, at Griffith University, Brisbane.

When My Silence is On

by GIULIA LEPORI

Opening

This multimedia essay is a reflection on the practice of listening, drawing on the Italian ethnographic fieldwork of my doctoral research in the environmental humanities. Over one year, from an autoethnographic standpoint, I investigated the discourses and practices of two families1 in dialogue with their permacultural sites, to embody and narrate ecological and place-based stories around the imaginaries of water, plants, food and waste. Following the principle of multispecies storying, which "rejects the idea that narrative is an anthropocentric 'proper'" (van Dooren and Rose 4), I base my research on the concept of the "storied matter". In this view, material phenomena, like air, food, bodies, "can be 'read' and interpreted as forming narratives" (Iovino and Oppermann 1). Thus, my writing is informed by an interdisciplinary methodology, which intertwines ecocriticism with multispecies and autobiographical ethnography, multimodal storytelling and embodiment.

This piece has a double aim: to emphasise the importance of listening as a non-anthropocentric investigative method and life mode, and to contribute to the conversation around the human ability to mediate the communicativeness of the more-than-human world.2 The underlying assumption is that human beings can verbally translate the other voices of the world insofar it is recognised that this translation plays at a semantic level, where it can convey intelligible meanings to other human beings. To be sure, such (un)translation does not imply the impossibility of entering meaningful relations with nonhuman beings, rather it invites us to consider nonverbal ways of communication, especially listening. For this reason, the following writing will appear as a blend of field notes, recordings and audio-visual material3.

Last year, for six months, I dwelled with the family of permaculture designers Simona Trecarichi and Danilo Colomela. At the Centre for Development of Consciousness - Thar dö Ling, in Serra Canneto, in the Valley of Sagana, in Sicily - I realised why I had chosen their site for my research on popular ecological imaginaries, which I consider to be the images within the ecological stories that Western(ised) people live by. It was neither for permaculture4, nor for their exemplarity (even though these were influencing factors). It was a matter of affect. At their place, I had felt peace.

23.07.2019
💧makes music
is made by the wind
whistling into the food forest
that is made of eucalyptuses
and acacias and thyme and lavender
and rosemary
that I know
how it feels to receive some
💧when I am thirsty in the body
telling the mind that thoughts
seek refreshment in the 💧
mixing the ♫ of the orchestra
that plays within

Digression

This multimedia essay is also a glimpse of my urban self as I collected pieces of her ecological becoming during a prolonged stay in the nonurban environment of Serra Canneto. By 'ecological becoming' I intend the development of an awareness of my being ecological. Within this writing, such contextualization is needed to state my positioning towards the conventional idea of the urban/nature divide. As Thom van Dooren notes, the challenges of our epoch require us to "work across [...] divisions to acknowledge rich and consequential patterns of entanglement" (4). Given that, as Timothy Morton puts it, "[i]n ecological awareness, 'away' has disappeared [...]. If there is no away, then there is no here" (211; italics in original). By knowing, "for example, that our toilet waste doesn't go to some special different place called 'away', it just goes somewhere else" (211) I can appreciate that urban and nature are a continuum within the multiplicity of the world. In fact, as much as this presentation is rooted in the Sicilian countryside of Italy, it unfolded in a Queensland city in Australia. In fact, as much as humans are affected by the places they inhabit, it is the type of perception that either emphasises or blurs divides. Brisbane: two cats, potted plants, birds from the window, a buzzing that catches the ear, I saw it, a flower's perfume, the rain on the skin. As human, I can decide to view them either as independent entities separated from my life or, as David Abram writes, as interconnected phenomena that I perceive through "the elemental medium in which we are immersed" (301), that is air. Such a perceptive shift is at the core of consciously becoming and being ecological, which is possible through practices of ecological awareness, such as attentive listening to relations that are other than human.

For Luce Irigaray, "air is the most essential element to terrestrial life [...] that has the greatest power to ensure a mediation between the different states of matter, within us and outside of us" (Irigaray and Marder 27; italics in original). By acknowledging that air is the medium through which living beings receive and pass on all sensory messages, breath can be understood as the primal sound. "Breathing is the first and the last gesture with regards to life, but to recover one's breath in Paris, the city in which I was living, was not an easy task," writes Irigaray (21). In a prose that strictly separates the urban from nature, situating humans at its intersection, I read that in cities "all is rigid," there are "same sounds," and "the unchanging state of things is accompanied by a feeling of unsafety" (57). Having to deal with "how to adjust yourself according to the noise of the traffic or the neighbors, the hours of work, the opening of shops, the transportation" (57) it would seem that the more we delve into the urbanised the further we deafen the basic experiencing of life.

Audio: river water (2)

According to Donna Houston et al., because of urban planning's history of viewing cities as separate from nature, we fail to see how humans and nonhumans co-construct and cohabit urban environments. Such failure accounts for what Val Plumwood defined as "the foundational delusion of human self-enclosure" (29). Indeed, urban environments are increasingly saturated with the reflection of us. Therefore, it is easier to forget that all places, whether a mountain village or a metropolis, are "relationally constituted: [...] animals, sites, and stories all shape, and are shaped by, entangled and circulating patterns of intra-action" (van Dooren and Rose 1). The word "intra-action", as developed by Karen Barad, understands agency as a dynamism of forces in which everything is constantly exchanging and diffracting, influencing and working inseparably (Barad 141). Within her relational ontology, the difference between the other and myself is structured by affirmative relations that create the possibility of ongoing becoming. Sound is one such relation. Beginning with our breath, as the fundamental medium for both verbal and nonverbal interactions, sound characterises our existence as sonorous and kinetic beings inhabiting the biosphere (Abram 167).

Audio: river water (1)

From an anthropological point of view, sound is "neither mental nor material, but a phenomenon of experience - that is, of our immersion in, and commingling with, the world in which we find ourselves" (Tim Ingold 137; italics in original). It "is not the object but the medium of our perception. It is what we hear in" (138; italics in original). Upon this coordinate, attentive listening becomes a practice of ecological awareness that redirects our participation in the world. However, suggests Irigaray, "to reach such a way of listening, we must first experience what silence is" for it is "the first dwelling of coexisting in difference" (50). Here, my stance on silence is that it does not exist unless we refer to the seemingly unattainable silencing of human inputs of verbal language. Drawing on Salomé Voegelin, silence is not the absence of sound, but the beginning of listening as the beginning of communication. "This is listening as a generative process not of noises external to me, but from inside, from the body, where my subjectivity is at the centre of the sound production, audible to myself" (83). This considered, urban selves can evidently increase the opportunities of attentive listening to/in nonurban environments, where there are fewer human sounds. This practice of subjective investigation informs my learning to recognise and enhance more-than-human relations in quintessentially human places. In the affirmative ethics of Rosi Braidotti, "the task is not to become intimate with an inward-looking definition of an egotistic self, but rather become intimate with the world, looking outwards, pouring out interrelations with the world - a world that is non-human, technological, non-Western, an infinity of diverse entities" (183). Her posthuman perspective can be combined with Voegelin's ethics of listening, which demands a participation in the heard that challenges the notion and absoluteness of the self as well as "the manner and purpose of any interaction" (2018). Breathe.

Thar dö Ling

When my silence is on, there is breath. Nothing beyond myself can be silence to me, because I can hear. I walk the land and I am sound, from my breath to my steps. The awareness of the breath is the acknowledgement of my being constantly aurally perceiving the process of formation of the world, which makes me as much as I make it.

Video: walk in the rain

As I breathed, so I moved, walking in the patterns carved by the two streams of water that enclosed the land, by the fallen leaves, crossing dragonflies, entering the bees' flight paths, meeting the faeces of the donkeys Dondolo and Giorgiana, cracking broken branches with my weight, squishing with my feet ripe olives that turn into soil. My steps adding to the sonic flow of the world. When I lowered the volume of verbal language, I could practice hearing my body through other bodies, engaging with the nonhuman languages that surrounded and permeated me. The warming rock emanating the smell of lichens as I sit on them, the velvety touching of lavender leaves as I harvested them, the soil filling my fingernails as I dug barehanded. The buzzing insects as I walked attracted by the same flowers. "Could I learn them?" I often wondered. Along the same lines, critic John Berger asks himself "whether natural forms - a tree, a cloud, a river, a stone, a flower - can be looked at and perceived as messages [...]. Is it possible to 'read' natural appearances as texts?" (136). He is convinced that such messages "can never be verbalised, and are not particularly addressed to us" (136), even so they are to be witnessed by us. Similarly, I argue that a conscious experience of sounds implies our mediated perceptions, and not a sudden understanding of nonhuman languages. Thus, attentive listening, like reading matter, is a mode of communication that expands within the realm of contemplation and beyond that of semantic language. It is the acknowledgement that the human self is not the centre of the world's "selfhood" (Mathews 2006). As Voegelin puts it, "[t]he listening 'I' is not at a distance from the proceedings, and not in the middle either, but is part of it, another autonomous substance that sounds with others and in whose simultaneity it comes to its own temporal form: formless and passing" (2018). Focus on your breath.

Video: oregano

12.05.2019
Listening like mindfulness.
Listening like showing appreciation, not only for a sound, but also for a texture.
Nonhuman phenomena that can be listened to in Serra Canneto:
Nocella River
Mount Gibilmesi
Dondolo and Giorgiana
Bees
Attentive listening is an act of honouring other beings through their various voices and sounds. Today the wind is powerfully speaking through the world. It's the wind that is making me stay here inside reading about listening. Because of it, it's quite cold outside. I didn't imagine this weather! Some birds chirping arrive to my ears through the closed windows of the meditation room. We are being told that Spring is here, but we perceive a cold one - showers are arriving... a rooster is singing. Clouds move quickly. What is the wind saying?
Certainly, the weather influenced our relationship with the bees. Because of low temperatures, the new families that we brought home three days ago cannot go out in search of nectar. "They could starve to death," said Danilo. So, this morning we had to intervene and deliver to the hives some juice in a jar - made of water and honey.
Listening as a dialogic experience with land.

At the Centre Thar dö Ling, I was an attentive listener to both human and nonhuman storytellers. In the attempt to consider the frogs' chants with the same attentiveness that I would devote to an interview with Simona and Danilo, my practice was particularly useful for attuning to nonverbal and nonhuman interactions.

Audio: cicadas

The cicadas were an indication of the heat during daylight, whereas the frogs took the evening stage. Through them, I could understand the changes in the weather and the general state of the land and water. Thanks to Danilo's naturalist knowledge, I was able to associate the sounds of birds to their names and their overall meaning for the ecosystem. By tuning into Simona gestures, I discovered the multispecies and elemental relations behind the extraction of essential oils from plants. As I turned the bokashi compost, I could distinguish the roosters' crows and hens' vacillating voices, as well as my body's parts. I could hear the donkey's brays and know that they were interacting with me when our eyes met. When my silence was on, I could perceive the interconnectedness of more-than-human expressiveness carried by the inhale and exhale of the world. Yet it would have been presumptuous, when writing down my sonorous experiences, to assume that I was verbally transposing my sensorial perceptions as accomplished translations, like I did with human conversations. That is where attentive listening is a way to embrace the uncertainty that comes with nonverbal and nonhuman interactions. This mode of communication makes us familiar with the responsibility of acknowledging the intangible. The words of van Dooren come to mind, "grappling with multiplicity is not an endeavor to tell others' stories but rather simply to tell my own stories in responsible ways" (11).

15.05.2019
Talking about animals understanding our language, knowing that we are speaking about them, and tacitly respecting agreements. In this case: the donkeys knowing that they should not escape. We took off the external leaves of the cauliflowers as we discussed matters at the door. When we brought them food, they were already waiting for us. They heard our actions. Simona is convinced of this interaction. She also mentioned the bees. She said, "sometimes, when we are in the kitchen discussing something to do with the bees, and the window is open, they come to say 'hi', they buzz around for a while and then go out by themselves." She said it's because they are aware that we are mentioning them.

Audio: donkeys

Mediation

My in-situ acts of investigation came across as mediations, which written translations play in the human milieu of verbal language. In constantly transposing someone or something else's story to my writing, I conceived myself as the composer of ecological stories mediated by my multilayered perceptions: strata of embodied thoughts, which arrived from breath, senses, books, participant observation, human and more-than-human voices and gestures, contemplation, and speculation. However, I remind myself that at the origin of every story there is the medium of sound. Inhale.

19.05.2019
Simona: "the road to coherence is not well-paved: it is full of obstacles that bring negative emotions."

Sommacco {Sumac}
Motosegha/tagliaerba {Chainsaw/lawnmower}

Uccelli {birds} all around

dogs barking

bees bees bees buzzing
butterflies
birds
bees flying around my head
the wind behind my neck is
like the sound of a donkey's
breath
the cold I feel under my bottom
I am sitting on
a big solid rock that hosts
lichens
symbiosis
flies, where are you?
Avena di campo {wild oat}
Behind me the river I barely
Hear
In front of me the river I
Cannot hear
North
South
House in the middle of the street
Human voice of male
My breath, the feeling of
My teeth
My hand is coldish, the left one
I write with the right
To capture parts of dandelion
Flying
A kiss
My lips are wet
Smell of saliva
Handwriting is bigger and fuller
More dogs barking
The page next to this one communicates
With the wind

Recollection in tranquillity: the agency of a bee, son fuggita a gambe levate, come nelle novelle di Boccaccio {I ran like hell, as in Boccaccio's novellas}. Sul cocuzzolo seduta {sitting at the summit} reflecting on the world narrating itself, I got stuck with a bee - she was buzzing nervously around my hair and I got scared that she would sting me and I ran away after trying to resist a little to her noise, not sound, but noise. She was angry. I lost my notebook's pages and forgot my beekeeper hat and gloves and water.

The above notes (May 12, 15 and 19) contain instances of verbal translation for humans (but not limited to their sake)5 to make sense of the world's polyphony and multiplicity. The reporting of my interactions with Simona and Danilo involved a four-layered mediation: from my sense perception to words, from my and their native Italian to English, from oral/aural to written language, from paper pages to digital ones. Such multilayered mediation applied also to the reporting of interactions that happened as I was alone with my diary. Although these entailed the shift towards the witnessing communication that Berger outlines, they did not involve my verbal silencing.

Audio: compost turning

On the 19th of May, the poetical writing happened on a big lichen-covered energetic rock, in the natural apiary located at the top of the flowered hill that faces the house. I went there purposefully to write while sitting on that specific spot, which I enjoyed for my listening practices. It was the beginning of my fieldwork and I wanted to explore writing as I listened. I listened, then started writing. First, a phrase of Simona's that I wished to jot down. I heard it, I remembered it, I mediated it, I translated it. Suddenly I stopped writing, trying to concentrate on being present there. Immediately though, a stream of sounds. Again, I write, in the order of intensity in which I hear them, as the words come to me. I heard them, I mediated them, I translated them. Such experience of awareness was instantly transposed to paper, whereas the last part of the note was written later after the happening. There I was, my translator from senses to words, verbally recording sonorous experiences soon to be echoic memories, and the translator for a potential human audience - as is the case with this essay - to receive the aural interactions. The braces around the English words - in the poetic text above - act as secondary translations, for readers other than me.

Perhaps you imagined my encounter with that bee. Her frightening buzzing. You might have related to my panting and the sound of my feet running down the hill. My heart drumbeating. Though, my describing her as 'angry' cannot account for the myriad of meanings carried by our interaction. As Cooke notices, in his discourse on ethological poetics, "[i]n life, as in poetry, expression always exceeds our comprehension" (312).

Video: bees swarming

Then, how to explore nonverbal and nonhuman interactions without falling into an anthropocentric realm? This question addresses my interactions as I simultaneously practiced my silence. The nonhuman and nonverbal stories of, for example, two dragonflies mating above the pond, the shield bugs living inside the wild carrot flowers, human bodies in movement.

Video: harvesting wild carrot

These stories narrate a multispecies and elemental dialogue between human and land. Dialogue, because the practices of ecological awareness that I used to interact, such as attentive listening, were also conceived to purposefully leave aside verbal language, to engage with the place and its inhabitants out of the borders of denomination and description. At the Centre Thar dö Ling I connected communicatively simply by listening to and allowing myself to be listened to, as I enacted my life. It was physical, sensorial and performative.6 Saluting the sun, lying down on the clover-covered land, staying with the bees, smelling recently cut pine wood, touching water with my feet, watering young trees, sitting with the wind, untangling the branches of an olive tree, smelling a sun-heated rock, letting Tarti the turtle walk on my belly, trying to shoo flies with my head to imagine how Dondolo and Giorgiana feel, touching musk, my hand inside the compost pile, dancing with the night, squeezing a honeycomb.

Audio: honey extraction

I accept my words as mediators for translations that do not fully translate more-than-human polyphony and multiplicity. Yet, they can create stories that "play a role in the imagining and shaping of possibilities" (van Dooren 14) to evade the anthropocentric perspective. Their narrations and interpretations can put into the foreground an appreciation of the world's communicative capacities as a mode of life. Exhale.

Video: harvesting olives

Inclusion

My argument for the (un)translation of nonverbal and nonhuman stories is an act of modesty towards the relational world that I am learning to acknowledge. Before the engagement with my research I already sensed the interconnectedness I live in, even though my perceptions were more guided by categoric thought. During my first ethnographic fieldwork the practice of attentive listening for the cultivation of ecological awareness, illuminated the medium of all possibilities. It is constantly within me, wherever I am, allowing me to feel included in the world. Breath is my continuum.

Works Cited

Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. Vintage Books, 2011.

Abram, David. "The Commonwealth of Breath." In Material Ecocriticism edited by Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann. Indiana University Press, 2010, pp. 301-314.

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke university Press, 2007.

Berger, John. Confabulations. Penguin Random House, 2016.

Braidotti, Rosi. "Affirmative ethics, posthuman subjectivity, and intimate scholarship: A conversation with Rosi Braidotti." Decentering the Research in Intimate Scholarship, Advances in Research on Teaching, vol. 31, 2018, pp. 179-188.

Cooke, Stuart. "Toward an Ethological Poetics. The Transgression of Genre and the Poetry of the Albert's Lyrebird." Environmental Humanities, vol. 11, no. 2, November 2019, pp. 302-323.

Cooke, Stuart. "Writing Towards and With: ethological poetics and non-human lives." a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, vol. 35, no.1, 2020, pp. 63-79.

Holmgren, David. Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability. Revised ed., Melliodora Publishing, 2017.

Houston, Donna, Jean Hillier, Diana MacCallum, Wendy Steele and Jason Byrne. "Make kin, not cities! Multispecies entanglements and 'becoming-world" in planning theory." Planning Theory, vol. 17, no. 2, 2018, pp. 190-212.

Ingold, Tim. Being Alive. Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. Routledge, 2011.

Iovino, Serenella and Serpil Oppermann. "Theorizing Material Ecocriticism: A Diptych." ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 19, no.3, Summer 2012, pp. 448-475.

Iovino, Serenella and Serpil Oppermann, eds. Material Ecocriticism. Indiana University Press, 2014.

Irigaray, Luce and Michael Marder. Through Vegetal Being: Two Philosophical Perspectives. Columbia University Press, 2016.

Mathews, Freya. The Ecological Self. Routledge, 2006.

Mollison, Bill. Permaculture: A Designer's Manual. Tagari, 1988.

Morton, Timothy. Being Ecological. Pelican Books, 2018.

Plumwood, Val. "Nature as Agency and the Prospects for a Progressive Naturalism." Capitalism Nature Socialism, vol. 12, no. 4, December 2001, pp. 3-32.

Ryan, John C. Plants in Contemporary Poetry: Ecocriticism and the Botanical Imagination. Routledge, 2018.

Stibbe, Arran. Ecolinguistics: Language, ecology and the stories we live by. Routledge, 2015.

van Dooren, Thom. The Wake of Crows. Living and Dying in Shared Worlds. Columbia University Press, 2019.

van Dooren, Thom and Deborah Bird Rose. "Storied-places in a multispecies city." Humanimalia, vol. 3, no. 2, Spring 2012, pp. 1-27.

Voegelin, Salomé. Listening to noise and silence: Towards a philosophy of sound art. Continuum, 2010.

Voegelin, Salomé. "Ethics of Listening." Journal of Sonic Studies, vol. 2, 2018, https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/224829/224830/0/2942. Accessed 30 June 2020.

Footnotes


  1. From May 2019 to November 2019, with Centre Thar dö Ling, in Italy; the Centro per lo sviluppo della consapevolezza -- Thar dö Ling is an association of social promotion and a permacultural site, whose characteristic activities include environmental education, natural beekeeping, plant-based medicinal preparations and permaculture design. From November 2019 to March 2020, with Artist as Family, Australia. They are a family of artists who live on the permacultural plot Tree Elbow, where they established their School of Applied Neopeasantry.

  2. In literary studies, see, for example, Stuart Cooke's work on ethological poetics (2019, 2020) and John C. Ryan's work with phytocriticism (2018). 

  3. The recordings and audio-visual material come from both a GoPro and a video camera, which belong to the filming equipment of my partner Michał Krawczyk, with whom I shared the fieldwork sites. As soon as we started working together, I began conceiving my experience as a meta-ethnography, for I too was one of the characters in his ethnographic films. The more I engaged with being filmed, the more I experimented with his tools for my empirical collection, adding recorded sounds and moving images to the analysis' material for illustrative purposes. 

  4. Permaculture (Mollison 1988; Holmgren 2002) is (a manner of dwelling) the design of human habitats in nurturing relations with the more-than-human biotic and elemental communities. 

  5. If we consider the mediating power of words as able to affect reality, either with the air that they move through as we speak aloud, or with the effect they may have on our behaviour, we can attempt to reposition the question of verbal translation in non-anthropocentric inclusive terms. Two examples come to mind: Ingold's anthropological approach, according to which "the things of this world are their stories, identified not by fixed attributes but by their paths of movement in an unfolding field of relations" (160; italics in original). In his view, the key to human cultures resides in the art of storytelling (164). As we grow into our embodied knowledge through stories (intended as what lies underneath common ways of writing and speaking), we should endeavour to carefully examine the stories we live by, as argued by ecolinguist Arran Stibbe. "Importantly the stories-we-live-by influence how we act in the world - if nature is seen as a resource then we may be more likely to exploit it" (6; italics in original). 

  6. It could be argued that verbal language too is a physical, sensorial and performative act. As Stuart Cooke points out, "[l]anguage need not be understood solely or even primarily in terms of its anthropocentric semantic value" (2019: 313).