Editorial – Surround Sound

If a tree falls in the forest with no one to hear it, does it make a sound? Part scientific, part philosophical, and always thought provoking, It’s a question That’s bandied around so frequently that It’s almost reached the status of classic joke.

What rarely gets discussed is whether we could in fact hear the sound of that tree falling to the earth?or whether we would. Because usually, the myriad sounds that surround us go unnoticed in the background as we push on through our day, our brains multi-tasking with a frenzy that leaves little room for listening.

Listening is fast becoming a lost art. Not just listening to what others are saying?as in, really listening to what others are saying?although That’s certainly an increasing problem. But we’re also losing the ability to listen to and truly hear the small sounds that make up much of living.

The notion took me by surprise during last week’s hiking trip to Algonquin Park, Ontario. It was off-season in the park, so we had the trails to ourselves, and after several hours of slogging up and down paths and picking our way through the mud, we had run out of everyday chatter. Or perhaps the stillness and peacefulness of the wild outdoors had touched us and settled our minds.

Regardless, we paused for a moment and tried listening to the sounds around us, to the slow creak of trees and the movement of branches and leaves. And amazingly, we discovered something: there is a lot of incredible and delightful noise out there that we never hear, because we fail to take the time to listen.

The sounds of nature rarely startle us into noticing them. Unless they’re in-your-face loud?think crashing waves and booming thunder?we tend to relegate them to the unimportant background. But listening, separating, and really focusing on those quiet background noises can be very rewarding.

It’s true that constant all-day hikes aren’t practicable in today’s busy world. But taking time out of our day to listen doesn’t mean forsaking our modern comforts and heading for the woods. It’s easy to stand still in my office and spend a few moments just listening. No talking. No checking email. No deliberate distractions, like radio. No mental calendar-checking. No future worries. Phone muted. Eyes closed. Brain still.


It’s breathtaking how refreshing it can be to spend just a few minutes, no matter where we are, listening to the sounds around us. And the joy isn’t limited to the sounds of nature, either. Even sitting at my desk I can hear noises that I normally take for granted, but which are soothing or unique. The soft whooshing of the laptop fan. That funny little noise the processor makes when I’ve got too many programs running. Even the rumble-click-stop of my fingers tapping away on the keyboard is unique, interesting, rhythmic.

There is a whole world of noises out there if we just learn to listen. The sound of a car passing by changes as the vehicle approaches and passes. The ?white noise? of the air conditioner is actually a combination of several sounds and pitches, and it wobbles slightly like It’s being performed by a young and inexperienced player.

It’s relaxing, yes, but at the same time It’s exhilarating. Simple, everyday sounds become enticing with the joy of discovery. Who would have imagined the world of individual noises working together to create an intricate pattern of complex sounds?a whole lost world that is so easily passed by as we scurry ahead with the business of living?

The newness that we feel is refreshing, inspiring what the sages often call a childlike fascination with the world. Hearing is indeed a miracle. Sometimes listening to the background and letting it become the foreground for a short while can be a key factor in giving ourselves a true break. Periodically turning off the frenzy of deliberate distractions and mental gymnastics that keeps us deaf to what’s around us can renew our spirits and buoy us up for the future.

So just for a minute, let’s stop. Hush. And listen.