Together Apart is a new Orion web series of letters from isolation. Every week under lockdown, we eavesdrop on curious pairs of authors, scientists, and artists, listening in on their emails, texts, and phone calls as they redefine their relationships from afar.
This week’s conversation is the fifth in the series, a letter exchange between author, philosopher, and activist Kathleen Dean Moore and sound recordist and writer Hank Lentfer. We include an audio recording of the exchange, mixed with sounds of spring, courtesy of Hank Lentfer.
May 12, 2020
Woke up at 3:30 a.m. and went out to listen. The neighbors were all up, singing their hearts out. In a pine near the fire pit, a robin sang at peak ferocity. The willow west of the garden is home for a Lincoln’s sparrow again. Wonder if it’s the same bird as last year. The juncos were quiet, busy hauling bugs to their chicks. The orange-crowned and butter-butt warblers gleaned tiny insects from the willow catkins. Across the meadow, a sapsucker rattled away on Paul and Chris’s chimney cap. If I wasn’t in quarantine, I’d have gone over for another cup of coffee. No way they’re sleeping through that racket. And, back in the woods, a few Townsend’s warblers squeaked from high in the spruce and a Pacific wren chortled from the creek.
I wish I could say I settled into the morning’s peace. But I couldn’t get there. Felt like I was standing on a bank of a stream just a tad too wide to leap across. On the other side was a familiar and welcome joy, but I was stuck, heavy and flat-footed, pinned by the weight of the news.
There are fewer birds in the meadow. Haven’t lost any species yet but the chorus is diminished, fewer individual singers. Second guessing my ears, I pull up recordings from just five years ago and there, streaming through the headphones, is the full-throated melodious roar of a vibrant dawn chorus. It’s one thing to read the reports about millions of neo-tropical migrants gone missing. It’s something all-together different to listen as the sun rises on world spinning toward silence.
But, of course, there is no silence. The chorus of creatures is replaced by the cacophony of combusting carbon. Run a chainsaw in a cathedral and you might not notice when half the choir slips out the back.
Kathy, I’m tired and pissed. I’m bone-weary with the parade of worn-out white men lacking even a shit-bit of wisdom presenting themselves as leaders. But even if we somehow replaced corporate cronyism with a representative democracy and filled the senate chambers with a balance of genders and diversity of skin tones there still would be no thrushes singing beneath the capitol dome.
Imagine where we might end up if our leaders started each day immersed in the splendid simplicity of voices far removed from the echo chamber of human speech.
I’ll wake early again tomorrow and see if I can more fully slip into the sanity of the senses.
May 13, 2020
It feels good to hear from you—like a blast of honest Alaska air, all full of hemlock and sea-salt.
I’ve been going out early in the mornings too, listening for birds in my trimmed, tree-lined neighborhood on College Hill. The birds and I are getting used to the COVID-19 lockdown. The birds are acting like humans—jays playing their music too loud, crows strutting down the middle of the street, warblers wearing ostentatious colors, robins acting like they own the place. As for me, I am acting like a bird. I mostly hide in my house behind the bushes and dart out only now and then to find something to eat. I am afraid of human contact, so I flutter across the street or around a tree to avoid joggers, knowing that even their breath could kill me. There’s a decent chance that more of us will sicken and die now, poisoned by human recklessness and political stupidity, as birds have been for decades.
Honestly, this pandemic should make us a lot more empathetic toward the birds. Populations of songbirds have dropped 30 percent since I started watching birds. Imagine: One out of every three songbirds starved or poisoned or driven out of their homeland or smacked by a high-rise window or never born. Maybe now we can stop to wonder how that feels.
But here I am in a human pandemic, and I’m mourning the birds. Some might think I’m a monster. But it’s not just about the birds. Remember our friend Scott Russell Sanders quoting the Trappist monk Thomas Merton?
Someone will say: you care about birds. Why not worry about people? I worry about BOTH birds and people. We are in the world and part of it, and we are destroying everything because we are destroying ourselves spiritually, morally, and in every way. It is all part of the same sickness.
I think so too. For a long time, we’ve all known that something is terribly wrong with the drained marshes and melting arctic plains, with the homeless camps, immigrant camps, prison camps, with the poisoned strawberry fields and brown city air, the miles of pumpjacks and oil trains, highways twelve-lanes thick with cars—the dying, all the dying, the economic investments in dying, the political collusion with dying, and the furious defense of the instruments of death. It’s a spreading soul-sickness, and it’s choking me.
So Frank and I are heading out now on our daily search for red-winged blackbirds. Do you remember the flocks of red-wings that descended on the marshes at the end of the day, chack-ing and okalee-ing? That’s what I want to find again. I want to sit at the edge of a marsh in a confetti-cacophony of bird calls that never stops, ever. These days, we usually find a couple of blackbirds, swaying on cattails in the center of a marsh. No flocks so far. I don’t know how soon I will give up and ask you to send me a recording.
Take good care, my friend,
May 14, 2020
Cloudy this morning. But still and quiet, perfect recording. The Lincoln’s sparrow sang with gusto over a backdrop of humming bees needling pollen from the willow catkins. Sparrow song loud in the headphones, I thought of Nels. You remember him—Richard Nelson. I miss my sound-chasing buddy. This is the first spring in years we’ve not joined forces to expand our library of wild voices. He listened to the world with a contagious joy. He was an ear with legs and found such delight in learning the languages of other cultures and creatures.
Hank listening to birds near his home in Gustavus, Alaska.
Last night, after reading your letter, I picked up his book, Shadow of the Hunter. I turned to a line in the introduction: “It is always difficult to know where the trail is leading, but the difficultly is eased somewhat by knowing where it began.” When Nels wrote those words in 1983 he was referencing the wave of cultural change washing over Inupiaq communities along the Chukchi coast. Thirty years later, when cancer was already prowling through his body, I asked him about the importance of looking back when faced with an uncertain future. He didn’t speak about his impending death. He mused, instead, about his hope that stories about what once was might seed visions about what might be.
How do we vaccinate against the deadly delusion that we can
mistreat the Earth and not hurt ourselves?
Hopefully a vaccine will soon tame this virus. It’ll be a joyous day when we come out of homes and hug each other. But as long as we see ourselves as individuals isolated from other creatures, we’ll remain committed to an economy divorced from ecology, still guided by a spirituality devoid of sparrow song. And this pandemic is but a breeze compared to the coming storm. How do we vaccinate against the deadly delusion that we can mistreat the Earth and not hurt ourselves?
I believe the rivers of our senses flow with a potent wisdom. Imagine the most exquisite thing you’ve ever experienced—the gilded feathers of a hummingbird’s throat, the scent of bog orchids at sunrise, the drifting notes of a hermit thrush through tent walls. Now imagine moving through your days with the strength of knowing you are every bit as beautiful as the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. Could this blurring of boundaries be the vaccination we so desperately need?
I’m sorry you and Frank aren’t going to get to Alaska this summer. No cruise ships, damn few planes, no charter boats—this will be the quietest summer of our lives. What stories emerge when the human din is dialed down?
May 15, 2020
Your note reminds me of when you skiffed us to the foot of a calving glacier. How many years ago was that? Do you remember how the glacier’s face popped and split, smashing into the water, and how the skiff rocked and all the kittiwakes rose up, screaming? You were filming. I remember that you had to teach me to be still. I had figured out that I should be quiet, but you had to tell me—gently, with hand signals—to sit the hell still, because every shuffle rocked the boat.
One thing the lockdown teaches is how noisy human restlessness has been. In the new quiet of my neighborhood, I have to cover my ears against the groan and grumble of an occasional jet. I can hear a car coming from more than a mile away, literally, and can hear it go seemingly forever. Some houses scream—I didn’t realize that before. Whether it’s a clothes dryer or a heat pump or something else, I can’t say. How did we ever stay sane in all that noise? How did we not cower and flinch all day and all night, turning up the volume of our own lives, and still not being heard? Until you told me, I didn’t know that birds also were having to raise their voices to be heard over the human din.
Kathy and Hank exploring the upper reaches of Glacier Bay, Alaska.
But a great gift of our new human stillness is, as you say, quiet. Quiet, and the chance to hear small sounds. We can listen as we have never listened before. The birds can sing soft, clear songs. No one needs to shout.Listening is two things, I was reminded at the foot of the glacier: opening up and shutting up. To set aside your own stories and recognize and sympathetically hear the stories told by someone else—this has a moral purpose, doesn’t it? To quiet the screeching me-me-me-me of a soprano warming up, to make a silent space where the ear can hear other voices, exultant and suffering, lonely and in love—that’s got to be the foundation of empathy, the sympathetic imagination, the opening into new moral relations based on compassion and understanding.
Do you think that maybe, in this new quiet, we can finally hear the weeping of the world’s poor and the agony of the wounded planet, crying out in the languages of storm and extinction? Can we hear the voices of future generations, whom Pope Francis calls the “silent voices screaming up to heaven”?
That’s all I can think about this morning. Save me. Tell me about the joy that comes from listening. I laughed when you called Nels an “ear with legs.” It made me shuffle through Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature,” to the page where he talks of the perfect joy of those unbidden and ecstatic moments when he loses his identity as a seeing being and becomes sight itself, a “transparent eyeball.” “I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration,” he wrote. “I am glad to the brink of fear.”
Wishing you gladness, my friend.
May 16, 2020
Nels prayed with his ears and taught me to do the same. Our listening sessions were multi-week affairs, juiced by digital technology and steeped in wild country. Day after day, we crawled from the tent in pre-dawn gloom, clamped headphones over our heads and did, as you say, the shut-up-and-open-up shuffle.
Late in a trip, day ten or twelve, my mind’s clutter would finally slide out my ears to make room for the world’s beauty. There was often a hermit thrush involved, those sweet liquid notes sifting down like an invisible stream. The wide space between each phrase filled with giddy anticipation of the next note—will the thrush start high and slide down, or begin low and spiral up? If the bird was close and the wind still, the capacity to think would go away altogether. Nothing but song and the echo of peace.
Nels and I would meet back in camp sometime mid-morning. We’d cook a second breakfast and share the morning’s news. Spend the first few hours of each day steeped in beauty and your work is done. There’s no compulsion to think lofty thoughts or pen poetic prose. Sheltered by wild country, we were content with inane, meaningless, exquisitely silly banter. We allowed ourselves to become as funny as we wanted to be, to have the tiniest scrap of humor launch us to the edge of peeing ourselves.
And yes, I vividly recall being at the tumbling glacier face with you and Frank. Vivid too are the bears and wolves and scotch and campfires along the way. Close friends in huge country—it’s the perfect recipe, no? What a precious thing to find a companion willing to seek Emerson’s gladness at the brink of fear and turn around and say “let’s keep going, nothing to be afraid of here.”
I slept in this morning. It was almost five when a sapsucker rattled on the downspout and lifted me from dreams. I took my coffee to the creek and kept company with a walnut-size wren filling the woods with fluid song. I sipped and listened and pondered Nels’s line about a difficult trail being eased by knowing where it began. Are Emerson’s transparent eye and Nels’s hollow ear conduits to understanding where we’ve come from by opening ourselves to where we are?
The tight line-up of summer projects and commitments has been vaporized by the virus. I aim to spend my time in wild country. Linnea wants to go. (How lucky is that to have a sixteen-year-old daughter eager to camp with her dad?) We’ll go back to the glacier’s face. We’ll prowl along salmon streams and clamber up mountains. If all goes well, we’ll come home bug-bitten, sun-burned, and baked by bliss.
Blessing to you and Frank. I’ll toss a stick into the campfire’s flames in memory of our time up bay.
May 17, 2020
Hermit thrushes whistling from the woods, sapsuckers whapping at the chimney, all this lusty chorus in Alaska, and you with a cup of coffee by the creek. Wonderful to think of what your open-hearted listening can bring.
Maybe deep listening brings the kind of joy a bell would feel, hard bronze struck and transformed into shivering song. Out there in the wilderness before dawn, you are like a cold bell waiting for the clapper. No really, I get it. A bell swaying on its bell-yoke, ringing out again and again, shaking the air, becomes the music itself, beautiful and echoing. Imagine the joy of the bell.
Or maybe listening closely to the songs of the natural world brings a feeling like forgiveness, as when a prodigal son comes home bruised and abashed, knocks on the door, and is welcomed with music and feasting into the embrace of on-going life. Civilization has run away from home to seek its fortune—a dangerous, murderous adventure—but has never escaped the cosmic loneliness, the longing to return. Listening with loving attentiveness to the world we come from feels like a weepy, joyful homecoming, all the sweeter in the danger that we may be lured away again by promises of riches and power.
Our work is to imagine into existence ways of living that are aligned with the resilient, redemptive lifeways of natural systems, networks of sharing and mutual support that are essential to collective thriving—the sun, the rain, the nurturing soil, the songs. This is how we will heal.
But I want to say that deep listening can bring understanding, and maybe this is its most dazzling gift. Nature already knows what we can only glancingly comprehend. Nature knows that “all flourishing is mutual,” as our friend Robin Kimmerer said. In ancient, complexly evolved relationships, plants and animals, including people, depend on each other and give their essential gifts with a generosity we have yet to fully recognize.
Nature knows redemption. Much can be forgiven once we take our heavy boot off the neck of the natural world. The springing forth of life while we sheltered indoors has been irrepressible and astonishingly sudden.
Nature knows resilience. Short of killing him, can you keep a thrush from singing? Can you stop the moss from growing in the road? Nothing short of poison will keep the sweet-bracken ferns from filling the meadow or cattails from spreading across the pond. If we listen, what is Nature whispering to us about how to recover, and how to live?
But always and forever, Nature knows change. Every spring creates a different summer. Darwin, a supreme listener, said it this way: “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” So here is our chance. Here’s our spring. It makes me insane, Hank, to think that our society might miss that chance to change, to create a different summer. The goal isn’t to try to save this way of life—or the economy, or the stock market, or the dangerous, poorly paid jobs. Our work is to imagine into existence ways of living that are aligned with the resilient, redemptive lifeways of natural systems, networks of sharing and mutual support that are essential to collective thriving—the sun, the rain, the nurturing soil, the songs. This is how we will heal.
I will think of you and Linnea in your skiff among the glaciers. I will think of your beloved Anya, back in the Juneau medical clinic, bringing all her doctor’s skill and heart to the work of healing. I will think of your thrush. I will hold you all in my heart. Someday, Frank and I will sit with you again by a small fire on a pebble beach.
About the Authors:
Kathleen Dean Moore is the author or co-editor of a dozen books about our moral and spiritual connection to wet, wild places, including Wild Comfort, Great Tide Rising, and Piano Tide, winner of the Willa Cather Award for Contemporary Fiction. She has been writer-in-residence at Denali National Park, the Island Institute in Sitka, and best of all, the lovely spruce cabin Hank built in Gustavus, Alaska. Formerly professor of philosophy at Oregon State University, she left the university to write and speak about the moral urgency of climate action. With her biologist husband, Kathleen writes from Oregon and from a seasonal cabin where two creeks and a bear trail meet a cove in Southeast Alaska.
Hank Lentfer is a sound recordist, gardener, and writer. Most mornings he’s out listening to his wild neighbors and expanding his catalogue of natural sounds. His next book, Raven’s Witness: The Alaska Life of Richard K. Nelson is due out in August. Hank lives with his wife and daughter on the banks of a small stream on the edge of a tiny town in the expansive landscape of Southeast Alaska.
- Enjoy previous Together Apart exchanges.
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