Words of the day:
Phonophobia: a fear or aversion to loud sounds
Shinrin-yoku: the Japanese art of “forest bathing”
Shunrin-yoku: the art of forest bathing while shunemployed
After 10 years in London I had accepted the noise of the city: like people living next to a busy railway track who stop hearing the trains you get used to it.
I moved to New York in late 2015 and the volume went from 7 to 10. The buzz and energy of New York are a big part of what makes it special but there is no escape hatch when you’ve had enough. You can get anything you want in downtown Manhattan, unless you want outdoor quiet time which is guaranteed only by leaving the city.
I was sad to leave New York after 14 months but happy to leave behind the noise. Living on 19th street, one block away from a fire station, I had a specific issue with the unnecessarily loud and genuinely frightening FDNY fire trucks. Words like ‘beep’ and ‘toot’ are totally inadequate to describe their booming devil horns which assaulted not just the ears but the whole body and soul. I realise they were saving lives and I was just trying to sleep but I developed a genuine phonophobia from the incessant horn abuse.
A German friend who I spent time with in New York (hi again Luki) was, at the time, working on a really interesting project called the Sonic Movement. With growing numbers of noiseless vehicles, for safety reasons European regulations now mandate that new electric cars sold in the EU must emit noise by 2019.
Rather than the unimaginative replication of existing combustion engine noises proposed by the regulators, the Sonic Movement identified this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make our motorways and city streets sound more pleasant.
What if, instead of screeching brakes and roaring engines, electric cars sounded like classical music? Instead of toots and beeps and FDNY death honks, horns could replicate birdsong. Yes, my two examples are totally impractical but there must be a happy medium.
With all this emotional and aural baggage I approached the Forest of Fontainebleau on day 29, about 40 minutes south of Paris, for a solo walk in the wilderness on a Monday. I took a fold-up paper map and deliberately left my headphones at home – just me, my map, and the sounds of the forest. I didn’t have a loin cloth handy but packed my speedos just in case.
I had planned to switch off my phone for the day but as I entered the woods I realised how dependent I had become on the little computer in my pocket. How will I know how far I’ve walked? How will I take photos? What if I get really lost? I put it in airplane mode and resolved to use it only for emergencies (and photos and poetry recitations).
Marching deeper into the deserted forest I realised it was the first time I had done something like this, totally alone, and took pleasure in just wandering along, observing and listening. I was also in search of a suitable location for my first attempt at ‘forest bathing.’
The Japanese love a good tree and when they’re not celebrating the cherry blossoms during hanami you may find them in the woods enjoying a spot of shinrin-yoku. This essentially involves ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ and is regarded as a form of preventive healthcare.
I identified a small clearing under some oak trees and lay down for 15 minutes looking up at the canopy. I can honestly say I have never felt so relaxed. A couple of aeroplanes passing at 30,000 feet provided an amusing contrast as I lay silently among the leaves. As insects buzzed past and acorns dropped around me I had once again found my perfect paradise.
This time lapse video captured my view (extra point if you can spot the plane):
The woods weren’t completely deserted, but in 6 hours of walking and shinrin-yoku I had seen only two men, one lady of the forest and three dogs. After enjoying my own company for hours on end my interactions with these strangers were a little awkward, especially when I realised one of them was working.
As I calmly walked through the trees, enjoying the silence, I remembered the first line of the prose poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann which was on the wall at home when I was growing up:
Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.
I was never encouraged to read the poem – it just hung there – but over time it has come to mean a lot to me. It is a beautiful collection of words offering gentle guidance on how to live life. As I had no music to distract me and a lot of walking to do I decided to learn it.
Finding a lovely spot for afternoon tea on one of Fontainebleau’s many formations of huge boulders I set up my recording studio and gave it a go. The gap after the word ‘silence’ was deliberate, but all other dramatic pauses were just me trying to remember the words.
From the noises of London and New York to the silence of Fontainebleau I am making an effort to go more placidly; my day alone in the forest was very special and I believe that all my big city friends would benefit from a little more silence, shinrin-yoku and maybe even some boulder-top poetry recital.
Next stop: Ayahuasca (Béziers, South of France)
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