Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Sound of "Silence"--Or the Sound of Music?

When potential applicants--whether as volunteers or housemates--read the Pinwheel Farm General Policies, a very common response is "These are great, I don't have any problem with them, that's how I want to live...except one thing...."

And that would be?

Music, invariably. "I like to listen to music."

I console myself that it seems like I am at least crossing paths with more and more young folks that are not glued to the television for life. They're happy to give that up...or already have. But the iPod or Walkman or whatever...that's a tough one for a lot of folks.

I like music, too. At previous times in my life, I listened to it a lot. And I gave it up in preference of something better, only it took me awhile to figure it out.

What REALLY mystifies them--to the point, I think, that curiousity overcomes their horror of the thought of being separated from their music--is why even headphones aren't especially welcome at the farm.

First, I try to reassure them that I'm not the Music Police. I'm perfectly willing to turn a blind eye (or deaf ear) to whatever goes on when I'm not at the farm...within reason.

But that reason is one of the main reasons behind the ban.

Learning to farm with headphones on is like learning a foreign language at a noisy party. Once you are fluent in the nuances of these sounds--the cadences, the tones, the inflections--then you can pick them out of the background noise. But to learn them, you must hear them plainly and clearly, undistracted by more familiar sounds. And it takes time--lot of time--to learn a strange language by immersion without any Rosetta Stone.

The farm speaks to me, 24-7. I listen to it whenever I am here, through any conversation or concentration. I listen without thinking about listening. My soul or spirit or subconscious or something like that monitors the cacophony of the farm, and reports to my awareness anything out of the ordinary. Alerted, I put my conversation or project on "pause" to assess the message. What got my attention? An odd tone to the noise of the pump or refrigerator? An absense of a certain sound (those can be especially hard to figure out), such as the eerie silence of crickets at the moment of the first frost? The voice of one of my animal charges--a lamb repeatedly calling, a chicken's distress call, a certain note in the dog's bark that says "coyote in the back yard"? A wildlife sound, such as a crow hassling a napping owl in the woods? In this urban setting, I need to discern whether the backup alarm on a distant vehicle is the garbage truck down the street, or someone engaged in illegal floodplain fill operations. The "silence" of the farm is pretty noisy most the time--even in the middle of the night.

Learning to farm, to really be a farmer instead of just someone who does a bunch of chores, means understanding the language that the farm speaks. And for that, yes, you really do have to take the headphones off and listen to the music of the farm, until it seeps into your subconscious. And little by little, you will be welcomed into a new world: the world that is the non-human Community of Life at the farm.

The rewards of admission into this hidden-in-plain-hearing world are many. The most wonderful, to me, is that which I anticipate in just 6 short weeks: the chance to witness the miracle of lambs being born. It is often the faintest of communication--really, a psychic call--that nags at my mundane awareness and inspires me to make an unscheduled lambcheck at just the right time. A thought that crosses my unfocussed, unheadphoned mind randomly may actually be a plea for help from the sheep.

I don't want to have any regrets along the lines of "I wish I'd been paying more attention...." if something goes wrong with a birth. But most of the lambs will be born just fine without my supervision, thanks to years of carefully relentless culling. So it's not so much the threat of regrets that motivates me to forego recorded music. Instead, the rewards of witnessing new birth are a powerful inspiration.

The music is recorded, after all. I can listen to it someday when I'm blind and feeble. But this is the only time that bird will sing just so, or that lamb will be born, or I will realize that I'm hearing something like snowflakes landing, or earthworms surfacing. Even if super technological stuff recorded these sounds, it would not be the same to hear the snow falling without the bite of cold air, or the worms without the smell of damp earth, or the lambing without the taste of spring in the air.

I want to give my apprentices the gift of being able to access these miracles themselves. It's a lifetime gift, a gift that keeps on giving. And so I invite the headphones to stay in a drawer.

No comments: