Looking up through our enormous walnut tree

One of many things I love about summer is that it offers me experiences that, for me, are very close to pure bliss.  Yes, really! I have thought about this particular language, and I think it is the most accurate choice I can use to describe certain kinds of sensory experiences.

It all begins outside. Of course! Our native habitat as people! The nests we build for ourselves are cozy too of course, but our nests (i.e. homes and offices and cars) these days are so full of sensory deadening experiences. Especially when it comes to our sense of hearing.

How many little, often not pleasant, sounds fill your daily life? The hum of the refrigerator. The almost silent, but present nonetheless, buzz of all kinds of electronics. The agitation of the washing machine. The exhaust fan over the stove. These sounds are ones that our minds have to tune out in order to hear the things we want to hear inside our homes: conversations we are having with others, music we’ve chosen to listen to, perhaps even the quiet crackle of wood in the fireplace.

Outside, we are also often exposed to this kind of persistent noise pollution, usually in the form of engines and machinery: passing vehicles, airplanes, lawnmowers, and (worst of all!) leaf blowers!

Our brains actually have to work hard to allow us to function without constantly being aware of such noises. And some of us have a hard time ever tuning them out, having to make a conscious effort to pay attention with such noises in the background. Rusty and I are both in that category — I could never study with music playing and still prefer to read and write in [relative] silence. Rusty needs as quiet a space as possible if he is going to concentrate and learn something new, especially with math.

But, for the most part, most of us do effectively tune out all those unpleasant ambient noises that have come with modern humanity’s presence on the earth — especially the human-created sounds that are of the purring, roaring white-noise variety. If we actively heard and listened to all of these sounds, we would be constantly over-stimulated, and so we unconsciously tune them out.

But, not without a cost. To keep our focus on what is important, we have to deaden our senses a bit (or a lot in the case of people who live in very noise polluted environments). In some ways, we walk through the world with ear mufflers on, not hearing with awareness the annoying sounds but also missing out on a multitude of other beautiful, even (dare I say it?) blissful, sounds.

Here is my own personal experience of bliss. Being in an outdoor space separated enough from modern noise pollution that I can start to open my ears again … take off those mental mufflers and let my ears truly take in all the auditory information surrounding me. To hear the ambient noise of other living creatures and natural phenomena that normally get buried under the constant roar of humanity’s influence. Here are some of the things my ears take in:

Wind rustling leaves

Swainson’s thrushes calling

Water trickling over rocks

Quiet buzzing and clicks from insects

Red-winged blackbird calls

Bird songs. Bird calls. Bird songs. And more bird calls.

Yes, bird calls and songs. That’s my blissful place. The feel of the air against my skin. The earth beneath my feet. Dappled shade from trees. And bird songs.

It’s pretty simple, really. All that big bliss from stuff that just exists in our world, without anyone having to build it or buy it or make it. The Swainson’s thrushes don’t need me to do anything in order to engage in their magical swirl of song. We use the word “ambience” most often to refer to constructed human spaces, and yet the original ambience was just this free world around us.

And, yet. This bliss seems to be hard to come by these days, as those quiet places become fewer and far between. Looking back, I see clearly that it was this particular blissful experience that led me to farming as a career. The farm we trained on was definitely one of those rare places where the only sounds around were the ones we made ourselves (plus the ambience of the natural world and the occasional airplane), as those fields were set well away from any road.

Here on Grand Island, we can find that experience in the field too, especially as we are often serenaded by Song Sparrows that like to build nests amidst trellised peas and in orchard trees. But, the island is also a bustling place of business too, and some days the air is filled with human-created sounds: the rumble of a sprinkler engine, the roar of a tractor or sprayer, the chatter of people working in fields nearby. Thankfully, the presence of the natural world here is strong, so it feels as though we get both sets of sounds in our ambient environment: Swainson’s thrushes in the trees by the creek, wind blowing through the walnut tree outside our window, and a bit of distant tractor roar.

The ambient sounds of our country life are a big part of what I love about our rural home, in spite of the many inconveniences and isolation of life farther from town. Especially in summer, I cherish the mix of sounds I can hear through our open windows. It is part of why I can never imagine having air conditioning in our house! I would miss the sound of birds during the day and crickets at night! (The crickets haven’t started singing yet, but I imagine it is soon!) We like to keep our house quiet to better appreciate these gifts, keeping laundry to as few days as possible and only playing music when we want to actively listen to it. I am also scheming about replacing our fridge with a silent type someday (i.e. a dual gas and electric model), but that would be an investment to plan for.

But, even with our happy ambient sounds here at home, I crave at least a weekly trip to those even deeper experiences of bliss, where human sounds are far, far away and I can let my ears go wide open. When surrounded by the natural world, I feel my senses let down their default guard and I can see, hear, smell, and feel everything in such a profoundly joyful way. As Wendell Berry famously wrote, there is peace in wild things. For me that peace comes especially in the quiet places. Thankfully we are blessed with a few such spots in our area: Miller Woods, Baskett Slough, and Willamette Mission are some of my favorites.

There’s actually a word now for this particular kind of bliss. I knew I was not at all unique in my experience, given that really I’m just seeking out the feeling of truly being home in the world. The word being used to describe it now is: “forest bathing.” There’s even at least one book on the topic! (Which I haven’t read yet.) “Forest bathing” is more specifically linked to the experience of being near trees and the whole deep level sensory experience that provides (which has a multitude of documented mental and physical health “benefits”). It’s a big topic, one that relates so much to our biological history and our political actions for the present and future as well as our own personal lifestyle choices and habits.

Maybe someday I’ll read the book to learn more, but in the meantime I just keep seeking and appreciating those little blissful experiences of my own, enjoying small versions at home and seeking out the deeper ones when I can (usually with kids in tow — hoorah for weekly homeschooling hikes!). I also know that this human bliss is worth working for, worth speaking up for. Yes, for our own human purposes but also for the benefit of all those wild creatures and living things that exist in those spaces as well. When I am there, experiencing bliss just from sharing a space with tree, birds, fungi, algae, rodents, ferns … I realize how connected we all are. I think maybe that’s even what the bliss is, that opening up of the senses to be with the world in a way that makes us more conscious of we are part of the world.

If this kind of experience is not a part of your regular routine, or not even something you recognize from my sharing of it, I recommend you stretch yourself and give it a try sometime. Try “forest bathing” (or perhaps to be closer to my version: “bird song listening”). Many of us live with such deadened senses from over-stimulation that at first it’s hard to find bliss in ambient natural sounds. What is there to hear when the loud music and podcasts and roars all slip away? It takes time to re-sensitize ourselves to these natural gifts — the orchestra of beauty that is just the gift of existence in this amazing world. It’s worth it.

Enjoy this week’s vegetables!

Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla

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Meet this week’s vegetables:

  • Plums
  • Green beans
  • Zucchini
  • Salad mix
  • Head lettuce
  • Basil
  • Chard & kale
  • Napa cabbage
  • New potatoes
  • Onions
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