When my daughter was very young, we’d go on Listening Walks. We’d explore the neighborhood in total silence. On our return home, we’d talk about the outing. The experience taught us both to be more present in the walk as we observed sights, smells and sounds. Bird calls, busy squirrels, barking dogs, passing cars, lawn mowers, footsteps, the wheels of the stroller, the wind, the rustle of clothing as one walked, the aroma of wood smoke, cigarettes or roses, – everything was noted. Later, we’d decide if the dog’s bark was friendly or not, what sort of birds we’d heard and seen, the sounds created by different footwear. All of this provided for much richer, textured walks plus some interesting post-walk discussions. By keeping ourselves quiet, we not only heard better but saw and smelt more acutely. Admittedly, for the exhausted parent of an active, precocious child, these walks were as close to a spa experience as I was going to get. Today, we both look back very fondly on those Listening Walks.
Recently, while visiting an elderly friend who is losing his sight and hence unable to garden the way way he used to, I started thinking about how to keep his time in the garden still very enjoyable. I’ve been pondering the Listening Garden.
Some elements lend themselves naturally to such a garden. Water features like fountains and streams, bird houses and baths to attract the chatty feathered ones. Wind chimes are possibly something many would add but I personally am not a fan. I find their sounds intrusive and distracting. Instead, I prefer to hear the winds make their passage through ornamental grasses and trees. So of course, choosing appropriate plant material is important.
The aforementioned grasses are a significant part of a Listening Garden. Different grasses make different sounds. Next time, pay close attention and you’ll learn! Plants that make seed pods that rattle in the breeze are also good. Baptisia, columbines, sweet peas and such are excellent candidates. Interspersing the garden beds with plants that have a free, loose style of growing will also create a type of gentle wind music. Asters, mallows, cleomes, agastaches, cosmos and cimicifugas come to mind. Juxtaposed with more solid shrubs like boxwoods, you’re on your way to organizing a botanical orchestra. Leave hydrangea blossoms and other papery flowers to dry on the plants and they will make a sound akin to that made by the brush stick hitting a drum. A sustained swish.
Include plants that are particularly attractive to birds, bees and other insects. The critters will be wonderfully noisy. There is something quite satisfying about hearing bees and birds going about their business. It is the sound of a healthy garden. I will continue to do some research and seek out more ‘listening’ plants for my friend. I welcome all suggestions. It goes without saying that including the element of smell is crucial. After all, what is a garden without fragrance? It is not just the perfumed flowers that I want to add. As one walks around the garden, brushing against the leaves of scented geraniums and herbs like lavender and verbena stirs the olfactory memory.
Similarly, I shall not overlook the plants that feel good to touch. Velvety lamb’s ears, sand-papery leaves of echinacea and bergamot, plumey Russian sage …
Listening Gardens are not solely about sound nor are they just for the sight impaired. Everybody can benefit. Ultimately, ‘listening’ with all of the senses makes for mindful, deliberate, joyous living.
(c) 2013 Shobha Vanchiswar