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PAPERWORK: Take a moment and listen to where you live

“The birds are loud.”

I chuckle each time my wife says this.

The cackling and chirping interrupts our plan to lean back, relax and enjoy the nature around us.

I mention that birds are kind of part of the nature we love.

We are the visitors, the noisemakers in this place we go to escape and relax.

(To be fair, my wife loves birds. She buys the bird seed and keeps her camera nearby.)

But ... we clearly live surrounded by sound. (Note I did not say noise.)

So ... I have a suggestion. Just for fun ... perhaps with benefits.

Not my idea, of course. Credit goes to journalist Rob Walker who offers a variety of games and challenges in his book "The Art of Noticing."

He challenges us to listen. Not just listen, but actually map your world by sound, what you hear.

The sounds around you actually "speak" of place and identity and purpose.

Walker outlines a class taught at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco by writer Marc Weidenbaum.

He takes his students on a "sound walk" or tour of sounds through such places as a mall where they take in the "retail soundtrack."

"Students learn to notice not just how sounds work but also where they come from, and when and why," Walker says.

Students dot a map with pins to note the origin of sounds.They describe what they hear and explain its meaning or function.

Yes. Think about the sounds. That's how the fun turns into a beneficial learning moment.

The when and why of sounds add depth and give identity and personality to wherever you are mapping.

Sitting here at my laptop, as I do most of every day, I open the nearby window a crack. (Even if the air conditioner fights to keep me cool.)

I do this for a couple reasons.

I want to know when the mail has arrived. I hear the slow acceleration of the mail carrier as he drives from box to box delivering mail.

And ... I want to be aware, feel connected, to what's outside my work bubble.

What I hear has a pattern. In fact much is predictable. Which means I will notice when something doesn't fit.

But it's that pattern that stands as pins in the sound map of my neighborhood.

The two little dogs next door put on their leash each day. I know they are out because they find something to yap at, then relax. (I smile. We all need to get out and yap more.)

The sharp bark of a dog in the distance, his day interrupted. (Don't know this dog, but he's on to something. Then he stops.)

The solid round ball of a walnut hitting the roof and rolling off.

The incessant whine of tires as cars slice the air on the nearby interstate, broken by the heavy rumble and moan of big trucks.

The murmur of voices, couples into their daily walkabout.

The drone of mowers. (In the winter it's snowblowers or township plows ripping the lawn edges.)

The claw of the squirrels as they navigate the tree outside my window.

The trees treading the wind as a storm approaches and then the patter-splat as leaves catch the start of the rain.

The neighbors cars, firing up to leave or pulling into the drive.

And those noisy birds, of course. Especially those tiny territorial wrens with a voice that's been described as "effervescent."

Like Walker said, it's not only about the pins in your sound map. There's a deeper message around your pattern.

That meaning can vary by day and season or current events.

We absorb many sounds and accept them with easy recognition. Perhaps with a quick head turn to check them out.

Neighbors, dogs, traffic nearby, and squirrels scratching tree bark.

They trigger reaction. Every sound is part of a story. I will be picking up those bright green walnuts off the drive later.

I think Walker is suggesting we pay attention to sounds that surround us and then ask ourself how we fit in.

Or perhaps more important, do we fit in?

Now I would add another pin to the sound map challenge.

A pin to represent the silence between the sounds. It's there if you listen.

This is a space for what you don't hear but you know is there.

Like a baby crying in the night or a parent reading out loud to the kids at bedtime.

Or the gentle pounding of hooves as deer flee the road and oncoming headlights.

But also the huge empty silence that you can fill with thoughts and feelings or perhaps just breathing.

It's not always easy to tune into this silence. But it's always there.

How you use it is up to you.

LONNY CAIN, of Ottawa, is the retired managing editor of The Times. Email to or mail The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.

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