Two ears, one mouth, don’t talk too much. Learn to listen more. Not only to hear, but to be able to develop another thing and that is to be able to interpret. These things are different, they occur at different levels. The hearing and the interpretation of the sound…it’s very much part of our world (Teweiariki Teaero, 2018)
In the tailing humidity of early May, some friends took me to Mount Batilamu above Abaca village in the Koroyanitu Heritage Park. We drove from Suva in the morning up through Nadi and Lautoka and reached the village by the afternoon. After being picked up by truck to navigate the rocky dirt roads from the town, we were met by villagers at the visitor reception. We had planned to stay in the hut at the top of the peak, as dusk was already tinting the sky. The climb to the hut was to take us a few hours, along a track reaching over 1000m above sea level.
The path up the mountain wove through changing climatic and vegetational zones variegated by altitude. Closest to the village, down low over a stream, were grasslands, the ground steaming and slippery. Pushing through the strands at chest height, we joked nervously about the wild pigs, who we imagined watched us with eyes glittering as the sun sank lower and the birds began to gather their evening song. As we went further up, the grassland merged into rainforest and we were hit by the noise of insects and bats. Dense green leaves and ferns hung over the narrow walkway, and we were soon crossed with the sticky filaments of spiderwebs. In the rainforest the dark came quickly and unrelentingly, and we clambered over mossy rocks and damp soil, clutching at trees and plant stems illuminated inadequately by our headlamps.
Pitching steeply through the heavy air, toward the peak, I lost all sense of time and place, which made me acutely sensitive to everything around me. At some point we reached a cliff where the air was thin and the wind hit us in the sudden openness, cold and hard. We stood on the edge and saw the lights of Abaca in the distance. The night cut off the world around our bodies. The disorientation of the climb, its untethering, added an ineluctable cast to the landscape, a proximity to here and a distance from where we had come. When we finally reached the hut we were deep within thick cloud. There was no sense of relation to the ground below, just swirling fog. At the peak it was silent, and the transition from the rhythms of insects and bats to that stillness was unsettling.
I decided to record sounds the next morning in the rainforest near that cliff before the sun rose. In the grey dawn I walked back down the path. As soon as I entered the forest I felt it notice my presence; the insects fell quiet as I approached them. I sat on the ground and spoke to the wind. I introduced myself and explained what my intentions were. I spoke about what my recordings were for and said that I would only record if it felt right. After I finished speaking, I waited. As I waited over the next hour not moving, not touching anything, my body was slowly enveloped in a feeling of wrongness. It’s hard to describe what it felt like because a sense of wrongness is relative. It could not be attributed to the cold, or the dark because I felt no sense of threat or danger. It was more a feeling of something off kilter, an imbalance. A growing kind of atmospheric pressure began to build on my skin as it rose in my stomach toward my chest and throat. I knew this feeling. I had been practicing for many years to be receptive to a ‘no’ when I asked permission of place. This is what it felt like. A pushing away, or at least a feeling that made me want to go away, an ambient sense of being unwanted. Between the muting of the insects and the unease of my body I knew that I would not stay.
To talk about being unwanted is most often done with regard to people, in interpersonal relationships. It is far easier to tell when my presence is harmful or undesirable when it can be directly spoken to or gestured towards. Even when it is not said, it is possible to pick up on dispositions – silences, intonations, averted eyes, limbs turned away – there are millions of subtle signals our bodies are trained to respond to, to know when we are displeasing others. Being unwanted by environments requires a finer attunement, because it is harder to hear. To even consider an imposition on environments requires a shift in how environments are perceived; it is not possible to think of them as inert and immutable, as estranged or fungible, which are all common attributions given through Anglo-European onto-epistemologies. This is not how Pacific scholars articulate environments, which are understood as always entangled and co-constitutive. As Unaisi Nabobo-Baba explains, in Indigenous Fijian (iTaukei) languages the word vanua denotes “land as well as place…everything on it and in it…all flora and fauna as well as waterways, oceans, mountains and forests…is of physical, social and spiritual significance to people”(2006: 81).
If Anglo-Europeans can undo our conception of nature, of environment, and conceive of our relations to/with places as dynamic and interdependent, then attuning to a ‘no’ becomes much more imaginable. That environments hold histories within them is incontestable. The world is filled with stories of places haunted by spirits and memories, by the energetic and atomic residues of traumatic events. There are many places that are not to be entered, or even spoken of, by certain people. Sacred sites for ceremony or important transitions are not to be encroached on, and it is not possible to always know what places hold what significance. The acknowledgement of such places through conservation and heritage designations map awkwardly over spiritual perimeters. I can feel, even when human permission is given, that there are places that are not appropriate for me to be in. The moment in the rainforest showed me that even where clear protocols of asking and granting permission are undertaken with villagers, this does not mean that such negotiations can be translated onto the specific place itself. Permission needs to be sought again and again, each and every time, from everyone and everywhere.
What I carry with me in listening is that I cannot assume consent based on prior interaction. Listening as taking-leave is about acknowledging that my presence is doing something to where I am. I have learnt to attend to what I sense, even when I might not understand why. I-Kiribati and African-American scholar Teresia Teaiwa writes that “Indigenous knowledge is not always transparent or accessible to all, nor is it meant to be” (2005: 16). Knowledge of environments, knowledge of places are not always mine to ask for or to hear, and to meet the world with this as a reminder is very important. To be able to listen to, and appreciate, what is not for us as Anglo-European scholars and artists is one of the most imperative things I have been taught to accept and practice.
It is critical to note that in the Anglo-European interest in Indigenous knowledge and eco-relational practices that take focus away from the human, the ongoing resonances of colonial dispossession and harm are not also jettisoned. Angela Last writes that these moves to decentre the human have sought to “‘reconnect people with the Earth while ignoring their situatedness at sites of colonial trauma” (2018: 88). As I sat there that morning I didn’t know what the land I was on held, and I will likely never know. That didn’t change what I felt. European colonisation is driven by the need to know and take. Underpinning what Goenpul scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson calls the logics of the ‘white possessive’ is a “desire to invest in reproducing and reaffirming the nation state’s ownership, control and domination” (2015: xii). The academic and artistic white possessive is demonstrated in the sense of entitlement to environments and peoples that whiteness is founded within. In this comes the demand for transparency. Becoming attuned to environments, to the ways in which our bodies affect and are affected by environments, is part of careful engagement that can challenge and undo these demands.
To listen and to take-leave with care I must express my appreciation as I go. By coming to a place, uninvited, I anticipate that my presence can be a violation. To realise that I am unwanted troubles my self-conception of my being as innocent and benign. It is tempting to fall into resistance and antagonism through this discomfort, to find ways to reinterpret what I am being told, or to refuse to pay attention. But to be able to hold the kindness of a directive to elsewhere with respect is something that I cultivate. To thank a place for its generosity despite my imposition, to thank environments for some transfer of energy, is the very least that I can offer. To respect that somewhere is not mine to know or experience is fundamental to living in relation. As I packed my microphones away, I thanked the trees and cicadas and dirt and air. The atmosphere around me felt tense like a breath held, a suspension. I emerged out from the bracken back onto the mountain peak and the feeling in my body sunk back down through my throat, my chest and stomach into my feet. When I turned to look back the sun was glancing off the leaves, dappling the path with light and I felt a profound sense of relief. The insects had begun to whirr louder again the further I got, and I knew without a doubt that the world held within those sounds was not meant for me for hear.
Last, A. 2018. ‘to risk the Earth: the nonhuman and nonhistory’, Feminist Review 118: 87–92.
Moreton-Robinson, A. 2015. The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Nabobo-Baba, U. 2006. Knowing and Learning: An Indigenous Fijian Approach. Suva, University of the South Pacific.
Teaiwa, T. 2005. ‘The Classroom as a Metaphorical Canoe: Cooperative learning in Pacific Studies’, WINHEC: International Journal of Indigenous Education Scholarship 1: 38-48.
Teaero, T. 2018. Personal interview with author. Tarawa, Kiribati.
Kanngieser AM 2021 To tend for, to care with: three pieces on listening as method.
Part 3: Listening as Taking-Leave. Seedbox Environmental Humanities Lab [Online]