Every once in a while you stumble across one of those research projects which is so fascinating, so perfectly in tune with your own loves, interests and quirks that it is almost as if it were written for you and you alone? There is also a particular feeling when you meet up with a colleague or workmate in a different environment and see them in totally new way (like the time when I realised that one of the lecturers from the drama department not only played the saxophone, but had played Andy Sheppard!). These are exactly the sensations I experience when I recently came across Kim Haines-Eitzen’s research, ‘Acoustic encounters in the late ancient desert‘ on her Listening to the Desert blog.
Kim Haines-Eitzen is the Professor of Ancient Mediterranean Religions at Cornell University, specialising in Early Christianity, Early Judaism, and Religion in Late Antiquity. I was first introduced to her work by my postgraduate supervisors at the University of Birmingham, where her book, Guardians of Letters: Literacy, power and the transmitters of early Christian literature , was causing much excitement and unsettling a few long held assumptions about scribal activity and the transmission of texts. However, recently, through the wonders of the ‘twitter-shere’, I have become aware of her interests in a very different field: goat-herding (albeit, part-time)! I checked to see if this @KimHainesEitzen was the very same one who wrote the book that I had devoured a number of years previously. Yes, it was! As sheep and goats in antiquity graze upon the epicentre of my research passion, finding a scholar with similar interests was like finding a fellow dog-lover in a cat’s beauty salon. However, it hasn’t stopped there. Having checked her blog to see if she had any insights into goat husbandry and herding, I found that she is working on this incredible project that,
…focuses on the environmental sounds of desert landscapes as imagined and experienced in the literature of late ancient monasticism from Egypt and Palestine (ca. 200-600 CE).
Making field recordings in the Negev and Judaean deserts, as well as those from the deserts of the American Southwest, Kim is compiling a collection of audio recordings to create an acoustic soundscape within which to explore the desert world of late Antiquity that helped to shape and influence later Christian traditions.
Theoretically, I’m influenced by phenomenology, affect and sensation theories, sounds studies, and ecocriticism as I attempt to rehabilitate an acoustic dimension to both environmental landscapes and the religious literatures and practices that are shaped by these landscapes (and, in turn, shape the landscapes themselves in multiple ways).
I find this such a wonderfully imaginative and powerfully compelling idea. I first discovered aural soundscapes after finding a rather battered copy of David Troop’s Ocean of Sound CD being discarded by my local public library. From then on I’ve become hooked on the immersive power and qualities of the acoustic world; whether they be soothing tones of Eric Simms as he captures the sounds of oyster catcher’s and terns at Blakney Harbour or the East Coast salt marshes, the haunting depth of Lana Del Rey’s Terrence Loves You, Andy Sheppard’s melding of city noise with music, the proliferation of ‘natural world’ recordings (of differing quality), or Peter Handford’s beautifully evocative recordings of steam trains within their 1950/1960s soundscapes; – the steady beat of the ‘northbound freight’, a Stanier ‘Black Five’ climbing Greenholme summit on a blustery May day amid the sound of sheep, curlew and the soft patter of rain is utter magic.
Often these ‘sound worlds’ offer a chance to escape and are often, rather shamelessly, marketed to do exactly that. However, they teach us much more than that. As doctoral student, researching the oral aspect of early Christian textual transmission (hence my ‘encounter’ with Kim’s work), I quickly became aware that we can be so captivated by the oral that we can often overlook (and sometimes dismiss) the aural. My burgeoning interest/love in aural soundscapes presented to me the importance of the ambient (generally unconscious) aural environment in which we live and make sense of our worlds. The acoustic world is important, even if we remain largely unaware of it.
Kim’s aim is to explore the “dynamic relationships between the sonic dimensions of environmental landscapes and the religious imagination.”
Using the language of soundscape ecology, I explore geophony (e.g.,sounds of wind, thunder, water), biophony (e.g., sounds of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects), and anthrophony (e.g., the sounds of humans chanting, singing, praying) to ask how a particular landscape–real or imagined–works dynamically to shape religious thought, literature, and practice.
Kim’s site offers 6 recordings from Israel – the ‘Night winds of Nahal Zaror’ is sheer poetry and delight – and 10 from the American Southwest – I defy anyone not to love the elemental wonder of ‘Thunder on Portal-Paradise Road, Arizona’.
Listening to Kim’s recordings reminds me of reading Annie Dillard for the first time. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the way she captured the natural world in word, the language, the pictures she painted, was so very, VERY different from the writers who had become literary mentors and guides; Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas, Gilbert White, Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, etc. etc. I’d noticed it already, a little, in other US writers (Thoreau, Mary Oliver, etc). It is not that Dillard is more poetic (or less), more realistic (or less), more sentimental (or less). The environment shapes our sensitivities. We may all be fellow citizens of the globe, but our natural worlds are very different. Our ‘wildernesses’ are contained, trimmed and carefully maintained. They are not really WILDernesses, but they are places we can go to remember, via our collective memory, of those times when they were once wild and terrifying. I love Edward Thomas’ work, but I suspect he would have struggled to find the beauty and inspiration of the arid scrub of the American deserts. He could have never written a ‘Tinkers Creek’, just as Annie Dillard would write a very different book (had she been alive then) about the Icknield Way that Thomas had known.
I get the feeling that for a project that aims to create the acoustic soundscapes of the late ancient desert, Kim Haines-Eitzen is the best placed to do so… and I don’t (primarily) mean geographically.