#13 the sound of silence

the adventures of furochan, August 2019

These days I listen to music less and less. It’s not that I dislike music, far from it; but it is becoming increasingly difficult to hear anything. I suppose what I mean is that I have become less able to tolerate music while paying close attention to something else.

Anything that involves a certain level of cogitation or observation falls into this category – walking, writing, cycling. Anything remotely manual and physical typically does not – washing dishes, chopping vegetables, folding clothes – so doing chores is for an occasional podcast episode. But even this is becoming less true as time goes by. It turns out that the sound of sizzling onions can be strangely satisfying. The splash of running water, the soup that burbles on the gas flame.

A tea master I visit for work often outlines to guests the idea of ikkai ichi dousa, or doing one thing at a time. Instead of having tea, reading the newspaper, talking to someone, watching TV, listening to music, and checking our phone all at the same time, in his tea room you have just this cup of tea, at this time. It is true that the tea tastes better with a dose of focus. I also find a certain luxury in allowing music to wash over me without doing anything else, as though it is sinking into my cells.

Maybe it’s an outgrowth of city living, but I crave silence more and more these days. Not mere quiet – a full train carriage in Tokyo is absent of sound but filled with tension – nor the urban quiet one encounters sometimes in the streets, which has an oppressive, hard-edged quality to it, an anonymous silence that registers as a penetrating isolation. A silence that nonetheless suggests the existence of millions just metres from you who are and will remain strangers.

No, I mean a greener, softer silence – leaves rustling, water rushing over rocks, waves lazily reaching over shorelines, moving air. I like the deep, icy silence of winter if not the cold itself. Rain falling on suburban rooftops also sounds different to rain in the trees. The latter clatters onto the canopy, trails and trickles down along branches and finally drips onto you below, its sound evolving as it falls. It is more difficult to pay attention to these sounds in the city.

What I am finding is that silence is as necessary as air.

To do nothing is to hold yourself still so that you can perceive what is actually there. As Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist who records natural soundscapes, put it: “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.” – Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy

I don’t know if this is a true memory or a dream, but one of my favourite sounds is the sound of sleeping birds.

In the recesses of my mind there is an evening, and in this evening the twilight sky blushes a faintly dirty pink and orange, darkening to violet. I am walking on the pavement next to a busy street, cars zooming by with abrupt gusts of hot air, and I think it must have been a city somewhere in Southeast Asia. Ahead of me I begin to hear a chorus of rustles and whistles and twitters. Or rather, I should say, the chorus makes itself known, becoming almost loud enough to drown out the honking, rumbling cars.

I turn the corner and see a large tree full of birds roosting on its branches. At least, I like to think they are asleep. Neither pigeons nor crows, perhaps sparrows. Innumerable birds perched close to each other on the sprawling branches of this tree, each individual twitter painting quavering notes onto this ongoing symphony. They seem to breathe in unison, twittering like a thousand fluting giggles as they exhale, the leaves rustling so much that the tree itself seems to be making a show of breathing alongside them.

I don’t doubt that noise-cancelling headphones are a marvelous invention – no-one should be subjected to bone-shuddering drills in asphalt or poor musical choices in cafes – but adding a layer of manmade sound, like music or a podcast, to anything I’m doing, erects an aural barrier that renders reality far less rich than it should be.

Among many things, I find silence helpful for beginning to pick apart my own thoughts, for them to stumble into half-clarity. I cannot hear a sentence with any precision when there are lyrics and instruments clamouring for attention. As of now, I am writing this paragraph close to 2am. Silence allows me to turn a more focused gaze to the world at large, to feel out a space, to examine textures at leisure, to see how everyone else inhabits the space I am in.

Is it that silence is a way of being in the world one is of?

Earlier today I was walking along a gravel road with fenced-off sections of trees on either side. Beyond that was farmland. This world looked like paintings of the English countryside, all green velvet dotted with sheep and not a human in sight. I heard at least five or six different birds in the nearby trees, one with a marvelously complex call, a jingle-like trill with an actual melody you could have played on a flute, and the wind rushing through the ferns, grasses, and tree canopies, each crinkling and rustling a different dry tune. I followed the path, straining to hear. It seemed, standing in front of a fallen branch covered in tangled green lichen, that something was dissolving between myself and the world before me – that the very idea of me was disappearing, and I might have forgotten to turn back if my sister hadn’t called me home.

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PERIPATETIC August is full of movement: I am away from Tokyo, visiting home and other places with family and friends. In other words, I am supposed to be on holiday at least part of the time. Since other people’s holidays are my work, my idea of a vacation now is doing nothing (or at least very little). Most of all, I am glad to be reminded of the world outside of Japan.

LATELY I turned 28 and spent that day with two of my favourite people ever. With another cycle around the sun, not for the first time I find myself wondering about where I am headed. Uncertainty is never fashionable but it is hopefully honest.

EAT WITH ME It’s summer but autumn is imminent! I do eating and walking tours in Tokyo, and for at the right times, in Kyoto – so here's where you send your Japan-bound friends. (Or you can forward this newsletter to them.)

JAPAN TRAVEL CONSULTING This is exactly like it sounds. Need to ask me burning questions about interesting places, rail travel, or what to include in your holiday? Ask for me (or one of the other excellent folks) at Japan Travel Consulting

A few weeks ago I met a crow. I had never met a crow I liked, but this was the first. S and I had walked around the park on this slightly muggy afternoon while waiting for A to turn up. We sat on a bench to rest, and watched two middle school girls in a rowboat become entangled in the algae and weeds turning the pond a muddy, scummy green.

At some point we noticed this crow. It had landed a few metres from us where we were sitting on the benches. If you have visited Tokyo you will know that Japanese crows are large. The size of chickens, it’s commonly said. They have a slightly unreal look to them, as though they’ve been enlarged by dragging the corners of a picture on a computer screen, an odd heft to their bodies. They are universally reviled in the city for scavenging, hence the blue nets you see draped over rubbish bags on trash collection days.

They are loud creatures, too. You might hear their caws breaking the air like glass when you’re walking in the park. I recall a particularly Hitchcock-like moment walking home, a piercing caw jolting me out of my thoughts, and looking up to a thunderous sky, crows perched on the telephone wire above.

But this crow we met made no sound. It was, in fact, perfectly and amiably silent. It seemed almost uneasy being here, as though it should behave in our presence. This impression was only deepened by what this crow did next: it began picking up all the visible pieces of white – bread? paper? scattered around its vicinity in a remarkably orderly fashion.

Crows do not bob their heads, it seems. It did not walk as web-footed fowl do, either. It hopped from piece to piece, seeming to float with each hop, landing gently. I was reminded, suddenly, of instructions called out during a class long ago – land on your feet with control. There should be no sound.

Two women stopped on their walk to watch the crow along with us. Oh look, it’s cleaning up. What a good crow. It’s being a good citizen. Tile by tile, square by square, as though walking through a checklist, the crow hopped across the grass-spiked surface.

I had never looked at a crow this closely before. Its beak seemed comically large for its body as a whole. Its head was surprisingly fuzzy, as though it had a crew cut. This crow’s feathers had a visible navy gloss that was altogether rather elegant, and different from the stark black I had assumed of its brethren. It looked, in a word, goofy.

I had some leftover croissant in my pocket, and tore it up into smaller, bird-appropriate crumbs, tossing it to the crow. Whether a crow can be said to have a countenance I cannot say, but it seemed to assume a quizzical expression, radiated circumspection as it hopped closer and closer to us with each crumb. Who knows what a bird is thinking? Would this crow remember us? I am uncertain as to why this crow in particular continues to stay with me – perhaps as a reminder of the irrelevance of my cares or problems to a bird, or a mental note to continue acknowledging the other denizens of this city.

As I ran out of croissant, I saw a crumb caught on its beak. I was overtaken by a kind of instinct to reach out and clean the crow’s beak as one would a child or loved one –feeling that small bloom of pleasure and benevolence at watching a small creature eat.

But you know how this story ends: as all birds do eventually, it took off into a nearby tree, settling on a branch above the lake, breaking its own quietude with a strident caw. It stayed there. We stood up, stretched our stiffened limbs, and walked back towards the station for shaved ice.


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