My thanks to Wolsak & Wynn and Independent Publishers Group for a review copy of this book via Edelweiss.

Field Notes on Listening is a reflection or rather, reflections on the connection we as a species have lost or perhaps broken, with the land, the environment around us, and even with each other, and on how we need to get back to listening (something that has to be cultivated, worked at), to reconnect and understand. Such listening may not mean the aural, the sound alone, but also the stories that things, people, have to tell, of connections to their (and our) pasts and to the land.

The author Kit Dobson, is a professor of English at the University of Calgary, though he has had other very different work experiences as well. This project on listening and indeed, thinking about listening was sparked off by his daughter’s comment when watching a Star Wars film with him that there weren’t quite as many stars in real life as were portrayed in the film (Something one can’t perhaps blame her for, since even where I currently live, a handful of stars is all I see, most days). With this jerking him into the loss of connection with the world around us, he approaches ideas of listening and connect through his various life experiences, and family background (specifically both sets of grandparents who farmed and thus had more of a direct link with the land)—his own visits to the farms, to his grandparents’ homes, travels, and the many stories and heirlooms of his family he has become the keeper of including the strong wooden dining table from the farm which has been added to, yet is the same, and now is part of his home and on which he writes the book we are reading—as well as through other writings, philosophy, and poetry. Through these he talks of ties and links, of the many contradictions in life, of the environment and climate change, of the damage that we are doing to the world around us, and of the many ways that present-day life impedes the forging of any meaningful connections.

Listening, an ongoing, open-ended, and unfinished process, Dobson believes, has a role to play in our world, as we are at a point where its lack has ‘become a social and environmental problem’. Listening he feels enables him to take care of others and of the land, to reconnect with the place he (his family) comes from. But the world we live in is loud, taken over by sounds of traffic, machinery, and much more, blinded by artificial light, a world where we are slowly losing much, be it the forests or the night. Adding to this ‘sound’ and ‘light’ I think is the constant bombardment of information that we are under, a form of noise in itself, that prevents our minds from getting that silence we need to truly listen.  

Dobson’s is the second of my recent reads that brings up the issue of time. While he isn’t looking at it necessarily through a globalization/capitalism lens, he does distinguish between ‘industrial’ time, which requires us to constantly be in high gear, running between meetings, striving to keep up with deadlines, and ‘listening’ time, one which works differently and can enable us to understand how things around us, the climate, the natural world really function. Since most of us are constantly bound by or struggling to keep up with industrial time, we are rarely able to really form those bonds with the natural world which moves at its pace. But when we do make an attempt, we need to do so with respect, with genuine interest, and with the time that nature would need to respond.

When Dobson talks of listening, he is speaking, as I already mentioned, not of sound alone; it can take place as well through reading, seeing or bearing witness, and extends also to the stories that the things around us, and people have to tell. I loved how he collects and tells (but respectfully only those that are his to tell), the stories of his own family, the places they came from in Europe, settling down in Canada to a farming life, and various incidents, even heirlooms. These too, are ultimately about connection, to our families, our pasts, and to place/s. This made me realise that perhaps I too need to know more than I do, about my own family, than I do, particularly things further back than I have looked into.  

This was a book that had a lot of interesting and thought-provoking things to say, and I was very glad to read it. However, the book, structured as it was, in short sections (literally, ‘field notes’ which the author had to say expressly before I ‘got’ it), while all on listening, and some connected with each other, felt much like a ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative which I do usually struggle with even in fiction. So here, while I enjoyed the thoughts and ideas themselves, each time I set the book down and then returned to it, I felt that I was missing a thread I could catch back on to and continue, if that makes sense. Despite its short length (around 150 pages total), this wasn’t (and isn’t meant to be) a ‘quick’ read. Rather it too needs us to ‘listen’ to what it has to say.

Favourite fact: my favourite fact that I learned from this book was that the aurora borealis has sound, a rather interesting one, in fact, here on YouTube from 1.35 onwards (also thanks to the YouTube detour, I also found out where the auroras come from: solar winds interacting with the earth’s magnetic field, in case you didn’t know).

p.s. And I certainly do find myself now trying to listen more carefully to the sounds around me when I am outside, let’s hope this does indeed help me connect with things better!

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: Field Notes on Listening by Kit Dobson

    1. It is an interesting and relevant read certainly., Madame Bibi (More broadly, I too have been thinking of how disconnected we are from nature/ taught to think of it as separate and at a distance, when really we are all part of one system).

      I spent pretty much the full week reading this book (of course, there was work so less reading time), but since it moves around between different ideas and thoughts and stories, I really did feel that the ‘flow’ was missing for me. I think may be the book called for slowing down my pace further and giving myself more time to think and connect things than I was doing.

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  1. There are many positives about the march of technology but I’ve long thought a negative is that it distances us from the world around us so that often we neither listen nor look even when we do have the time. I’d welcome an indepth exploration of that idea but perhaps this isn’t it.

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    1. That is part of it, as well I think as our whole quest to master or control nature which includes proving ourselves as ‘above’ or separate from it. That too I think breaks our connect further. Nothing is held sacred anymore

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice review, Mallika. I love the quiet, and that’s why I hike and camp a lot. I went to YouTube and listened to the aurora borealis, that was cool!

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  3. Fascinating sounds (as expressed through radio waves) though I was expecting to hear them aurally in the wild, modulated only through the human ear. But I do take the more general arguments about “listening” properly.

    [Reminds me that ‘George Orwell’, who chose his name from the Orwell river, aurally sounds like “jaw-jaw well”, an argument for dialogue in place of war-war. I wonder if that’s what he meant by adopting this pseudonym.]

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