Norfolk and Suffolk are counties of diverse wildlife and landscape interest with large areas owned and managed by conservation groups. Much emphasis is put on the value of nature to our health and wellbeing, on the ecosystem services it provides and of its economic importance for tourism and business location. Activities on many reserves are geared up to encourage children and young people to be biodiversity aware, and provision is made for boardwalk access for the physically disabled.
Nature is multi-sensory but sometimes it seems that we concentrate on the visual aspects and much of our ability to identify the plants and animals we encounter is through their appearance, the tracks and trails they leave behind.
Imagine you were blindfolded and led quietly through woodland. With your other senses heightened, what clues would there be to your surroundings? Birdsong and flapping wings, chirruping of insects, maybe scuffles of larger animals in the leaf litter – all could give you a sense of place. Can you smell the wind, the earth, blossom on nearby trees, and the smell of decay? Put out your hand and touch the bark of a tree. Is it rough or smooth, warm or cold?
Through the creative arts, we can bring awareness to all the senses in engaging with nature and our surroundings. Waveney & Blyth Arts is an organisation that works actively to open up the natural world to people of all abilities using artistic interpretation. In the past we have run walks and workshops that encourage people to take a blind-folded walk through woodland to experience nature through touch and hearing. We have a Sound System available for our walks so that people who struggle to hear, particularly above the noise of wind or a softly spoken walk leader, are supported and encouraged to listen to nature.
Our current project, Sensing Nature, is designed to explore the non-visual landscape and so this year we have focused on sound and hearing.
Creating a musical response to the sounds of nature, including birds, bats, insects and other animals, has involved a six month journey of discovery and improvisation. A workshop on human echo-location, sounds from birdsong recorder Geoff Sample, and bat ‘chirp’ input from Lisa Worledge of the Bat Conservation Trust, initially helped set the scene. Geoff has to be an intense listener to record sound. His talk explored the sounds of the seasons. Temperature has an effect on the transmission of sounds. In winter’s calm conditions, you can’t escape from sound eg of a road. In summer, and a light breeze, you hardly notice such sounds. There are seasonal and daily rhythms to sound. The beginning of the year is the winter solstice when the light is increasing again; it triggers bird song. But at night, bats sculpt the landscape with sounds beyond the human range. We also learned that there is a neurological change in Visually Impaired People so the sight area of their brain becomes more sensitive to sound.
The sounds of the natural world have been the starting point for our ground-breaking music project, involving musicians, actors and singers from Norfolk and Suffolk, culminating in a live performance sound trail at Thornham Walks near Eye in Suffolk this summer What makes the Sensing Nature project particularly unusual, however, is that nearly all the performers are blind or visually impaired.
Within the Sensing Nature project, music development has been led by composer and vibraphone player, Jackie Walduck, artistic director of the Tactile Ensemble (featuring visually impaired and sighted musicians), and Adrian Lee, a multi-instrumentalist and composer who has written numerous nature documentary soundtracks for the BBC’s Natural World, NatGeo and Animal Planet.
Working with blind and visually impaired participants, recruited through the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind, the Unscene Suffolk drama group in Ipswich and Sensing Change organisation in Lowestoft, together with other members of the Tactile Ensemble, Jackie and Adrian have developed a series of pieces that form a live Sound Trail. Audiences will walk – blindfolded and guided if they wish – along a wheelchair friendly route through part of the Thornham Estate, experiencing both natural sounds and the musical response.
Just four performances are planned in June and July 2017 and places are limited, so booking is essential. To find out more or buy tickets, email Katie at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07415 168806.
Sensing Nature is a project of Waveney and Blyth Arts, which has received financial support from Arts Council England, the Scarfe Charitable Trust and the Norfolk Community Foundation.
Mike Davison and Melida Appleby
Waveney & Blyth Arts founder Jan Dungey devised the Sensing Nature project to extend the group’s activities to include less able-bodied people. Here, project coordinator Mike Davison and Vice-Chair Melinda Appleby describe the project and the special outdoor sound trail.
Mike Davison has a background writing on agricultural and rural development in the developing world and also earns a living from gardening. Within the Sensing Nature project, he has been recruiting participants and helping to organise the music making workshops. Melinda Appleby is a landscape writer, following a career in environmental policy and practice.