Sensing the woodlands with a psychic medium who has impaired vision

Portrait showing [sychic medium Amanda scanning her hand over a tree

Psychic medium Amanda sensing the “energies” of a tree

I am really looking forward to presenting my paper ‘Perception, the environment and the uncanny: Sensing the woodlands with a psychic medium who has impaired vision’ on the ‘Uncanny Landscapes’ panel that I am coordinating with Professor Jon Mitchell at the  ‘Wild or domesticated – Uncanny in historical and contemporary perspectives to mind‘ conference, 20-22 September 2016, at The House of Science and Letters in Helsinki, Finland.

This promises to be a very unique, interdisciplinary conference addressing experiences and phenomena recognisable as “uncanny”, “supernatural” or “abnormal” within the context of their happening. This conference demonstrates that definitions of “normality” and “pathology” are culturally variable and approaches the ways in which science, medicine and religion play roles in distinguishing these definitions. This conference interrogates notions of the human mind to ask whether this can encompass “uncanny” or “supernatural” experiences appropriately.

The ‘Uncanny Landscapes’ panel addresses the context of the uncanny as experienced through people’s embodied engagements with landscape. It acknowledges recent shifts in approaches to landscape in social and cultural sciences – from objectifying approaches to landscape as representation or as a base upon which humans live and act, towards recognition of an unfolding, “more-than-human” environment that we are part of. It broaches questions about how “uncanny” experiences or phenomena in (or of) the landscape introduces new questions and challenges our existing methodological, analytic and theoretical tools. We address the potential of recognising the landscape as ‘subject’, raising questions about its capacity to generate the uncanny. You can read the full panel abstract here.

 

My paper abstract

Perception, the environment and the uncanny: Sensing the woodlands with a psychic medium who has impaired vision

This paper presents ethnography exploring the sensuous perception of English woodlands for a psychic medium named Amanda, who has congenitally impaired vision. This case study is part of an ethnography investigating the sensory perception and experience of the woodlands for walkers who have impaired vision, in the South Downs, England (2012-2014). I propose that the uncanny experiences Amanda described as a psychic medium and that I experienced in her company provides opportunities to reflect on anthropological conceptions of the environment, and the methodological, analytic and theoretical tools available for investigating uncanny experiences in natural environments. Walks through the woodlands with Amanda were characterised by uncanny experiences. I recount some of these uncanny experiences, describing her embodied and sensuous engagement with the woodlands as a psychic medium. I propose that these accounts of uncanny experiences within and of the environment contributes to theoretical (and therefore both methodological and analytic) reformulations of the environment beyond that of an objective back drop to human activities and extends to what Abram referred to as a ‘more-than-human-world’. This ethnography describes an environment sedimented with feeling tones of past activities that are sensed as “energies”, with which one can interact and alter. Thus, the environment is identified as processual, imbued “energetically” with, and altered by, human activities. Yet, there is also a sense of agency or subjectivity of the environment, which Amanda recognised as changes in the weather, and the feel, sounds and motions of the environment. Suggesting that the environment embodies these “energies” with some kind of agency. I consider how anthropological approaches to the environment have principally been concerned with the human perceiver and the environment as affording perceptual experience (following Gibson 1979), identifying the human-centric dynamic implicit in this. Reflecting on the anthropological opportunities and limitations for investigating the environment and uncanny experiences, I open questions for ways forth. This paper is situated in a sensuous anthropology of the environment and explores sensory perception through embodied methodologies of apprenticeship

 

Keywords: Sensuous experience, uncanny, embodied methodologies, vision impairment, environment, extrasensory perception.

If you are interested in where this panel takes us, please keep an eye on my forthcoming blogs.

 

Unearthing the senses in our experience of woodlands

 

This blog post originally appeared on the Woodland Trust News and Blog.

Have you ever stood in a woodland and closed your eyes, even for a few moments? Could you hear the rummaging of the squirrel, smell the familiar pungency of the damp musk that follows the rainfall, or feel the movement of the wind as it danced through the trees?

I have often found myself watching the woodlands, those beautiful, radiant colours that turn and change with the moods of the seasons. Tracing the contours of the twisting limbs which rise towards the sky to finally burst with offshoots of green. But there is so much more to the woodlands than what is seen. So often the beauty of the woodland is a scene to behold with the eyes alone.

The presence of trees

My research has explored how woodlands are perceived and experienced by people who have impaired vision. I walked one-to-one as their sighted guide, wandering the woodlands of the South Downs National Park for over two years. In this time I learned how people perceived and engaged with woodlands through senses other than sight.

Something that really struck me in this research was how so many of my companions described trees to have a “presence”. Approached as giant, “wise” anthropomorphic beings and acknowledged to have lived for as many or more years than you and I put together. As we arched our necks back and extended our arms to explore the textures of the trunk with confident hands, my companions often described how much of the tree was “out of reach”. Many times our height, the full felt presence of the tree was unknown.

Listening to trees with echolocation

As we stood beneath a tree, in the shadows of the canopy, I was often invited by my companion to listen. The breath of the wind that whistled through the tree revealed the contours and textures of the foliage high above us. The brittle rattle of beech in autumn, with leaves refusing to fall; hearing the creaking boughs of the ancient cedar, revealing its height.

But there were ways of listening to the woodland that was a mystery to me. Echolocation is an activity of listening to the way that sound echoes – how sound bounces off surfaces. Listening to this echo, the way that the woodland became more open or enclosed, thinned and thickened, was audible. The sounds of our footsteps upon the beaten path and the resound of our chattering voices bounced off the trees, revealing their presence.

When it rains, the woodland sings. Each leaf sounds a note in this symphony, and the contours of the body of trees reveals itself. Rain gives a voice to everything that it touches. No tree is out of reach with the fall of rain, and the fullness of its breadth is heard. Dripping leaves sound the heights of trees, water runs down the bark bodies to gather in small pools around exposed roots. One can listen to the expanse of the woodland all around, listening to the form of each tree that is revealed in rain.

With immense gratitude I thank all the research participants who shared their time, experience and knowledge with me – I am constantly inspired by each one of you.

Explore your own multi-sensory woodland

I share these brief accounts with you as an invitation, or inquisitive reminder, to listen to the woodlands. To place your hands on the body of the oak, as well as cast your eyes about it. I ask, what are the qualities of a tree – or an entire woodland – that are revealed when we attend with our whole bodies? I hope that you will join me in exploring this question in your own experiences with trees and woodlands.

Engage through social media here.

Sound, auditory perception, and listening

 

Adam.pngIn November last year my chapter ‘Walking through the woodlands: Learning to listen with companions who have impaired vision’ was published in  The Auditory Culture Reader, an edited book by Michael Bull and Les Back, published by Bloomsbury. This chapter was the opportunity for me to contribute to an anthropology of sound through account of how we experience sound – listening.

Anthropological accounts of sound have focused largely on sound, the concept of ‘soundscape’ and recordings (1). ‘Soundscape’ is a concept coined by composer Murray Schafer to refer to any acoustic field of study, from musical score to the sounds of the countryside. Following Schaffer, Anthropologists have described the sounds of an environment and attributed cultural significances. However, these accounts have rarely accounted for how people actually listen within the environment.

Meanwhile, cross-disciplinary scholarship of auditory perception has focused on describing hearing as a sensory capacity. This has involved characterising hearing in terms of attributes, for example that it is a “distance sense”, and describing experiences of listening (2). The role of the environment in affording these qualities of experience has been largely ignored. Consequently, accounts of auditory perception often risk becoming abstract and generalised.

I propose that by focusing on experiences of listening, rather than ‘sound’ or the capacity of hearing, we might overcome these issues. Further, the multi-sensorial nature of the perception of sound is revealed. The ways in which people feel, see or even taste sounds. This takes us to the listening subject. How do individuals develop ways of listening in particular activities and environments? We all have a sense of how listening underwater compares to listening during a conversation with a friend on a blustery walk. Listening skills are contextually variable.

In the chapter I offer frameworks for approaching an investigation of listening, principally through a concept that I refer to as sensorial emplacement. Through my ethnography of listening activities practiced by walkers who have impaired vision while walking in the South Downs (East Sussex, UK), I demonstrate the relevance of this concept and explore what this case study might offer to anthropological and cross-disciplinary investigations of sound and  auditory perception. To access the chapter please see the Auditory Culture Reader available here.

 

Footnotes

(1) For examples see Feld and Brenneis 2004; Samuels et al 2010; c.f. Kelman 2010.

(2) Including Carter 2004; Chion 2012; Idhe 2012

 

References

Carter, P. 2004. ‘Ambiguous traces, mishearing and auditory space’, in Erlman, V. (ed.), Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening and Modernity. Oxford: Berg.

Chion, M. 2012. ‘The Three Listening Modes’, in Sterne, J. (ed.), The Sound Studies Reader. London: Routledge.

Feld, S. and D. Brenneis. 2004. ‘Doing Anthropology in Sound’, in American Ethnologist, Vol. 31, No. 4, pp. 461-474.

Idhe, D. 2012. ‘The Auditory Dimension’, in Sterne, J. (ed.) The Sound Studies Reader. New York: Routledge.

Kelman, A. 2010. ‘Rethinking Soundscape: A Critical Genealogy of a Key Term in Soundstudies’, in Senses and Society, Vol. 5, Issue 2, pp. 212-234.

Samuels, D., L. Meintjes, A. Ochoa, and T. Porcello. 2010. ‘Soundscapes: Toward a Sounded Anthropology’, in Annual Review of Anthropology, 39, pp. 329-345.

Schafer, R. M. 1994 [1977]. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny.

Photograph of the Seven Sisters, South Downs