Listening With All Our Senses: Discover Forgotten Wisdom
When I try to explain to people that I spend time out on the land to listen to the stories she wants me to hear and share, I’m often met with polite smiles or nods. It’s rarely evident at the time why I’ve chosen a given place and it doesn’t matter. Only in hindsight, after the exterior landscape interacts with my interior landscape do I recognize the lesson I’m learning at the time. Getting away from the noise and sensory bombardment of the everyday allows my senses to perceive things that would otherwise go unnoticed.
All winter I’ve wanted to visit a bench that sits atop a ridge in the middle of a rural township section. The bench sits under a tree and faces east, marking a transition from prime Class 1 Farmland to undulating pasture. As you follow the footpath cross country, a panoramic view of the countryside creates an expansiveness that makes the walker seem both miniscule and infinite. Once here, a tract of hardwood forest protects you from prevailing west winds originating far west of this place.
My task of listening to the land and sharing her stories is only a vague direction to get started. Listening is not the same as hearing. It’s compiling and interpreting inputs through all our senses. This happens through the literal message. It’s also filtered through our inherent preconceptions, most of which we’re unaware of.
When we give or receive communication, it’s not just with one sense. We form impressions based on factors which include aural tones, inflections, and accents. If we’re in the same physical space, sights, smells, size, skin colour, and touch influence our judgement. We use body language in giving and receiving information.
This isn’t limited to our communication with people. Even at that, we’ve only been using the written word to communicate for less than 4,000 years. Before we spoke, we read symbols and signs from animal behavior, weather, and the wind, listening with all our senses.
We’ve forgotten that we once knew these forms of communication. So reliant are we on the written word and Google, we rush for the answer without waiting to think it through. But if we get out, slow down, practice, listening with all our senses, we begin to hear and see in a new, richer way.
These new ways of communicating seem almost shy at first as if they don’t know how we’re going to receive them. But once we show our receptivity and establish a rapport, we begin to understand our world at a deeper level. It’s like we’re learning how to read a new language.
You’ve Got a Message
Messages come from in unexpected forms and in unexpected ways. They make us uncomfortable. Surely, that wasn’t meant for me, we say. Wrong address. That wasn’t what I asked! But if arrives in your inbox, it’s meant for you, if only to bring it to your awareness! Take for example the hot topics of racism, cultural genocide, and environmental degradation. We could never be involved in anything like that. Could we?
Opening Our Eyes
Last week an interviewer asked me about my involvement in motorcycling. She also wanted to know why I wrote Women, Motorcycles and the Road to Empowerment. I explained how I’d wanted to write and share the stories of a diverse group of women riders to inspire others. I wanted to portray the reserves of courage, confidence, and power they discovered when challenged. Once aware, they could then apply these in any life situation.
I’ve described the book in this manner probably thousands of times. It was only when the book was a few years old that I stumbled over my use of the term diversity. I’d intentionally sought out a representative group of women riders and thought I’d done a good job. Ironically, I’d missed one of the most visible differentiators. All but three (that I’m aware of) of the women were white. My interviewer me was black. She wasn’t interviewing me about race yet my answer, made me uncomfortable. It reinforced how much I’d used the term diversity without considering racial diversity. Not seeing something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. But once your eyes open, you can’t help but not see it.
Earlier this week, I was about to interview a Jewish couple for a project I’m working on. Moments before the interview was to begin, an invitation for a book launch, completely unrelated to my interview, arrived in my inbox. It so happens that for years, the couple has been involved in efforts in Holocaust education with the intent that it never happens again.
The book was about a part of the Mennonite past I’d rather not know about. During the Nazi invasion of Ukraine in 1941, Mennonites, colluded with the Nazis in the extermination of Jews. This was the culture I grew out of, although my family was already in Canada and not involved. Still! How can this happen to a community who had survived persecution themselves? With strong values? Who were known as charitable and peacekeepers? In this synchronous event, what was the message for me? (Read: A Chilling Tale: Mennonite History and the Holocaust)
Time for Hope Not Despair
As I sat on the bench contemplating the peaceful scene surrounding me, I knew how fragile it too was. Only a decade ago, the land just west of here, was the subject of a mega battle between local farmers and environmentalists and a company backed by a $25-billion Boston hedge fund. The developers wanted to turn almost 3,250 hectares of Class 1 Farmland into a Mega Quarry. After seven years, they were defeated.
Currently in my province of Ontario, the government is granting special permission to pave over a protected wetland east of Toronto to build what would become the largest retail warehouse in Canada. South of here, the government has resurrected a plan to build a redundant highway that would pave over farms, forests, and wetlands, turning a greenbelt into industrial and commercial lands. Mega protests and legal battles are underway.
Several weeks ago, I sat facing another tranquil scene a few miles southeast of this bench. I’d dreamt the scene the night before, only it was the toboggan hill of my childhood at the back corner of my parent’s Niagara farm. That hill is gone now. Prime farmland paved over for a four-lane highway.
More than ever this is a time of hope rather than despair. It’s time for listening with all our senses and being open to the answers when they come. Our ancestors heard the call of the forest and they heard the song of nature. Now it’s our chance to discover that forgotten wisdom.