Listening During a Pandemic, and beyond

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Surveyor looking up a small tributary glacier, 141st Meridian, Kluane Glacier, Y.T. Credit: Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-04465.

Laura Madokoro

In 2005, historical geographer Julie Cruikshank published her widely-acclaimed work, Do Glaciers Listen? : Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination (UBC Press) in which she explored the history of environmental change in the Pacific Northwest. She looked specifically at Athapaskan and Tlingit oral traditions to understand glaciers as actors, as sentient beings that “take action and respond to their surroundings.”[1] Her intention in doing so was to trace an environmental history of glaciers that took into consideration their encounters with humans, and vice versa, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the Little Ice Age and colonialism intersected. Cruikshank also wanted to highlight the tensions and connections between Indigenous and European ways of knowing, highlighting “struggles over conflicting meaning” and challenging notions of authority in the process.[2]

I have always found the title and the contents of Do Glaciers Listen? provocative, as if the onus was on the glaciers to do the listening. In my mind, I have always subtitled the work, And Can Humans Hear What They Have to Say? As societies around the world have wrestled with the potential scope and devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, I find myself thinking about issues around hearing, listening and, in some sense, responsibility. And so I have returned to Cruikshank’s work in recent days. With this post, I hope to share both how some of how Cruikshank’s ideas connect to our present condition and how the COVID-19 pandemic might invite a revisiting, or visiting, of her work and broader issues around what we hear, how we listen and how we make sense of things.

The term aural refers to the ear, or sense of hearing, and is often confused with oral (mouth). The act of physical distancing, or going into self-isolation, creates a change in our aural environments and to some extent are physical ones (though as keen observers have noted, the impediments that some are confronting for the first time are the norms for others with disabilities). Streets in Wuhan, China have been described as “eerily quiet”. And although there have been a number of visual representations of  “quiet emptiness”, there is no doubt that there is also an important aural dimension to this new quiet.

Along with the quiet, there are also new sounds. As journalist Sam Jones noted of the situation in Madrid, “the suddenly loud birdsong owes less to an absence of human activity than to the fact much of it is now having to take place behind closed doors.”

Over the past couple of weeks, my own days have been filled with very different sounds. The streets are quieter and I certainly hear more birdsongs, including those of the Canada geese who have returned north. But my own “silence” is also punctuated by my children’s laughter, and tears, and the sounds of endless on-line meetings coming from our hastily constructed home office (essentially a broom closet).

All of this has me thinking about the difference between hearing and listening, with active meaning-making being part of the latter. In Do Glaciers Listen? Julie Cruikshank writes of hearing, dotting her work with references to stories people “heard” about glaciers and accounts of the stories themselves. She also notes that how people listen is very much bound up with the format in which information or stories is conveyed. Writing of historian Walter Benjamin and his storytelling philosophies, she observes, “Storytelling is open-ended rather than didactic and allows listeners to draw independent conclusions from what they hear.”[3]

She continues:

“Medieval storytellers chronicled events without imposing their own interpretation, and their practice had equally important consequences for the arts of telling and the arts of listening. By telling stories, narrators explore how their meanings work; by listening, audiences can think about how those meanings apply to their own lives.”[4]

In Cruikshank’s view, the difference between hearing and listening then is one of making meaning of the sounds or stories one is hearing. What meaning might we attribute to the return of birdsong to our aural worlds? And how might become better listeners as we hear these (new) sounds?

Oral historians, naturally, are experts in the arts of hearing, listening and storytelling. Historian Steven High, of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University, has described the effects of deliberate, immersive listening as a result of walking tours organized through the Montreal Life Stories Project. Some of these tours were based on interviews with survivors of the Rwandan Genocide. Wearing special headsets, participants visited sites and listened to survivor accounts; for example, at Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, where a commemorative mass is held each year, they heard the story of Abbé Calixte, a survivor of the genocide who also leads the annual mass. As High writes, people “hear what was and see what is.” He suggests further that “there is political heat whenever past and present rub against each other in this way.”[5]

Today, the situation is almost reversed. We are hearing what is and thinking about what was. In doing so, I wonder what kind of political heat we are generating. What meanings are we drawing from the stories, sounds and quiet around us? Time will tell, I suppose.

Laura Madokoro is a member of the Active History editorial collective.



[1] Julie Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen? : Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005), 3.

[2] Cruikshank, 20.

[3] Cruikshank, 84.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Steven High, “Embodied Ways of Listening: Oral History, Genocide and the Audio Tour,” Anthropologica  55(1) (2013), 76.

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