The wind pushed through the mangrove forest, switching the leaves from dark green to light. We sat in the boat, the village headman, three children, a friend, a researcher from the University of the South Pacific and her husband, and myself.
The dinghy rocked gently, held by an alcove of branches. The hydrophone scraped back and forth against the fiberglass hull, and I struggled to stabilise my arm dangling the cord, balancing with the push and pull of the tide. In my headphones I heard intermittent growls, the gentle bursts of air bubbles, and high-pitched snaps and pops. As I turned away from the opaque water of the estuary, the headman gestured to my headphones. I handed them to him and he crouched down on the floor of the boat, clasping them to his ears. For half an hour we sat, him crouched, my arm outstretched, listening. Everyone was quiet, watching. Only the headman could hear what the microphones picked up. What exact species of fish it was that grunted and moaned beneath the boat was unknown to me. I did not know if the bubbling was the breathing of crabs. I did not know if the snaps and pops were shrimp. I just knew there was something making some sound.
Nasilai village where we were moored, lies on the Rewa Delta and is one of several communities chosen by the Ministry of Fisheries and Forestry to take part in a mangrove restoration and management project. The project began in 2015 with the objective to rehabilitate coastal and mangrove wetlands. The mangroves in the delta are crucial for the communities living there; they support subsistence through marine life including gari (mud crabs), mana (mud lobsters) and moci (shrimps). Focusing on traditional knowledge and skill sharing, the project sought to enable communities to care for and improve ecosystem resources.
Before we’d been invited onto the boat in Nasilai, the researcher’s husband, brought the headman the yagona I’d purchased on the way. The headman came to meet us and said he’d had many foreign researchers come to speak with him about the project. As he walked us to the boat, skirting the village, he said that they had spent a lot of time restoring the forest, cleaning rubbish, planting more trees, and changing their fishing patterns. He said that scientists from the University came through and measured the fish and the health of the marshes. He mentioned the increasing erosion from tides and flooding events. Pulling out from the shore, he pointed to thick forest, we rounded a bend in the river to a spot he said that they were actively working on. From the researcher’s narration, and the headman’s explanations, the project was going well. There was a sense of partnership between the village, the Ministry and the University. There was also an ease to the story the headman told us, it felt as though he’d told it many times before.
Arriving at the grove and setting up my microphones, the headman was curious about what they would reveal – he said he hadn’t seen a researcher using underwater microphones before. When my colleagues from the University had asked what I wanted to do, I had replied that I needed to sit in a boat for half an hour maybe more, in relative silence. I knew from experience it was an unconventional request, made more so by the fact that my project was not connected to a state climate research initiative. I was a stranger to the headman. My whiteness, my prestige as a researcher and my connection to the University allowed me to be there. These things were felt. More than anything, I was nervous about wasting the headman’s time, I told him that I didn’t know what we would hear if anything, it depended on what was around, the tide, the time of day, season. He said it was a good fishing spot.
Listening, when what is making the sound is unseen, is an act of faith. I had no idea what kind of encounter might arise. It had happened many times before that my recordings were not what I had hoped for or been told to expect; it was different when I was alone because then that ‘failure’ went unwitnessed. Listening in this way was always a relinquishment of knowing. We didn’t know if we would hear something and then we didn’t know what we would hear. On listening, neither the headman nor I could identify the creatures that lay below by their soundings. All we heard was their presence, somewhere down there. From the diverse noises we suspected there were many different creatures. The fact of not-knowing did not diminish the headman’s curiosity, it was enough to hear. In listening, we were with what was below, in proximity but with no certainty. Listening became a belief in being-with. In the suspension between hearing and knowing, what we encountered was abundance.
The suspension between hearing and knowing is tremulous and potent. There is often a strong urge to make sense of, to figure out, to fill the gap with names, to seek a horizon upon which a name might be found. To embrace not-knowing, namelessness, is difficult because it dismantles knowledge as currency and moreover, possession. To assert, I have heard and now I conclude, is what is expected in this work. To say, I have no idea what I am hearing, but I am hearing and that is what it is, is to divest from the authority of certainty. In listening as being-with suspension is made up of imagination. There was still naming through speculation of course: the bubbles that might have been crabs, seagrass, fish, or insect larvae, that might have been a stray rope touching against the boat, microphone interference. The grunts that could have been one of twenty documented species, or none of them at all. The shrimp that could have been three or three hundred, below us or fifty meters distant. But other sounds, registering only on the edges of perceptibility, could not be named, could not even be spoken. In not knowing, possibilities were open.
In this expanse of possibilities, in being-with sounds as what is not known but is in relation, attunement comes to play. Attunement is an active tuning into. It is active in the sense that it invites a constant dance, sensing and flowing with, noticing and moving together. It is a responsiveness to what is being heard – heard not only as aural hearing. Tuning-into thrives in unhurriedness because listening cannot happen faster than the sound being made. Everything takes the time it takes. What is to come cannot be foretold. Being-with sounds, as they are, without name, as they unfold, is a practice of relation without conditions.
This listening as being-with is not for any purpose outside itself. It’s to be with whatever comes. Here, the interdependence between the headman and whatever was down there, in the roots of the mangroves, emerged. There was no utility to the encounter, it was not extraordinary nor did it further any larger objective – it did not make up research gain or consolidate a collaboration or indicate a more prosperous fishing site or a long-forgotten species. But for half an hour the headman barely moved. His hands remained wrapped around his covered ears. His eyes stayed gazing into the distance. His body stayed bent, held in its own suspension. As the minutes gathered, the others in the boat grew impatient. They looked at each other, the kids started a silent game, punctuated only by a glare from the headman and a swiping arm. At some point I grew tired and indicated that I would remove the microphones from the water. After returning the headphones, the headman said to me something like, I never knew that’s what it sounded like down there, the fish are actually back again I can hear them down there. The delight he expressed in hearing what he heard, what he later told as a story of regeneration, as something that was heard and not seen and that added to what he had been seen at other times, was apparent. Talking to the kids in Fijian, their faces full of questions, he turned on the motor, pushed the boat out of the mangroves and pointed it back toward the village.
AM Kanngieser is a geographer and sound artist. Climates of Listening is an ongoing conversation and collaboration with predominantly women, queer and transgender people in the Pacific (Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru and Papua New Guinea) working toward environmental and social justice. Using sonic ethnographies, they centre relations between people and ecosystems by weaving together fieldrecordings, oral testimonies, poetry, song, music and radio composition. Through this, they seek to amplify multifaceted and changing community narratives and responses to neo-colonial extraction, ecocide and climate change.