Have You Listened to the Sounds of the Colby Forest?

Humanities6 MIN READ

A new humanities lab project, to be presented at this year’s liberal arts symposium, asks people to close their eyes and listen to what the woods have to say

Jack Brenner ’26 in the Perkins Arboretum, near where he recorded the sounds of nature for a Spanish class.
By Bob KeyesPhotography by Gabe Souza
April 24, 2024

Sit back, relax, and let nature cast its spell.

A dozen students will present a 12-minute audio soundscape recorded in the Colby Perkins Arboretum as part of the Colby Liberal Arts Symposium May 2. They hope to inspire students and the community at large to appreciate Colby’s natural spaces and humanity’s place within them.

Inspired by ideas of the deep ecology movement, which regards human life as just one of many equal components of a global ecosystem, students in Luis Millones’s Deep Ecology in Human Imagination humanities lab made audio recordings from the natural area, capturing the songs of birds, whistling of wind, rustling of leaves, movements of insects, and the encroaching hum of highways and other human activities.

Titled Endangered Sounds of the Colby Forest, the soundscape asks listeners to pause, concentrate, and simply listen to—and appreciate—the sounds of the forest, which is part of Perkins Arboretum and Bird Sanctuary on the Mayflower Hill campus.

“This is a listening experience, and ideally we want people to close their eyes for those 12 minutes and concentrate,” said Millones, the Allen Family Professor of Latin American Literature, who teaches Spanish and Latin American studies. “Most people who have gone to the forest have never spent 12 minutes with their eyes shut just listening to the sounds. We are bringing that experience to them with the goal of encouraging people to go into the forest and experience it in a different way than they have in the past.”

The soundscape will be presented at 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. May 2 in the Film Screening Room (G10) at the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts.

Millones hopes this first soundscape will serve as a benchmark and that other sound surveys of the arboretum will follow. He is curious to learn how sounds recorded in the arboretum change over time with the growth of Waterville and further development.

A multidisciplinary experience

From an academic perspective, this has been a multidisciplinary experience. It’s a Spanish course, taught entirely in Spanish, and also an environmental humanities course, created with the support of grants from the Center for the Arts and Humanities. Millones and the students collaborated with Assistant Professor of Music José Martínez on the recording and editing aspects of the project and with Justin Becknell, associate professor and chair of environmental studies, to learn what they were seeing and hearing while in the woods.

The guiding principles of the course stem from the deep ecology movement, which is based on the belief that humans must change their relationship with nature from valuing nature for what it brings to the human condition to recognizing that nature has inherent value whether we are present to experience it or not.

Shane Baldwin '25 holds a microphone in the Perkins Arboretum.
Shane Baldwin ’25 is among the students who spent time in the woods recording sounds and reflecting on what they heard.

Exploring those ideas had a profound impact on Ema O’Neil ’26, who is double majoring in Spanish and environmental policy. She approached the project from an anthropocentric perspective—that is, focusing on how the natural sounds of nature could benefit the well-being of humankind. As she spent more time immersed in the process of listening to the forest, she began to experience what it means to shift to a more balanced biocentric perspective.

“The intricate symphony of bird songs, rustling leaves, and flowing water reminded me that the value of nature extends far beyond its usefulness to humans,” she wrote, reflecting on the experience. “It exists by itself, with its own inherent value and rights. This new biocentric lens expanded my understanding of the intrinsic value of nature and reinforced the importance of preserving it for its own good.”

O’Neil, who had not spent much time in the arboretum prior to this project, said she hopes that people who listen to the soundscape “come away with a deeper appreciation for the beauty and complexity of nature” and are moved to become more responsible stewards of natural spaces. “Ultimately, I hope this soundscape serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving and protecting our natural ecosystems for future generations and motivates listeners to take action in support of environmental conservation efforts.”

In the woods at first light

Leila Iredell ’26, a global studies and Spanish double major, also had a deeply personal and profound experience working on the project. She signed up for the class because its multidisciplinary nature appealed to her. “Mixing ecology with a little philosophy while also learning recording techniques and music editing sounded really cool,” she said.

Because of technical issues, the first set of recordings she made in the woods was unusable, so she had to go again. The second time, she went out at first light after waking at 5 a.m. feeling anxious and unable to fall back to sleep.

Leila Iredell ’26 was drawn to the multidisciplinary nature of the course.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I should just go out in the forest at sunrise and get the recording.’ I figured that was when the birds would be the loudest, and they were. Not only were the sounds I was able to record amazingly loud and beautiful and rich with different animals, but it was something that I really needed personally,” she said. “I was stressed out, and walking around the forest, going slow, and just paying attention was beautiful. It was exactly what I needed at the moment—just take a deep breath and have some time with nature.”

She urged people who listen to the soundscape to relax, listen, and try to identify the various sounds. “Close your eyes, focus on your auditory senses, and listen for all the different animals, the wind, the trees, the leaves, and everything else.”

Ema O’Neil ’26 holding microphone
Ema O’Neil ’26 approached the project from an anthropocentric perspective, focusing on how natural sounds can benefit the well-being of humankind.

Oliver Riordan ’26 approached the project scientifically, with a plan to observe, take notes, and then explain what he found during an early-morning excursion into the woods. “But as I continued walking through the woods, I began to feel part of it,” he wrote, reflecting on the transformative experience. “As some light stretched across the sky and the sounds of animals around me grew louder, I started to feel like this ecosystem was inviting me to be a part of it.”

An economics and Spanish double major, he stood still for 10 minutes, transfixed and not realizing he hadn’t moved. Nature had cast its spell.

“It was at first an unsettling feeling, but then a comforting one, because in that moment I felt like I was part of a world I had previously been separate from,” Riordan wrote. 

Jack Brenner ’26, who is double majoring in Spanish and biology, ended his recording with the sounds of water “because all things are connected through water,” he said. “If I want to be on the same plane as all other earthly beings and destroy hierarchy, I have to recognize my connections.”