Finding the Calm

bird

Wood thrush. Photo by Naomi B.

Peace. We are all searching for it. In troubled times we may soothe ourselves in the arts—music, or books, or film. We may return to a hobby we dropped long ago. Many of us will turn to nature for its life-affirming qualities, the sound of birds, the wind in our hair, the beauty of the budding trees and blooming flowers. Not everyone has access to a natural setting right now but there are substitutes. Listening to “Musicking Ecological Care and Rootedness,” an episode of the Music and Peacebuilding podcast hosted by Dr. Kevin Shorner-Johnson at Elizabethtown College and featuring Daniel Shevock, lecturer in music at Penn State Altoona, brings both sounds of nature and a sense of calm to the listener’s world.

In the podcast, which was followed by a presentation at Elizabethtown College, the two discuss Shevock’s book Eco-Literate Music Pedagogy (Routledge, 2018). Shorner-Johnson describes Shevock’s work as “beautiful, creative, and challenging. His notions of the local and rootedness challenge teachers to live into a sense of being in relationship to our locality. Our discussion speaks to meditative presence, being rather than having, and the balance of conservation and liberation.”

“I really wanted to connect ecological issues to my work,” which encompasses “soil (gardens), Catholic spirituality, and music,” says Shevock. “Spirituality for me is Franciscan. When I say ‘Franciscan,’ I don’t want people to be turned off. Atheists have written books on Franciscans. It’s about treating all creatures as ‘my brother,’ ‘my sister.’ The wind is my brother. These stories that I grew up with, about St. Francis, are setting up a kind of peacebuilding that is ecological. When I hear birds singing that’s my brothers and sisters singing.”

Shevock’s message could not be more timely. As we’re being asked to slow down, to isolate, to conserve, Shevock is thinking about our habits of acquisition. “Very often we’re taught to treat the things we have as things we ‘have,’” he says. “‘I have this park, it’s good that I kept the park. But if things are rough next year maybe I should sell off the woods.’” He doesn’t think that’s a good thing—“‘having’ makes us spiritually unsettled.”

He has questions: “How much more do we get? How much more sustainable is that? The human ‘having’ impulse is buying stuff. We don’t buy stuff for ourselves; we think it’s going to make us happy. We want to buy all this plastic. But there are other ways in which we can live the good life. Dwelling and residing are ways to live the good life.”

Going further, he says, “we have to heal ourselves. We have to look at ugly politics, ugly realities. So when we go home, how do we calm ourselves? Do we go home and make Jeff Bezos rich?” Of course, his answer is no. He finds calm in nature. “We can sit in our backyard and feed the birds. Chickadees, juncos, blue jays. We have evolved with these soundscapes. Even in the winter we hear birds and it seems to calm us.”

Shevock takes this practice—finding calm in listening to the birds—into his music classes at Penn State Altoona. “I have my students go outside and we find four different spots, take deep breaths, and just listen. We can close our eyes and imagine we’re somewhere else but we can’t close our ears.”

By introducing students to the sounds of birds, Shevock says, he is “bringing the world into my little narrow subject,” but one could say he is also opening his students’ minds to the vast natural world. Listening to birdsong is “good for the eyes and good for the ears,” he says. “The ears are close to the soul. It’s not only therapeutic but it’s music.”

Shevock’s podcast episode can be found here. And for more on Shevock’s work, including his poetry and a musical performance, visit his website.

Therese Boyd, ’79

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