A co-worker and I were driving home from work late tonight late because we were out at Okefenokee Swamp Park conducting alligator research. We were having a conversation about how amazing it is that through [insert explanatory force of your preference here…God, fate, energy, random circumstance, etc.] we find the person(s) we need in the moment in which we need them. There is a convergence of energy, people, and opportunity that happens if we pause the chaos and open ourselves. We drove up on a fellow who had just hit a dog in the middle of the road and the driver was in deep anguish. We pulled over. As we approached, the dog rolled over, still alive, but we quickly realized that he had experienced fatal wounds – spinal injuries and internal bleeding. We immediately slipped into teamwork and response mode, redirecting traffic around the scene, and attempting to call local vets and facilities who could help us with easing the dog’s pain. A few neighbors joined the scene to see if they could help because they saw us huddled in the road. One of them went home and got a board so we could move him out of the road. With emergency vets closed due to COVID, we called the police to help us. We sat with the dog as he transitioned, giving him treats and water and positive energy, encouraging him to go to his next home and release his pain. He was loving and sweet and peaceful and never uttered a bark or a whimper in the 2 hours we were with him before Animal Control arrived in response to the police call. Our officer reflected she had not seen people come together like this over an animal hit in the road. In his final silent bark, he was a teacher and a moment of hope in a world so divided.
This experience was yet another where I appreciated all that we can learn in these moments of silence. We retreat to words because we have the gift of voice. Even as a child, I appreciated that there was a need to speak up for those without voices. As an adult, I dedicated myself to animals and plants who did not have the privilege of an audible voice. As a professional, I learned that they do have voices; we just are not trained to hear them because they do not vocalize in ways that we relate to as people.
How do we become trained to hear? As a person who has a BS, MS, and PhD in Ecology, I can tell you it does not make the class curriculum. Sure, we learn how to make observations in structured formats that can be analyzed, either quantitatively or qualitatively to deduce results and findings. We learn focus and how to be an objective observer, but that is different than listening. Many of the voices we are missing can only be found in the silent moments. As humans, we have such a dominant presence in the landscape and many animals silence in fear as a defensive response . As part of lab classes, I request that students listen and notice (and yes, record) what they hear when they initially arrive. Then, I ask them to be completely silent and still and record again what they hear at 5 minutes and 10 minutes. They are not allowed to look at their phones or indulge in any other common-day distractions. With the pause, they hear more and more over the listening exercise. This is certainly in part because more organisms view it to be safe over the passing time and gamble that we are not a threat. But it also is because we are stopping and listening more in that silent space to which we succumb. In several of my leadership and mentor training classes, they also emphasize the importance of stopping and being comfortable in silence so we can create a space and invite others to speak.
In a world that is so emotionally charged, as a general standard, but especially now, we can create this space of silence in which we can begin to hear the voices unheard, the silent bark. The silent bark is the sharing of pain — pain that would never be heard amidst loudness. Voices that have been silenced, either because they are suppressed or they simply have not had the opening to get a word in edge-wise, must be heard. Everything wants and needs to be heard; that is the practical reason for having a voice. We cannot offer the support needed just by listening to the audible voices; we have to listen to those spoken in the silence.
It continues to be my professional journey to hear the voices of nature, the pleas issued through silent barks, so that I may be their megaphone to foster an awareness of the pain and wounds that we are inflicting on Earth and its inhabitants. I want to be the fan rooting in the stands for the many amazing and humbling ways in which Earth fights to overcome and heal the wounds. I am grateful for my love for nature, who is my teacher, my healer, my supporter. I am grateful that I am not just a trained observer but also a listener. I am grateful that I can hear the voices and that I have a career-long goal to continue to understand how to translate those voices, to be empathetic, and to help in any way that I can while I am on this Earth. Admittedly, I gravitated to the field of Ecology because it makes sense; logic and disciplinary principles can be applied and repeated over and over. Admittedly, I did not see this same logic in human society and initially surmised that I am better at figuring out reptiles than I am at understanding the ways of people. Since, my journeys have evolved and merged as the larger patterns between nature and humans have emerged. We all have pain, pain that we desire to express, and love that we need to heal the pain.
How do we become trained to hear? Voices are heard when we allow the silence. Voices are heard when we are willing to hear them.