The lost art of listening

Joel Oliphint

This story was produced in collaboration withPacific Standard, a social and environmental justice magazine.

“OK, so we’ll just listen for a few minutes.”

Brian Harnetty sits in a metal folding chair in a clearing at the base of Robinson’s Cave in Wayne National Forest, which covers nearly a quarter-million acres in the Appalachian foothills of Southeast Ohio. About 20 others join Harnetty, seated in a circle on a warm, humid Saturday morning in May, their chairs slowly puncturing the soft ground.

For more than 10 minutes, no one says a word. It takes a bit to settle into the quiet, to live in it comfortably, but soon the vibe becomes meditative. It feels like a ritual. Some people bow their heads. Some fold their hands and close their eyes. Others scan the woods that surround the clearing.

A sycamore partially shades the circle of listeners, dappling sunlight into the middle of the ring. As the wind blows, swaying branches and quivering leaves create a kind of woodwind symphony. Someone’s stomach growls. A dog barks; it sounds enormous and menacing. The trill of a red-bellied woodpecker dominates an improvisational chorus of birdsongs. At times, motorcycle engines temporarily take over as they cruise along Main Street in New Straitsville, a town known for its Moonshine Festival that sits just below the clearing. 

Ever-present in the background is the sound of water falling over the top of Robinson’s Cave, a recessed outcropping of rock that once served as a secret meeting place for labor groups in the late 1800s. The meetings eventually led to the formation of the United Mine Workers, a historic labor union that represents coal miners.

“It has really interesting acoustic qualities,” Harnetty told the group beforehand, “and in fact the miners took advantage of that and were able to meet and talk quietly without being overheard. … It’s also a place of rebellion, where supposedly another group of miners met later to conspire to set the mines on fire out near New Straitsville.”

After the time of silence, Harnetty, a musician, plays a recording through two Bluetooth speakers. It begins with a one-note drone that sounds almost like feedback, then builds to include more instruments — bass clarinet, vibraphone, piano, strings. The free-flowing, sometimes haunting music is intercut with archival field recordings and excerpts of interviews taped more recently by Harnetty. Most tracks feature people from the historic coal-mining towns in Southeast Ohio known as the Little Cities of Black Diamonds.

Parts of the recording are repurposed from Harnetty’s latest album, Shawnee, Ohio, which came out in April on Karlrecords, a German label that describes itself as “an outlet for puzzling sounds that question today’s pigeonholes of reception.” On “Sigmund,” a survivor of the 1930 Millfield Mine Disaster that killed 82 miners recounts the experience: “Almost every man in there was, of course, a friend of mine. … It was just hard to realize that they were gone.” In an excerpt from “Boy,” a child asks his grandma about “the olden days,” but in an eerie twist, only the boy’s questions are audible: “In the mines, um, do you know how many people died? Um, do you know anybody that was in the mines? Can you tell me three people? Can you name them?” 

Toward the end of the recording, one interview snippet gets at the heart of why Harnetty has gathered these people, most of them strangers to each other, on a weekend morning to sit in silence together in the woods — what Harnetty calls a “Forest Listening Room.” 

“When you look at public land, it’s no secret that people are pretty divided today,” a man’s voice says through the speakers. “But this is something that both sides of the political spectrum agree on. This is something that everyone can use, and it’s good for everybody. And so I feel like it’s something that can unite so many different factions that otherwise may not agree.”

Hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, is a constant threat to Wayne National Forest; since 2016, the Bureau of Land Management has reportedly auctioned off more than 2,300 acres of Ohio’s only national forest to oil and gas companies. Nearby, Oxford Mining Company has submitted a permit to mine more than 500 acres of Perry State Forest, public land that has already been strip-mined.

The legacy of extraction weighs heavily on this region. For decades coal brought jobs to Southeast Ohio, but most of those jobs have disappeared. The mining also changed the character and quality of the forest, and those woods mean something to everyone in the region, whether they use public lands for hunting, fishing and riding ATVs or for hiking and camping.

In response to these divisive issues, for the past year, Harnetty has invited people from the Little Cities of Black Diamonds — from traditional environmentalists to lifelong drillers — to take part in a radical act of listening in hopes of finding literal common ground via their shared love of the land. The forest itself is the mediator.

Maybe, Harnetty argues, if we listen to the forest together, we can alter its future.

Harnetty, 46, has roots in the Southeast Ohio towns of Shawnee and Junction City, but he doesn’t identify as Appalachian. He’s from Columbus, and a 1995 graduate of Ohio State University. Armed with a music degree in theory and composition, Harnetty studied with composer Michael Finnissy at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Finnissy was known for sampling notated music, but in the classical music tradition.

“He was pulling from folk musics from all around the world and then reworking them into his compositions,” Harnetty said. “But the way he did it didn’t sound quite right to me.”

Then Harnetty heard Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a highly influential 1952 compilation of folk, country and blues songs originally recorded between 1927 and 1932 and reissued by Smithsonian Folkways on CD in 1997. “That was a game changer for me,” Harnetty said of the collection that critic Greil Marcus described as “Old, Weird America.” “When I heard the Harry Smith anthology, I realized what I was missing, which was the texture of the grain of the recordings. That information was getting stripped away by just dealing with the notes.”

In 2006, Harnetty’s interest in archival music led him to the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives in Kentucky. Weaving together his own instrumentation with field recordings and old radio broadcasts, he released two albums using material from Berea: 2007’s American Winter and 2009’s Silent City, which also incorporated vocals from Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy. (He later released a third Berea-born album, Rawhead & Bloodybones, in 2015.)

By 2010, Harnetty wanted to take what he’d learned and apply it to Ohio. But he was cautious. He didn’t want to strip-mine Appalachian culture. “I had all these ethical questions about sound archives and how to use them, and so over the past 15 years I’ve been trying to find ways to get closer to the people that are being recorded,” he said. “It’s essentially an ethnographic project — sonic ethnography — where you’re just deeply hanging out with a group of people over a long period of time. But I’m taking that out of the academic world and trying to make it an art project.”

In the tiny village of Shawnee, where Harnetty’s grandfather, Mordecai Williams, went to high school, Harnetty met local historian John Winnenberg, who gave him a box of about 40 cassette tapes from the 1980s containing oral histories, which Harnetty digitized and catalogued. He then set about making a series of aural portraits set to his singular style of patiently paced, experimental Americana.

Along the way, Harnetty spent as much time as he could with locals. He recorded sounds in the street and in the woods. He pulled together a group of musicians and performed the Shawnee material at Duke University, Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center and Ohio State’s Wexner Center for the Arts, but he also recorded a performance at Shawnee’s Tecumseh Theater — the same place his grandfather once played basketball.

“We can’t rebuild this area or make the quality of life here better without some help from new people coming in,” Winnenberg said. “But it has to be people like Brian who respect people here.”

Harnetty kept returning to Shawnee and other nearby towns, and eventually he hit upon the Forest Listening Room idea and received funding for the project via a 2018 fellowship from A Blade of Grass, a Brooklyn-based organization promoting socially engaged art (Harnetty was one of eight fellowship recipients out of 571 applicants).

“In the past, I could always hide behind an instrument or some sort of music being made,” Harnetty said. “The challenge of this is you feel very naked.”

It’s also a tough thing to explain. “It’s basically like, ‘There’s this crazy dude who’d like to go out to the forest with you and just sit and listen,’” Harnetty said. “It’s really difficult to convince people to do this.”

On a Saturday afternoon in early April, I accompany Harnetty on the 65-mile drive from Columbus down to Perry County for a listening session in Perry State Forest. On the narrow roads leading into the woods, Harnetty pulls far over to the side to let oncoming cars go by. When we roll into the parking area, pickup trucks full of ATVs and dirt bikes dominate the lot. None of the riders look primed for silence.

Eventually Harnetty finds Perry County resident Joelene Dixon. Turns out she and her husband, Tim, a former Marine who keeps his distance, are the only people who’ve showed up today. Joelene has her own agenda, in fact. She wants to show Harnetty various sites around the forest, particularly spots that are under threat of being strip-mined. If Harnetty is disappointed in the turnout, he doesn’t show it.

We follow Dixon’s car to man-made Essington Lake, a beautiful, picturesque spot, though conspicuously devoid of animal or aquatic life other than a few honking geese. “In the ’60s and ’70s, they ravaged this area by strip-mining,” Dixon said. “But nature is continuing to overcome what man has devastated. And now we’re going to devastate it again. … They’re going to mine right up to that lake, within 300 feet of it.”

Staring out across the serene lake together, Harnetty asks Dixon what this place means to her. “For me, this is coming home. This is comfortable. This is what I know,” she said, her voice beginning to break. “My parents are gone. My mom died first, and after my dad died I wasn't quite ready for the feeling of being an orphan. And something about being in an area that is familiar to you, that reminds you of your childhood, reminds you of carefree days... it’s comforting. I don’t know how else to say it. It’s just comforting." 

Harnetty listens, prompting with soft-spoken questions only occasionally. He’s strikingly tall with a long gray beard, but he never comes across as imposing, even with a big fuzzy microphone pointed toward Dixon. Establishing trust seems to come effortlessly to him. The next time he comes back to Perry County he won’t be a stranger to the Dixons.

“Oftentimes in a listening session I don’t say anything at all,” Harnetty tells me later on the drive home. “I think those experiences, and all the experiences I’ve had, inform how I’m talking to Joelene and the kind of questions that I’ll ask.”

Initially, Harnetty thought he’d call this project the Fracked Forest Listening Rooms, but he quickly realized it wasn’t a good way to start a conversation. It felt too confrontational. He also realized he needed to be spending more time in the area, so he volunteered for AmeriCorps and began working with Ohio’s Hill Country Heritage Area, listening to locals and writing stories that celebrate the people and small businesses and events in the region in hopes of countering harmful stereotypes of Appalachia.

In March, Harnetty led a group on a silent “sound walk” around Tecumseh Lake near Shawnee. Renee Brunton, the mayor of Shawnee, came along. After the walk, the group sat on stone benches and listened to Harnetty’s sound collage.

“Once he played that, I could see the whole purpose in allowing us to listen, because we could relate to those stories that were being told. Then tons of memories just flooded us. We just shared story after story,” Brunton said. “I thought it was one of the most awesome experiences that I have ever had.”

Harnetty always provides a time for people to tell their own stories to the group, and he’s noticed that after listening intently beforehand, everyone seems ready — or perhaps trained — to engage in a more enriching way. There’s an easy willingness and a reflective, vulnerable tenor to the discussions.

“I can’t prove it, but it does seem like it changes the quality of the conversations and maybe opens up a space for people with differences to be able to talk about these issues,” Harnetty said. “Sometimes we don’t even bring up the mining or the fracking. Instead we’re talking about this shared common interest in the land.”

Jan Cohen-Cruz, director of field research for A Blade of Grass, noticed the same thing when she participated in the March sound walk around Tecumseh Lake. “There are a number of artists that we’re working with who are putting attention to, ‘How do you set up conditions so that people will actually hear each other?’” she said. “The people he’s bringing together stand a pretty good chance of hearing each other.”

“A lot of different people from different walks of life were there, but yet we all shared a common denominator,” Brunton said. “Even though they may not have related to the coal-mining stories, they still said it affected them in the same way, and they brought up memories from their own childhood.”

Cohen-Cruz thought back to the times she walked in the woods with her father, and with her own kids. “It’s a lovely connector,” she said. “I just felt totally comfortable.”

During the May listening session at Robinson’s Cave, I thought about my own history with the forest, how as a kid I used to jump from tree to tree in a row of conifers on a seminary campus near Philadelphia, which also boasted some of the biggest beech trees I’ve ever seen. The gray, carve-able trunks made for easy pars on our disc golf course.

I thought about the trees on my own property in Columbus, especially the huge oak tree that turned from green to brown last August, before the smaller oaks, and the deep sadness I felt a couple of months ago when it remained brown. I’d raise my hand to my brow like a salute, squint upward and scan the decaying branches, trying in vain to find evidence of fresh, yellow-green buds — those ambassadors of spring — but they never returned.

I thought about the way I often crave the woods, especially after staring intently at glowing pixels for hours on end. Even a brief walk among the trees can erase a foul mood or gently pry apart the jaw I hadn’t realized I was clenching.

Harnetty is careful to think about the audience for his recent projects, making sure they’re primarily for the people who live in the Little Cities of Black Diamonds rather than art institutions. But he acknowledges the Forest Listening Rooms are personal, too. “The project is working on me as much as it is working on other people,” he said.

The May session was the final Forest Listening Room under the Blade of Grass umbrella, though Harnetty said he’ll continue the project into the fall and include it with guided experiences from other people in the region. It’s tough to know what lasting effect, if any, the listening rooms will have on the land. Cohen-Cruz said it could take years to gauge the impact. But the sessions have undoubtedly affected the people. Brunton, for one, has adopted the sound walk practice herself and hopes to spread the word about it to others in Shawnee.

Historian John Winnenberg also wants to see them continue. “I’m thinking this could become a cult, Brian,” he said near the end of the discussion at Robinson’s Cave, laughing with Harnetty. “Every time I do it, I love it.”