Open Ambient: Maple Acoustics

Open Ambient: Maple Acoustics

Open Ambient is a soundscape project that employs ambient sound recording, data sonification, photography, GPS, and place-based experience in an exploration of the “Sugarbush” at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. 

Over the spring, summer, and fall of 2018, I spent many hours in a 10 acre section of mixed hardwood forest that is dominated by more than 100 sugar maple trees, most of which are tapped each spring for their sap, which is then boiled in Sterling College’s sugarhouse to make maple syrup for use in the College kitchen. 

One result of my time with the maples is a 4-track playlist of sounds inspired by the relationship between humans, the trees, and climate change.

The four tracks of Open Ambient: Maple Acoustics are a sonic exploration of the potential impacts of climate change on maple syrup production in the Sterling College, VT sugarbush. Data used to drive the music include the 2% ‘typical’ sugar content in sugar maple sap; a projected 20% decrease in sap sugar content by 2100; the 1.6% sugar content projected at the end of the century; and the 40:1 ratio of sap required to syrup produced, which will increase over time given projected warming temperatures. All 4 pieces are overlaid atop ambient sounds from the sugarbush recorded over 2 sessions in summer 2018.

“Open Ambient” is borrowed from the work of philosopher Susanne Langer.

Listen to Open Ambient on SoundCloud



Each Hath One

“Each Hath One,” June Wayne, 1958

It was in reading around in MIT’s Journal of Design and Science — specifically in Neri Oxman’s piece, The Age of Entanglement, that led me to revisit a poem by the 17th-century poet, John Donne that I hadn’t read in more than 25 years.

In the middle of Donne’s 1633 poem, “The Good-Morrow,” in which he reflects on love both sensual and spiritual, he chides exploration as work for others, while he and his lover are satisfied with the love they share:

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

Oxman’s invocation of the last of these lines in an essay on entanglement is pretty on point, and it’s not hard to see the appeal of a “one world” perspective — particularly when considering the manifold ways in which media of all kinds shapes us and our relationship to the world. To paraphrase Kevin Slavin from the same issue — we are not in the system; we are the system.

Sometimes it seems like all things trend toward a common thesis, and this is without a doubt one of those times. . . . The philosopher Richard Rorty writes, “it is best to think of moral progress as a matter of increasing sensitivity, increasing responsiveness to the needs of a larger and larger variety of people and things.” In his refining of pragmatism in the context of morality and human rights, Rorty points out that rationality and intellect are not necessarily the epitome of social mores and that indeed compassion and sensitivity and a diminishing ego-centrism are far more essential parts of a moral society.

Elsewhere, the artist Sarah Brady recently reflected on her time at the Djerassi retreat and thought about the importance of lichens (as I have elsewhere on this blog):

Lichens require sympoiesis, or making-with, rather than autopoiesis, or self-making. We must follow patterns where humans and non-humans are inextricably linked. Combining past and present technologies, Human and Nonhuman, hybrids reveal their agents in co-evolution within global networks for survival. The future is combining Human/Animal, Life/Nonlife, Ancient/Modern, and Biological/Technological. Our ability to coevolve and think outside ourselves will benefit us when we reorient outwards.

I’ve been teaching an evolving sequence of senior seminars in environmental philosophy over the past several years, and am launching a new course this fall that ties engagement with the entangled domains of self, society, and ecology with the creative application of meaningful and accessible works through an ArtScience lens.

My goal is to engage the students in thinking beyond the self — beyond the dualities of passion/intellect or creativity/empiricism and human/non-human — to touch the world with all their senses and share something of what they find.

It is in the turning from self to world, as Thomas Merton has invited us, “to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance” — a shift from autopoietic to sympoietic perspective — that I hope my students will see new ways to bring us all closer to holding space for our complex, entangled, and messy “one world.”