Listening to the Desert

How do acoustic landscapes inflect, engage, and inspire the religious imagination?    This question is at the heart of my current research project, entitled A Sacred and Sonorous Desert, which focuses on the environmental sounds of desert landscapes as imagined and experienced in the literature of late ancient monasticism from Egypt and Palestine (ca. 200-600 CE).

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From the sound of howling winds and crashing thunder to the songs of sparrows and voices of ravens, the hammering of the semantron that called monks to worship, and the sounds of demons who crash like earthquakes, the desert monastic literature is a rich source for reflecting on the intersection of sound, environment, and religion.  Using the language of soundscape ecology, I explore geophony (e.g.,sounds of wind, thunder, water), biophony (e.g., sounds of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects), and anthrophony (e.g., the sounds of humans chanting, singing, praying) to ask how a particular landscape–real or imagined–works dynamically to shape religious thought, literature, and practice.   Theoretically, I’m influenced by phenomenology, affect and sensation theories, sounds studies, and ecocriticism as I attempt to rehabilitate an acoustic dimension to both environmental landscapes and the religious literatures and practices that are shaped by these landscapes (and, in turn, shape the landscapes themselves in multiple ways).

Methodologically, I am drawing from the field of bioacoustics, which has long used field recordings of individual animal species to understand animal behavior and communication.    I’ve received several grants to conduct field recordings in the Negev and Judaean deserts of Israel as well as the deserts of the American Southwest.    My goal with field recordings is to illustrate or evoke some sensory aspect of the texts I study; they are not meant as evidence for what a landscape sounded like 1500 years ago, although if you listen to them carefully while reading, say, the Life of Anthony, you might well be struck by points of contacts and signature sounds of both modern recordings and ancient texts.    To hear some of my field recordings, click this link.

Professor, Cornell University