Exercising Attention

One of the things most of us find difficult to accept is the extent to which our perceptions are degraded by urban living. But most of the time we're actually ferociously unobservant.

We like to think of ourselves as perceptive, but the reality is that even when we believe we're paying attention, we usually miss most of what is going on round us - indeed often a huge amount of what we're "concentrating" on. The apparent safety and predictability of the urban environment make most of what happens in our surroundings seem irrelevant at the basic levels of survival and wish fulfilment, so we have learned to ignore most of it. This behaviour is further encouraged by our competitive commercial culture, which encourages us to respond on impulse to trigger stimuli with an open wallet instead of with forethought and examination of detail.

In addition, the last thirty years or so have seen an upsurge in technologies that offer apparent substitutes for human mental and observational skills - affordable computers, satellite navigation, even the digital camera that allows us to take less care over focus, exposure and composition due to its automation and instant replay.

As a result, we mostly drift around taking in very little of our surroundings. Most wild creatures, however, are constantly alert to their environment, so they have the edge on us in perceptual terms. That means they're usually aware of us long before we're aware of them, and, being cautious, they often depart from what might constitute a threat - us. The consequence is that there isn't anything much left for us to experience - or indeed to record.

In order to improve our perception, we need to re-learn the exercise of attention. This is a slow process, but it's absolutely necessary for success in fieldcraft. While moving, every step you take may send a signal that draws attention to you or suggests a threat. You might disturb an overhanging branch or trailside bush by snagging it as you pass. Your shadow could be observable if you're caught down-sun. You might even stumble heedlessly into the path of the very wild creatures you're trying to record. Alternatively you might never notice their presence at all and set up your equipment in the wrong place. Then of course there's always the chance of an accident if you tread unwarily or misjudge a hazard.

The ideal form of attention for the wild soundscape recordist - as for the hunter - is a broad unfocused attention that takes in as much as possible of what is going on all round one simultaneously. Concentrating on a single event or object - even if it's what we were seeking - may cause us to miss important information that makes up the bigger picture. Even in the very presence of his quarry, the successful hunter will notice whatever else is happening in the vicinity, whether it be the presence of other animals or a change in the wind. We need to do the same, even though our intent is more benign.

So here's a challenge. Practice approaching grey squirrels in the open while they're foraging on the ground. When you can get within four metres (13 feet) of one without it dashing for cover, you're half way to where you need to be. When you can get to within four metres of one and stay there for up to ten minutes in full view of the squirrel without it reacting to your presence, you're about as good as you'll get without having spent a lifetime hunting squirrels. You may say that this is merely a matter of stealth. You're right (except for the "merely"), but the essence of stealth is attention - a broad unfocused attention on every element of the moment - the squirrel, it's responses, your own body, the landscape, the weather, what you're standing on, and all the rest - evolved, refined and exercised by real hunters in the wild over thousands of years.

There's just one trap here - don't kid yourself you've made it if your sole contact with squirrels is in urban public parks. The squirrels there are so used to passers-by that they're absolutely reckless and will almost allow themselves to be stepped on. To test yourself honestly you'll have to venture into the wild.