I’ve spent the last few days on silent retreat in the country with my eyes closed, mostly listening. There are very few human sounds out here except for the occasional car arriving, so nature’s ‘biophony’ is clear to be heard, especially at dawn and dusk when the birds come out in droves. A revelation.

I got the idea after seeing the LINES Ballet perform a full-length ballet set to the sounds of the natural world—insects and wind, water and animals—recorded by Bernie Krause, who has been going to the world’s wildest places for decades to capture their soundscapes. Just in time, as it turns out, as humans have taken over so much of the biosphere, bringing our noise with us, that much of it is already gone. Not to mention that the changing climate has reduced many habitats to shreds of their former selves.

I was so moved by the ballet I went to see it three times, grateful yet again for the unique vision of its remarkable choreographer, Alonzo King. Then I went out to the Retreat where it is quiet, and sat down to listen.

Just before dawn the singing starts with the birds out for their morning foraging, their wingbeats sounding in the still air, the occasional birdcall gradually becoming a many-voiced chorus of songbirds and raptors. It is still quiet enough to hear the soft chuffing of deer in the meadow, their teeth tearing rhythmically at the grass as the sun rises and the wind picks up, shaking leaves and thrumming through the old oaks.

Bernie Krause, in his book The Great Animal Orchestra, points out that the sounds of the natural world are organized in multiple layers of volume, pitch and rhythm. He says, “Sounds coalesce in an elegant web of organized signals full of information about each organism’s relationship to the whole.” As the sun warms the air, I sit by a flowering sage and hear the bees busily buzzing as crickets click below and the quail burble in on their quick feet. In the grass a gopher clears her burrow and pecking birds grab up fallen seed, each claiming its own space in the web, each letting the others know it is there.

“The whole ensemble is the music of Nature,” Bernie Krause writes. Sitting there I can hear how they tune to one another, their very lives dependent on the balance of their harmony and polyrhythms that let them know that all their needs will be met. If the whole sound is spotty or out of tune, the individual lives are in trouble, and the animals know it. We should, too.

For years I’ve been experimenting with singing made-up songs with small groups; I call it Ensemble Improvisation. We have the most fun! I had no idea, until now, that I was mimicking what creatures did all the time in the natural world—letting loose with sound, listening to the others and finding the beat and our voices in relation to each other.

In my studio, we warm up with movement and sound until we feel the balance and beat between us, and then let the song rip through, finding our changing pitches and rhythms in easy relationship to one another. Listening and sounding seem to come from the same source as the song sings itself out in a primal, ecstatic way. We groove together; we are in the zone.

I wonder if this is what the beginning of the world sounded like.

I once got permission to camp alone on the shore of an uninhabited volcano in the Galapagos Islands where each sunrise and sunset the winds changed and the creatures came out to feed. Seabirds dove by the thousands and penguins brayed on the shore; sea lions coughed and bellowed and whales surfaced and blew; dolphins sang and the winds shifted with the Equatorial sun. To me it was a wild cacophony; to them it was the music they tuned to.

I can only imagine what tuning to nature’s chorus must feel like to the creatures whose lives depend upon it.

I pray that it is not too late to find out. All I can do now is vow to spend my life listening, finding my own voice in the ensemble and trusting it, knowing the feel of its vibrations. I want to know where I fit in the larger song, to find my place in nature’s biophany.

Our lives, like the animals, depend upon it whether we know it or not.

Sing with me, please?

…as we freely take musical risks and find new balances; as we play with ease in and around each other’s voices. It is one of my favorite games in the world.