When Island Intern Luke initially said he’d like to record the sounds of Isla Palenque, I happened to be on the island with Luke Hansen and Ben Brown. For the rest of my trip, I paid much closer attention to the natural music on Isla Palenque. His fresh ears awakened my own, which had long ago become accustomed to the sounds of the island (although I had noticed the sounds on my first visits to Isla Palenque).
I must’ve taken this close-listening habit home with me… On my first evening back in Chicago, hanging out with my dog in the backyard, watching the fireflies, I found that I was much more conscious of the sounds around me.
On the tree-lined (but still very urban) street where I live, the birds start chirping and twittering at dusk, the wind rustles the leaves. And then there are the sounds of cars and trucks on the street and in the alley, people talking while walking by, other man-made sounds. I had returned with a renewed appreciation for diverse sounds and the way they meld together after heightening my consciousness for a couple of days on Palenque.
I mention this anecdote for two reasons. Firstly, it’s an example (albeit a small one) of the kind of experience we at Amble hope to bring to our travelers. We want our travelers to have experiences that change the way they think about things, maybe even change their lives. (“Travel that changes you” is a tagline we played around with internally for a while.)
Sure, me noticing sounds while outside of my home isn’t anything earth-shattering, but at the same time, the ability to freshly appreciate those little things in life often sows the seed for a much larger insight about ourselves and the world.
The second reason I mentioned my backyard epiphany requires another story, about the first time I really started to appreciate urban sounds. When I first moved to Chicago after college I lived right downtown, in a fourth floor apartment. I had always lived in suburban or rural locations before that, so being on the fourth floor on a busy downtown street meant that I was constantly dealing with trucks, cars, people yelling, etc. The first couple of weeks it really bothered me: when could I get some peace and quiet, especially when I was trying to sleep? After a short while, though (since it was clear my situation wasn’t going to change), I realized I just had to change my attitude. So I started thinking of these sounds the way I would think of sounds in the woods: as natural events that could be considered soothing. People yelling were kind of like squawking birds, cars driving by were like the wind rustling through leaves, trucks were big animals pounding through the forest, the occasional siren a coyote’s howl (or howler monkey’s yell). This required a simple adjustment to my perspective, one that allowed me to accept and even enjoy the sounds of the bustling city below. And while it was new for me to viscerally feel this perspective it wasn’t really new to me, at least intellectually.
Long before, I had recognized that humans are part of nature, not separate from it: in architecture school I gained an understanding that buildings are just as natural as bird’s nests, cities are just as natural as ant hills. Humans aren’t separate from nature. We are as much a part of it as any other creature. I think most people will agree with me on this, at least intellectually. But too often, on a day-to-day basis, we see ourselves as somehow outside and separate from nature. Until the last century, nature was commonly viewed as something to be conquered; until the early nineteenth century, mountains and forests represented fearful realms, and that which we fear, we feel we must conquer.
Recent powerful environmental movements have turned the old relationship between humans and nature on its head. Nowadays, we often characterize nature as an embattled victim, suffering at the mercy of human greed, avarice, and irresponsibility. Note that this concern only holds true in advanced economies, where the people are rich enough to consider the environment as something to be enjoyed on its own merits. Elsewhere, in underdeveloped economies, the environment is expected to provide resources to help you keep your family alive, and beyond this, it receives little consideration. Go to an emerging economy such as Panama. You’ll see a very different attitude towards the environment, one that smacks of the US in the first half of the twentieth century.
But neither of these views are correct, because both rely on the false dichotomy that humans exist separate from nature, somehow different from it in a fundamental way. Very much a part of the Judeo-Christian tradition (and maybe many other cultures as well), this attitude rests on thousands-of-years-old thinking. Even when we flip the relationship, saying that nature ought to be protected from the evil doings of humans, this does not reflect the true relationship between mankind and nature. Humans are a part of nature, and the things we do are as natural as can be.
Now, I’m not making any excuses for people who throw their garbage wherever they feel like, or for people who strip mine every mountain in sight, or drill hundreds of oil wells 3 miles off the coast of Florida. But garbage is natural and we do need to gather various minerals and other resources from the earth. Our need to do these things isn’t “evil,” and the earth doesn’t need protection from us in any sort of absolute way. We should treat the planet like we treat our house: use it, but use it with care; know that there is going to be wear and tear, and do the proper upkeep and maintenance that the house requires. Don’t feel bad for using it as a place to live, and don’t feel guilty about the wear and tear. But when you cause that occasional damage, fix it.
This attitude informs our development at Isla Palenque. In order to create the kind of place we want people to experience, we are leaving a very large portion of the island alone to exist as a nature preserve. But we aren’t making this natural area off-limits to people. We will be occupying it, creating trails, and building small structures. And we are repairing parts of the island that need it such as sections that had been ignominiously clear-cut for cattle. But we also know that we have just as much a right to inhabit this island as the howler monkeys and anteaters, just so long as we do so with care and respect.