Imagine you’re behind the wheel of your car. You’ve been driving in the Texas Hill Country for an hour or more, then passed through the entrance gate of the H. E. Butt Foundation Camp. You’ve descended the winding, sloping caliche road. You’re now approaching the river; your windshield is filling with the view of water running across the bottom of a limestone Canyon wall.
This is what you hear: Tires on gravel. Bird song. A moment of near-silence as you come to a stop before entering the water. Then, what is for me an iconic sound: tires splitting water on that blessed stretch of Frio River that leads to Laity Lodge.
Many things change for me when I visit Laity Lodge. The light. My sense of time. The quality of conversation. The tastes of a lingered-over meal. But what changes most of all is sound.
The Lodge is a soundscape as much as a landscape. Birds and insects. Footsteps on pathways. Hammock ropes creaking. A bell. The almost-silence of Box Canyon and Threshold. And most of all, water.
I used to believe that silence was an absence of sound. But I’ve learned—the Lodge has taught me—that what we call “silence” can be a different set of sounds. Environmental activists are taking on silence as the next frontier to be protected, but what they’re really protecting is space for nature’s noise, unfiltered and unaccompanied. We’re learning that our bodies actually need these sounds; nature in our ears rejuvenates our brains, decreases our stress, and even makes us more outward-focused and less self-absorbed.
In a way, nature sounds are available to me all the time. I can dial up bird song or babbling brooks on Spotify. I can open a window. But most days, my life is filled with other sounds: the kerlunk of email arriving; the swoosh of email going out; the varied notifications of texts, calls, calendar reminders. I say “my life is filled with” these sounds, but what I really mean is “I am formed by” them. And mostly, the sound of my life turns me into the kind of person who wants more and more sound: podcasts; music; NBA games and movies in the background.
Does anyone relate to this? My world is noisy, and I respond to it by chasing down more noise. Sometimes it takes going to a place like Laity Lodge to break the monotony of the cacophony.
I’ve gotten to where I start turning off my podcasts or music by the time I reach Garven Store—which requires an immense effort for my noise-addicted brain. For that last stretch of highway miles, I take in nothing but the sounds of the road. I roll my windows down, no matter the weather. I love it when my tires hit the gravel, which says: I’m getting close. And then the water, which says: I’m here.
Mainly, the water we hear at Laity Lodge is not so much the Frio River proper. It’s the bubbling fountain between the Lodge and Dining Hall, the water streaming down rocks outside the Great Hall, and the waterfalls below the Library and at the edge of the waterfront. Some of these are human-made. All of them are nature-run.
Most of us can’t get to Laity Lodge right now—including me, even though I work at the H. E. Butt Foundation. COVID-19 has made gathering impossible and restricted our access for all but essential work.
But a few weeks ago, I did have some essential work out there, and I took a recorder along. Some of what I tried to capture didn’t quite work out—those darn water features create some challenging low frequency hums for an amateur recorder like me. But I was able to capture some of the sounds of Laity Lodge—the silence of a walk to Threshold or Box Canyon, sitting outside the Great Hall, or taking in nature’s noisy night.
Here’s a playlist for you. If you want to dive in fully, the tracks begin with the full 8-minute drive from the H. E. Butt Foundation gate (complete with the sound of a car window rolling down) all the way to the Lodge. But click around as you choose, and until you can be in the landscape again, let the soundscape take you there.