The World of Wonder: Shut Up and Listen

Wherein I learn to Close My mouth and open My ears

July 29th, 2016

"Shut up, and listen," my friend Louis advised me the night before I ventured into the jungle for my fourteen day stint away from civilization. My instinctual reaction was to be indignant - you can't tell me to shut up! But being that Belizeans tend to impart wise Caribbean wisdom at the most opportune moments, I stowed my attitude and promptly did as I was told.

It was a late night for me, almost 10pm. The sun had set many hours prior, leaving the night sky a velvety blue-black with brightly visible stars shining above Belize's Cayo countryside. The perfect view from a hammock. Once I quit talking the symphony I had been drowning out with my words came into clear focus. The rhythmic croaking of nearby toads and frogs, pausing every so often in complete unison for reasons that only nature knows (and maybe amphibian biologists). The various trucks and buses and cars zipping along on the road, each of them struggling to ascend hills however their unique engines enabled them. The faraway rush of an incoming gust, building with so much aural intensity that I was shocked to find a gentle breeze grazing my cheek. 

The truth is I'm not a particularly gifted listener, which would be obvious to someone like Louis who was generous enough to take me on nighttime expeditions to find and photograph nocturnal creatures, but instead got an earful of the thoughts that run through my head in a given moment. While I may be wonderfully witty and full of my own unique wisdom, chattiness and not scaring away wild animals are mutually exclusive. 

It extends to human interactions, too: I'm so excited to be heard that I'll presume the ending of others' thoughts, often interrupting with my response before they have a chance to finish theirs. At the other end of the spectrum I disappear into my mind, eyes glazing over while I nod politely, my thoughts entirely unrelated to what I should be hearing. The good news is that I'm self aware enough to know (for a long time now) that this an area where I can use improvement, but the reality was I needed to get it figured out in time to fully appreciate the Chiquibul jungle. 

That's Belizean wisdom for you: tough love delivered right when you need it most, with a healthy serving of cheekiness mixed in. 

With fourteen days of mostly downtime on the schedule ahead of me, I made Shutting Up And Listening my primary objective (besides preventing the poaching of baby scarlet macaws) - particularly important given I would be there working as a journalist. 

My first attempt at being a Listener came early the next day when meeting the all-male group of five that I would be accompanying into the rainforest. I said nothing. For hours. It's likely they regarded me either as incredibly disinterested and unfriendly, because I'm also pretty sure I never smiled. Clearly I needed to work out the kinks in my newfound skill of being quiet, but hey, "sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something," says Jake the Dog from Adventure Time. And Jake the Dog is right. 

The magnificence of the rainforest blew me away. It was as I'd imagined it, but I came with incredibly high expectations. The high lush canopies resembled all the nature documentaries I coveted as a child, birds of all sizes flitting in and out of the dense foliage.

Once at camp with my bedroom for the next two weeks - a jungle hammock - hung, I took the opportunity to sit by the riverside to take it all in, and of course start right away with strengthening those listening skills. Immediately I had to remind myself to shut up, to stop looking for points of conversation for the sake of having one. I was fortunate to be paired with an introverted volunteer who didn't feed my need to speak, so together we soundlessly took in the view. 

The early morning Chiquibul mist outside Nest 25's camp

The early morning Chiquibul mist outside Nest 25's camp


"Squawk! Squaaaaaawk!" The combined utterances of six scarlet macaws burst into the air, a sound I had never before heard in my life. This was why I was here! I wasn't ever actually convinced that I would get to see the scarlet macaws during my time volunteering with them, what with the density of the jungle and the rarity of the creatures. Yet there they were gliding like living rainbows over the canopy, screaming to one another in that cacophonous but emotional language that they speak. 

I was smiling then. 

The next fourteen days gave me ample time to hone my listening skills, to go beyond hearing and be fully open to the meaning behind the sounds around me. I learned to predict oncoming rain based on the conversation of the howler monkeys, and to distinguish between a gust of wind and the churning motor of a boat, the latter incredibly important when that boat may be bringing all your human interaction for the day. The songs of cicadas and click beetles were my nighttime lullaby, while I made sure to look out for the kind of leaf rustling that might be caused by the smooth underbelly of a sneaky venomous snake.

Birds were constantly contributing to the rainforest symphony, with coos and caws and mewls and squeals and even something that sounded like a sort of digital beeping device. But the calls of the scarlet macaws lifted my heart straight into the sky with them every time they passed over or visited the nest of their chicks, which we were camping beneath. Their vocalizations were a reminder of our mission, and this reminder of their aliveness made me proud to be contributing to their future generations. On some level I feel like they knew we were on the same team, so it made me wish I could understand and join in their special language. Although maybe it's enough to just get to listen to them, which you too can do in the video below.

But then there were the gunshots of the xateros, the Guatemalan poachers we were there to stop. Or maybe what I really heard was the sound of branches snapping and falling to the ground, as the trees of the tropical world have a much shorter lifespan than, say, the temperate sequoia forests where I was raised. Learning to tell those two sounds apart could mean life or death to a fledgling macaw.

I quickly found that both components of the given advice were equally important. I could shut up plenty, especially with naught but aloof crocodiles to converse with, but that didn't guarantee I was listening. Chatter is just as loud in the mind as it is from the mouth, maybe even more so for people like me (I have neither qualitative nor quantitative proof of this). Just because no one was there to receive my gift of gab, didn't mean that my ears were open or that my mind was free to interpret the subtle sensation of sound. And so I worked to overcome this as well, to consider each noise with the goal of understanding it. 

Because if it looks like a bird, and sounds like a bird, it's probably a toad and you need to refer to your damn field guide, girl! That is probably what my friend Louis would have said to me, had he joined me in the jungle. 

The advice I was given, while abrupt in its quintessentially Belizean way, undoubtedly enhanced my experience in the Chiquibul jungle and made me a better naturalist (and maybe even a better person!). That's all that nature really asks of us when we visit: to be let our senses be saturated with what the wild has to offer so that we can connect with its beasts and creatures and flowers in a way that has become so foreign to modern humanity. 

The natural world has infinite wonder to share. All you have to do to witness it is shut up, and listen. 

Over and out,

Ali Wunderman


-> back to World of Wonder

-> previous post