(Links to sound files accompanying this piece can be found by scrolling down to the end.)

The trail is sodden.

Beyond the blooming understory at North Riverside’s National Grove South, the near-banks of the Des Plaines are wet from last week’s furious little storm and water collects along the riverside trail in shallow, tannic pools. The mud is slick and carries a stink of damp funk.

An extended family of whitetail deer, after ambling through the grove, settle into woods nearby, eating fresh shoots from the now-green ground. Leafing trees are busy with new firsts for the year, including Redstarts and a Black-and-white Warbler. 

But this trip isn’t for sights. 

I’ve come to test my ears, or rather to use them, and I’ve brought along an audio recorder and small shotgun microphone as listening aides. Not exactly the lowest-tech trip I’ve made to the field, but I’m seeking to isolate and enhance a single sense and, well, that means I’m also wearing headphones.

 The effect is immediate. Electric. 

A robin’s throaty chut-chut-chut comes hot off the mic. The dull thudding of a far-off woodpecker mixes with the foreground wind and with the wet, mid-range bleat of a parent Canada goose on the far bank as an army of goslings traipses toward the water. 

Sitting here on a downed log, beneath the headphones, I can hear beyond my own hearing.

The sounds of the trail and the sounds outside the trail fill my head completely, and it’s not all good. We live enveloped in noise and so do the animals of the National Groves. The planes, trains and automobiles, all audible in incessance. 

Sounds of the spring woods don’t compete with the industrial noise of suburban mobility but instead abide them. The birdsong and leaf-rustling and splashing and stick-breaking of life in the forest preserves, as the preserves morph into spring, all exist in parallel to the often ugly violence of our own sounds.

To eavesdrop along the river is to hear in stark contrast two different but interrelated worlds, man-made and natural, road and river. 

And to dial in the natural is to hear evidence that spring sounds like spring: New birds, new ground squirrels, same sounds repeated year over year, against whatever odds our planet faces, an act of continuance.

I first wrote permanence in my notebook but I can’t say that. 

I can say the birds and other animals are audible and, in those sounds, are timeless. They continue to live buffeted by us but outside human time and control. 

That still sounds great.

A short recording of the birdsong and other sounds of National Grove South, made from the western edge of the grove on Sunday, May 6, 2018.

A recording made just off the riverside trail along the east bank of the Des Plaines River in National rove South on Sunday, May 6, 2018. The traffic sounds are from First Avenue and from 31st Street.

Trail Conditions explores the woods, waters and trails out our back doors. Brett McNeil lives in North Riverside.