A Life Lived in Headphones.

There are two people in the cafe. Both are sniffling, and I am defenceless. My headphones are at home and the only armoury I can access is a serviette. I roll it into two little balls and push them into my ears. It’s a method I first used while driving from Arnhem Land to Sydney in a beat up old 4wd with no volume control.

The two people with whom I share the cafe look at me strangely. They appear concerned for my state of mind. I’m more concerned that one of the snifflers is about to serve me my food.

I wasn’t planning to lunch at this cafe, but I missed the train home and had no desire to sit on a windy platform for an hour. I also ventured out of the house armour free because it is only a short ride on a seldom crowded train. Normally, my armoury comprises headphones and second phone with downloaded music and white noise, and this helps to drown out other people’s banal one-sided phone conversations, other people’s music, other people’s eating and other people’s sniffling.

We are huddled in the cafe for sustenance and protection from the biting wind which warns us of the impending winter. The weather provokes sniffling, but it is too hard to carry a tissue, and to use it? Or to clear one’s nose with a serviette, so I don’t have to shove them in my ears.

The train ride home passes without incident. No snifflers, no talkers, and no second-hand music, and I make it back to the trenches unharmed, even without protection. I relax with the promise of a heater and relief from the wind, then I see it. The silver Volvo. Derrick is here.

DIY Derrick has arrived at his humble weekender from the city He will begin his stay by mowing his substantial lawn, clipping his lengthy edges; greeting the neighbours with the piercing whirr of his ageing lawn mower and angry line trimmer. He will stop for tea, then spend the remainder of his stay engrossed in DIY projects around the house and in his shed, determined to play with every power tool he owns. I find my headphones and plug them into my laptop, then turn on the 40 minutes of thunderstorm and rain sounds.

DIY Derrick’s projects and lawn care take longer than 40 minutes. Much longer. I press play again. This is how I defend myself against DIY Derrick. Derrick may or may not be his name, that’s just what I call him.

I pray for rain. Rain defeats my enemies. They can’t attack their lawns in the rain. They don’t blow their leaves away in the rain. Their edges grow unkempt in the rain, and chainsaws remain sheathed in the rain.

I pray for rain, but I’m a lapsed Catholic.

Nigel is another nemesis. He is quiet and mild-mannered, until he goes to war with his lawns. Nextdoor Nigel can strike at any time, and his attacks are brutal. He waits until 6pm in summer, or 4pm in winter, before he storms out of his trenches to cut down his enemies. Nigel is a seasoned campaigner with a trusty old weapon, and waits until his opponent is relaxed, complacent and not expecting an attack. He waits until his enemy has returned to the trenches after a day of toil, and is relaxing. That’s when he strikes. Nigel is relentless, and does not cease the bombardment for three hours. It is only when the heavy latch falls into place on his storage container that it is safe to remove the headphones. Safe to unplug. Safe to strip off the armoury.

Bored Baby Boomers and their power tools force me to live a life in headphones.

The wind which drove us into the cafe at lunchtime is sometimes a saviour. It comes from the west. It carries the cold, but it carries the noise from the highway towards the waves on the coast, and away from me. The braking trucks, the farting Harleys, the unmuffled V8s; all bombarding me with noise. Truck after truck braking and accelerating through the centre of town under the command of their rotund controllers. Similarly proportioned Harley riders crackling through town on unnecessarily loud machines which garner their owners fleeting attention from those within earshot. Attention they cannot earn in any other way. I long for the days of electric vehicles, quiet vehicles, cleaner vehicles, but in this country?

When will it be safe to take off my headphones?

Image: Brett Jordan

Do you wear headphones when you’re in the bush?

‘I’m not going to attack’, I wanted her to know. I mean no harm.

But I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t reassure her until I was so close that she would fear me or question my intentions. The wind was blowing strongly into our faces and the cicadas were in full voice. I wanted to warn her of my presence and ask to pass on the narrow hiking track, but she hadn’t heard the scrunch of my hiking shoes on the loose stones and I feared that if I yelled it would startle her even more.

The she turned.

“OOH!” she yelped in shock and panic. I raised my hands to indicate I meant no harm and that I was just another hiker enjoying the fine weather and the surrounding beauty. I wasn’t a crazy stalker or pervert, despite the fact that I was walking without a pack or a water bottle. I’d walked this trail many times before and was completing my daily work out. I could hydrate at home.

“Oh. you scared me. I didn’t hear you.”

Probably because she was wearing headphones.

I don’t understand why people wear headphones while in the bush. Isn’t the point of hiking or biking to experience the natural world? To engage the five senses and immerse oneself in the sounds of nature. Hearing the wind rush through the trees and the birds sing. Listening to the water babble through the stream or thunder off the waterfall into the pool below. Even the squelch of sodden, muddy hiking shoes reminds you you’re alive.

Why do people deliberately shut this out when they venture into the bush?

How do they do it?

In an Australian summer, when the cicadas are in full voice, the din is so deafening that it must be impossible to hear the music without doing permanent damage to one’s eardrums.

Isn’t it dangerous?

Dangerous animals lurk in the woods. We play in their world. Many of them are silent but others are not. Surely it’s better to hear the animals before they set upon you, before it’s too late. At least give yourself a chance to escape, or to extract the bear spray from your pack.

The silent killers offer no warning. They lurk in hidden corners or sometimes display themselves proudly and fearlessly in full view. Concentrating on what lies ahead could save your life. Concentrating on what lies ahead is more difficult when you’re engrossed in a playlist or a compelling podcast.

What are you missing out on?

With headphones firmly attached you will only notice what exists in your immediate surroundings. What lies off the track? What lies just metres from the trail? You’ll never know if you remain plugged into your headphones. You won’t hear the distinctive grunt of a koala up a tree or have the chance to sit below it and watch it gorge on gum leaves. The next time you see a koala might be at a zoo surrounded by hysterical tourists jostling for that perfect selfie with Australia’s most lovable creature.

You might miss the perfectly camouflaged creatures who inhabit the natural world, or the impossibly colourful Australian parrot varieties.

Maybe some people just can’t disconnect. Venturing into the outdoors is one of the best ways to disconnect from the pervasive technology of the modern world, yet some people take it with them.

Disconnect from technology and connect with nature.