Soundwalk through the Shawnee

Pomona bridge photo by Larry Mahan

Pomona Natural Bridge | photo by Larry Mahan

by Sharon Wittke

for the Carbondale Times

A soundwalk is a way of experiencing one’s surroundings by focusing on sounds rather than the sights, said a local radio show host.

Dave Armstrong, producer and host for WSIU’s “Sounds Like Radio,” and Jay Needham, an associate professor in the Department of Radio-Television at SIU, will lead a guided soundwalk Saturday morning at Pomona Natural Bridge.

The event, which is free and open to the public, is sponsored by SIU’s Imagining Geographies Initiative and is designed to introduce participants to acoustic ecology and aural awareness, Needham said.

Armstrong said a soundwalk is different from guided nature walks.

“A soundwalk involves a lot of listening, so we try to give the participants some perspective, but it’s not like a nature walk where you would point out every individual thing and name it,” he said. “It’s not so much a catalog as an experience.”

Armstrong said he isn’t sure what sounds participants will hear.

“On a soundwalk you have to be ready for anything,” he said. “It’s  not as much listening for specific sounds, but listening more for the quality of the sounds and the shape they take in the environment you’re in.”

Armstrong said he’s led other soundwalks in the area, including several on the SIU campus, and the quality and location of a sound combined with the way it interacts with the space around it can make a familiar environment seem completely fresh.

“It’s always interesting to walk through an environment you are familiar with,” he said.  “We live in a visually oriented culture so people aren’t used to experiencing it with the focus on sound rather than on visuals.”

Armstrong said he hopes participants will become more aware of their “sonic footprints,” or the sound traces they leave in their environment.

“We’re very conscious now of our visual impact on the environment, such as litter,” he said, “but we have yet, as a society, to really start paying attention to our sonic impact on the environment, so I think that can be rather ear-opening for people.”

Saturday’s event is in conjunction with the SIU Press publication of the book, “20 Day Trips in and Around the Shawnee National Forest,” by Larry and Donna Mahan.

The book highlights a series of day trips to places within the Shawnee National Forest where people of all ages and average physical abilities can enjoy outdoor recreation.

Larry Mahan, a retired elementary and high school principal, and his wife, Donna, a retired music teacher, live in central Illinois but are frequent visitors to southern Illinois.

Donna said although she grew up in Cobden and attended SIU, she didn’t know about all the places listed in their book until they began their research ten years ago.

She said the book includes comprehensive directions and GPS coordinates to familiar locations such as Giant City State Park and Garden of the Gods, as well as to lesser-known destinations such as Sand Cave, Jackson Hole and Hayes Creek Canyon.

Larry said he and his wife decided to write the guidebook because they enjoyed hiking in southern Illinois, but they discovered most books about the region’s trails had only black-and-white photos and were outdated.

Donna said another reason for writing the book was to introduce people to some of the natural wonders in southern Illinois and to encourage people to use the Shawnee National Forest for recreational activity.

“People in central Illinois, for the most part, do not know what southern Illinois is like, and it’s probably less known the farther north you go,” she said.

Donna said Larry took almost all the photographs, but the two collaborated on organizing the chapters and writing and editing the accompanying text.

The most challenging, time-consuming part of the process was making multiple visits to various locations for quality photographs, Larry said.

“We basically walked most of the trails in the book three or four times,” he said.  “Since we both like to hike, that wasn’t a problem.”

The Mahans said the most enjoyable part of their project was meeting people and making friends while they were gathering information for their book.

Donna said she and her husband were surprised at the number of people from outside the area who hiked and biked in southern Illinois.

“The people we tended to meet on the trails have not been the locals,” she said.

Larry said, “Most of the people we’ve met in the Pine Hills on Snake Road are from the Chicago area coming down to see the snakes in the spring and then again in the fall.”

For more information or to register for the soundwalk, visit or call (618) 457-8985.

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