Columbus Alive followed sound artist Brian Harnetty, who wants to transform the future of Appalachian Ohio’s forests through radical acts of listening.

This story was produced by Columbus Alive in collaboration with Pacific Standard, a social and environmental justice magazine.

“OK, so we’ll just listen for a few minutes.”

Brian Harnetty sits in a metal folding chair in a clearing at the base of Robinson’s Cave in Wayne National Forest, which covers nearly a quarter-million acres in the Appalachian foothills of Southeast Ohio. About 20 others join Harnetty, seated in a circle on a warm, humid Saturday morning in May, their chairs slowly puncturing the soft ground.

For more than 10 minutes, no one says a word. It takes a bit to settle into the quiet, to live in it comfortably, but soon the vibe becomes meditative. It feels like a ritual. Some people bow their heads. Some fold their hands and close their eyes. Others scan the woods that surround the clearing.

A sycamore partially shades the circle of listeners, dappling sunlight into the middle of the ring. As the wind blows, swaying branches and quivering leaves create a kind of woodwind symphony. Someone’s stomach growls. A dog barks; it sounds enormous and menacing. The trill of a red-bellied woodpecker dominates an improvisational chorus of birdsongs. At times, motorcycle engines temporarily take over as they cruise along Main Street in New Straitsville, a town known for its Moonshine Festival that sits just below the clearing.

Ever-present in the background is the sound of water falling over the top of Robinson’s Cave, a recessed outcropping of rock that once served as a secret meeting place for labor groups in the late 1800s. The meetings eventually led to the formation of the United Mine Workers, a historic labor union that represents coal miners.

Continue reading on Columbus Alive.