Sensing nature differently

04 May 2021 | Posted in Emma Chaplin , Wildlife
Sensing nature differently
Sarah Playforth © Charles Lawler

We speak to Sussex Wildlife Trust member Sarah Playforth about how she experiences nature in Sussex as a deaf person. 

All photos, unless stated otherwise, are by Sarah

Tell us a bit about yourself

I’ve lived and worked in East Sussex all my life, mainly in Seaford, where I grew up. I now live just a few minutes walk away from my first childhood home.

I’m married, a mother and grandmother. I’m nearly 70 and am - reluctantly - retired due to my health. I was diagnosed in 2019 with myeloma, a type of blood cancer, which is terminal but very treatable. I’ve been having intensive treatments, and am now in remission. Until I became ill, I was a self employed diversity/disability trainer and consultant, which I began after leaving my professional career as a librarian in academic and public libraries. I have been profoundly deaf since I was two and until I was 17, I knew no other deaf people. 

I hear sounds only when wearing my cochlear implant processor, nothing otherwise and I lipread and sign. 

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In what way does nature and wildlife play a role in your life?

As a child and teenager, I often sought silent solitude - apart from my dog - in the natural world on the South Downs near my home, as a retreat from a hearing world that needed a lot of effort and energy to negotiate that often exhausted me physically and emotionally. 

For me, nature has always been a visual pleasure, its sounds largely irrelevant. The only sounds I was aware of - if wearing hearing aids - were the sea, the wind through trees and the squawking of gulls. 

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I didn’t, and don’t, need sound to enjoy bee orchids and bluebells, an alert stoat, apple blossom, foxcubs gambolling, a badger skulking along a hedge, an adder swimming in a pond, a hovering falcon, crows nesting in my garden, the tiny world of insects, the swell of the south downs, the grey, blue, green, smooth, wrinkled or furious sea; huge waves breaking on pebbled beach and clouds in the sky. 

Five years ago, I had to stop wearing hearing aids and for the next two years I heard nothing at all, while awaiting a cochlear implant. This is what I wrote in my blog at that time: “I can't honestly think of any other sounds [other than the voices of my family] I'm desperate to hear. Not the birds singing, or the wind rustling, or even music. Perhaps the roar of the ocean, but while I can see the sea daily from my window, I'm happy it's a strong visual presence in my life, if not a noisy one. Sound, to me, is a functional thing, not the thing of joy it clearly is to many.” 

I’ve never felt the lack of sound in my delight in the natural world. 

How have you been able to access that during the Coronovirus pandemic?

I feel so fortunate in that our little block of flats shares a large garden which houses foxes and badgers as well as a multitude of birds and a sea view down to Seaford’s Martello Tower. When the first lockdown happened - in tandem with my reduced mobility - my daily garden walks were a vital part of my life. During the following months, as my mobility has improved, I’ve been able to walk ever further and it’s always been possible to find uncrowded places to walk locally. Lack of access has been more related to my health, not the pandemic. 

I have had to avoid some popular places at weekends and during school holidays because of crowds and my very low immunity.

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Where are your favourite places?

Splash Point is top of the list - we have a family memorial fish plaque on the Shoal for my mum. 

At the other end of the bay, Tide Mills is another favourite, great for dog walking, though I currently don’t have one, regretfully and for the first time in my life, because my illness meant I couldn’t care for one as they need. I’ve had three Hearing Dogs. 

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I love the walk from South Hill (Beggars) Barn to Cuckmere Haven and it was wonderful to do it again yesterday for the first time in two years. 

In which ways has nature helped during challenging times?

There have been many challenging times in my life, particularly connected with birth, illness and death. The deaths of my father, his mother and my baby son all in one year - 1980 - was just one of the situations when my ability to be totally absorbed by the natural world was a large part of the healing process. Spending time by the sea or on the downs - in silence - is my medicine and it never runs out, it’s always there for me. I feel so anchored by it, that anchorage never leaves me and it is why I will never move away. More recently, being ill and unable to go far, the nature I have been able to access has become even more valuable to me.

What do you get most pleasure from seeing?

The sea, in all its colours and moods, whether from my window, from the beach, or while swimming in it. It’s always a delight to see unexpected sights like a rare orchid, a stoat, baby rabbits, badger kittens or fox cubs, a hovering then plunging falcon, a bee busily collecting pollen, a working anthill and unusual pebbles. 


  • Henri B:

    06 May 2021 21:15:00

    An inspiring blog. Thank you. My first experience with a hearing aid was incredible, hearing rain fall and the sounds of a woodland. I am only 50% deaf but I agree with you absolutely about the power of the other senses in experiencing nature.

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