Awakening to the subtlety of sound

Because Oggie is a rescued dog, we don’t know her ancestry, but we do know she was bred for high altitudes and cold weather.

She’s miserable when we hike in the canyons during the summer, but she has strategies to survive.

In Westwater, despite the fact I’ve bought her a cooling vest and carry plenty of water, she stops in the shade, waiting until I’ve walked quite a distance to catch up.

Since I rarely take the same route every day, I recently purchased a silent whistle to keep her on track. Silent is a misnomer because the whistle produces an ultrasonic sound that is above the human hearing range.

Sir Francis Galton developed the whistle in 1876 to assess human hearing. He altered the frequency by adjusting its slide and eventually conducted experiments on dogs and cats, finding they could hear far beyond our human capacity.

Children – with the most acute human hearing – can perceive about 20,000 hertz (a hertz is one cycle per second), but by the age of 30, humans hear about the 16,000 Hz level, with most older adults picking up even fewer high tones.

Dogs can hear sounds around 45,000 Hz, and cats 64,000. Bats use ultrasonic sounds as high or higher than 100,000 Hz to catch prey while insects have developed ultrasonic hearing to evade bats.

Many sea creatures, including dolphins, navigate using ultrasound, with porpoises having the greatest known ability to detect high frequencies at 160,000 Hz.

Some animals such as elephants can also hear infrasound, which is lower than our human ability to detect, and use the reverberations to navigate and communicate over hundreds of miles.

Some scientists think the ability to hear at the infrasound level works as a warning signal before natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami in 2004 when all the animals fled before the tsunami struck shore.

When I blow the whistle, Oggie usually responds, but the ultrasonic vibration is also having unexpected effects on other animals. Yesterday, three small bucks ambled in my direction, stopping only when Oggie came trotting up the trail.

Today, a hummingbird settled on a nearby branch, a cottontail watched me in brown-eyed wonder before hopping away, and a vulture flew so close overhead I could hear the creaking of its wings—a sound I don’t ever want to hear again.

I experimented on a number of lizards, and each one stopped in its tracks, but perhaps only because I, too, had paused.

All of this has made me contemplate our human capacity to hear. Often, to focus my attention on the present moment, I concentrate on one sense at a time.

Vision first because it’s the primary sense for most people, taking in 83 percent of our information, hearing second, smell third, kinesthetics fourth, and I forgo the sense of taste unless three-leaf sumac bushes are fruiting.

Of all the senses, listening seems to put me into the most alert state.

In The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music, W.A. Mathieu says, “Listening is receptive. You allow something outside your body to come inside, into your deep brain, into your private of privates. To listen is to be vulnerable.”

Certainly, attending to sounds in Westwater is much more enjoyable than when Oggie and I return from a walk along a busy street in St. George where the roar of truck engines make me cringe.

In Westwater, I listen to the scuttle of lizards in the downed leaves, the hummingbird’s chirps as it hovers suspended in the air, the rasping of crickets and cicadas, and the stream surging over rocks into miniature pools.

When the pandemic first hit the United States, the skies overhead remained eerily silent except for local flights, but a few jets boom through the airspace now.

If I’m alone, I mimic the calls of finches, canyon wrens, ravens, and pinyon jays. Occasionally they answer, but mostly they’re not fooled.

Sometimes I try to hear the voice of the entire canyon because as Mathieu says, “A sound mirrors the shape of its container,” but the only sound that comes close is the wind which shapeshifts, changing its timbre in every grove of trees, in every hollow and cave, and above every hill.

The wind doesn’t seem to affect the whistle’s shrill reach. Unless she’s gnawing on a bone, Oggie comes bounding up the trail with her long ears bouncing and is rewarded with a piece of cucumber, one of her favorite foods.

I’m humbled by the fact that she can hear what I can’t, that a world of sound exists above and below the narrow band I perceive.

Without a doubt, that band is contracting with age, but I’m deeply grateful for my ability to hear. If I continue opening my senses, perhaps someday I’ll perceive those secret worlds above and below my own reality which animals and poets already possess.

One of my favorite poems by e.e. cummings begins: “I thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes,” and ends, “(now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened).”

What a different world we would share if the ears of our ears awake, and eyes of our eyes open.

San Juan Record

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