Helen Keller, when asked which of her senses she missed most, chose hearing. She said it was because she so missed the gentle, reassuring sound of her mother’s voice.
Hearing is an amazing sense—different from all the others in several important ways. First off, unlike the other senses, the perception of sound starts out as a purely mechanical process. Sound enters the ear as fluctuations in air pressure and those waves physically move the surface of the eardrum.
So, technically, our ears feel sounds before we hear them. This is why we can experience certain sounds—like music with a solid bass—in the rest of our bodies as well as our ears, and why even deaf people can enjoy music.
What sounds transport you?
Where do they take you?
THE SEDUCTION OF SOUND
Sound has the power to transport us to another place, another time. This effect is pretty obvious when you're listening to music from a bygone era. Not only are those tunes—and often the way they were recorded—dated in their own right, they’re also full of associations with movies, plays and other cultural representations of the time.
But I’m also carried away by other, more timeless sounds: a dog barking or children laughing in the distance on a still summer night; the “sizzle” of insects and wind-rustled grasses in a hot August meadow; the congenial snapping of a campfire.
These sounds may not remind me of one specific time or place, but they transport me nonetheless—to a place of peace, contemplation and vague yearning. Is their seduction a call back to my childhood, or just to the idea of a simpler, purer life?
The otherworldly little clicks, glugs and whines of life underwater in a lake or river; the gregarious chatter of a high "V" of Canada geese cutting its way south through an October evening’s sky. What sounds transport you? Where do they take you?
I HEAR YOU
There is hearing—as in simply noticing sounds—and then there is listening. Even though I’m a highly visual person, I find myself listening with every nerve in my body. It completely commands my attention, effectively turning off my other senses. This can be unnerving.
For example, when my wife and I go somewhere in the car, if I listen to her (I don’t mean just nod and say “Yes, dear” once in a while; I mean really listen) I cannot see. Let me say that again: when I listen, my eyes don’t work. We could pass our exit, miss a detour, or fly haplessly into a speed trap; I wouldn’t have a clue.
We need to turn off that interference, allowing beauty and wonder to begin their quiet, compelling conversation with us.
KINDER, GENTLER SOUNDS
Things we hear, like those we see and touch, have layers. And sound, like those other senses, lets us approach a curiosity in various ways. Sometimes it's not the most obvious sounds that are the most interesting.
We’re used to enduring so much man-made noise that Nature’s whispers—wave lap, ruffed grouse thump, wind breath through crispy leaves—get shouted down. Sometimes the only reason for one obnoxious racket is to snatch our attention away from another: TV, radio, cell phones, that breaking and entering of automated pitchmen on our answering machines. Why do we put up with it?
And then there’s the “noise” of our own thoughts and concerns. These, too, like static over an old recording, can stifle our ability to hear other kinder, gentler sounds. As we do with our other senses, we need to turn off that interference, allowing beauty and wonder to begin their quiet, compelling conversation with us.
When Nature speaks, it’s for a reason; we should listen. She may be speaking to our minds, letting us know of something we should either interact with or avoid. Sometimes the message is for our bodies, reminding us of our physical limits.
But she also speaks, as Helen Keller’s mother did to her, to our hearts and our spirits, reminding us of our belonging to her.