Monday, July 1, 2013

On Being Nearly Deaf for a While

I'm just back from a week of classroom and field-based training related to the powerful 1964 Wilderness Act, and it happens that towards the end of that week I went partially deaf. I mean it, literally if partially deaf, couldn't hear for example the car radio or the tick-ticking of the turn signal in the dashboard, watched people not that far away in conversation without hearing a sound, heard my own voice echo dully when I spoke. It scared the crap out of me.

The cause was a severe sinus infection later pressurized by air travel back from Montana into a thrumming hollowness between my ears that lasted about 24 hours, until I finally got my hands on some serious congestion relief medicine.

Thankfully, the infection didn't really hit until we had hiked out of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area in western Montana, so there I enjoyed the wilderness unfettered and unfiltered, which is a fine thing because that's one of the main values of wilderness areas to me - you don't have to put the filters on in the first place. You know the filters - the ones that let you function without insanity in a bustling city, or airport, or office, the filters that let you listen past many things so you can focus on what's most important then and there.

In wilderness there's no static coming from overhead speakers or workers in the next cube or phones ringing down the hall. Each sound can be received, absorbed, measured - rushing stream, trilling junco, pipe-blowing Varied Thrushes, crunching gravel underfoot. It makes you want to reach for more sounds, not filter them out. The trouble is, most people spend much too little time in the wild world, and have their filters locked on all the time, even when they should not be.

We birders like to say we're never not birding, and for me a big piece of that is I'm never not listening, not just for birds but for any sound that will tell me something about the world around me. I've been told I have good hearing, and I'm glad I do, but I think a lot of hearing is training. Between birding and hunting, probably more the hunting, listening has been wired tightly around all the rest of the neural circuitry with which I view the world, to the point where I have limited capacity to endure bustling human environments like cities, offices, or movies with over-the-top audio.

Until I went deaf. Then it didn't matter. I found, for example, that driving home from the airport I was pushing 80 mph without really knowing it, because I was accustomed to telling speed by sound. When I got home, the dog's greeting had lost something - the clicking of nails on the floor, the thumping of tail against the couch, even his contented breathing. Couldn't hear any of that.

I thought wryly, it's a damn good thing tomorrow's not the World Series of Birding, because I wouldn't be able to hear a goose honk, let alone a wispy nocturnal flight note. It scared me.

And I couldn't help but wonder, is this how the world is for many people all the time? I think it is. Hiking up into the Selway-Bitterroot's Big Creek Canyon, I detected 37 species of western birds, but saw only a few of those thanks to the thick coniferous habitat. Only a couple of my colleagues knew any bird sounds, the rest essentially none, and I suspect that most of these new friends not only didn't know what they were hearing, they didn't hear what they were hearing. Tuned out. Or not tuned in. Several were impressed I noticed and knew the bird sounds, while I was somewhat surprised that they didn't. I tried to teach them some of the sounds, like the upward spiraling fluting of the Swainson's Thrushes or the sing-song of the Pacific Wren. They seemed delighted, and I think it changed their experience there.

If a bird sings in a forest, and someone is there to hear it, but doesn't hear it, did it make a sound?

I don't ever again want to know what it's like being partially deaf. I can hear again now, while driving back from the drug store I just heard a Mama Osprey piping to Dad that the kids need feeding again.

Sweet sounds. All of them.

[Mother Osprey and her brood, Grassy Sound, NJ July 1, 2013. Click to enlarge.]

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