- The Ear is a Lonely Hunter
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It is always in the belly . . . that we end up listening, or start listening. The ear opens onto the sonorous cave that we then become.—Jean-Luc Nancy, tr. Charlotte Mandell
For most of its life, a spadefoot toad listens only for rain. Buried several feet underground, metabolism slowed, it holes up for months. Above ground, winter and drought parch the land, coyotes battle possums, owls lift the unsuspecting rattler high into the air. The toad might hear, now and then, the overhead scurry of rodents, a sudden whoosh of raptor wings. But deep in its burrow, out of sight, it doesn’t fret about predators’ hunger and barely hears the various sounds of eat-or-be-eaten. Interested in only one sound—the patter of raindrops—it can wait for months, even years.
Imagine the scene. Without water or food, relying on its skin to suck a bit of moisture from surrounding soil, it half-dozes until at last a first raindrop pings onto the hard-baked crust above. The toad’s tympanic membranes—small, [End Page 41] unprotected patches of skin behind the eyeballs—begin to vibrate. Stirring from its stupor, it might hear that ping as a light knock on the ceiling, turn its bumpy head in the burrow, and listen for another.
Though spadefoot toads live nowhere nearby, they are among the things I sometimes think about at night near my home in the mountains of Western Maryland, when I’m standing at the edge of Savage River and some blanket of hush has begun to descend: beings in their burrows; the kinds of noises that alert, the fact that we—human and toad alike—are roused from sleep and other lethargies by sound more often than by sight; inklings—if this were a more comic-book world—that the eyes would have feet; the ears, hands. One sense travels; the other receives. The first is a river; the other, a pond.
“The eye,” German naturalist and philosopher Lorenz Oken wrote, “takes a person into the world. The ear brings the world into a human being.”
Consider the world as it was for Helen Keller, born a century after Lorenz. If forced to choose, which would you rather have restored, vision or hearing?
If careful seeing can deepen the world, then careful listening might draw it more nigh. The eyes, after all, can close at will; we can avert a glance, lower the gaze, look elsewhere. But the ears, these entrances high on our bodies, doubled, corniced, aimed in opposite directions, can do nothing but remain helplessly open. And when some unexpected sound enters, then our bodies, like the toad’s, go on high alert, and our minds, our sometimes-irrepressible, untoadlike minds, kick into high gear.
At least that’s what happened one morning when my five-year-old granddaughter Samantha and I stopped at a farm to buy broccoli and heard a sound that didn’t seem to belong. It wasn’t the grating whir of a deep shale drill—though I fear that’s coming—but a tortured kind of screech. She cupped her hands to her ears, turned one way and the other, and then we heard it again: one long, mournful cry among the otherwise bucolic sounds of a small farm. It was like one of those puzzles from kindergarten: three circles and a triangle and your job is to mark the one that’s different. Only those weren’t visual images that day; they were sounds, and they didn’t line up neatly. They came, instead, from various corners of the farm: one familiar low clang from the pasture, one familiar deep galumph from the west, a light rustle overhead, and, as soon as we’d stepped from the car, that lone, chilling cry from beyond the barn.
From the Latin word monere, meaning to warn, have come divine omen, evil omen, warning, misshapen deliverer of bad news, monster, to admonish. And finally, to summon.
Though it haunted, the puzzling sound in the farmyard was not yet a summons, at least...