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Listening Skills

Listening Skills

written by: huntersjames




My daughter wrote a poem when she was a little girl. Today she will tell you she does not recall. It is a beautiful piece, with equal parts bittersweet memory and warm reaffirmation of the resilience of childhood. Today this scrap of paper transports me back to our dining table on homework night. When their teacher introduced them to poetry, we were as good as there. The city lights sparkled just a little brighter on those evenings. Listen:

Alone in My Room

The room full of noises

The house full of fear

The times that I wonder

Come closer to me.

I don’t know what to say

In my room full of noises

Whatever I say I can’t say out loud

Cause I’m scared to say it out loud

In my room full of noises

And my house full of fear.

Our old ranch house sprawled over a few acres in the desert. Our little girl knew enough about scorpions and rattlesnakes by the time she navigated her way to school to give her an early touch of fearlessness. The coyotes and javelina knew enough to keep their distance but they left sign enough. A Gila Monster denned under the house and his solitary slow-motion prowl announced each spring. Rats stole our sleep when they sneaked in the attic. The cat was not smart enough to kill the occasional mouse he would bring inside to us. What comedy we made chasing a mouse out the house in our undies at 3 in the morning. Smart cat? Western Orioles nested and raised new broods each spring, god willing the heat was merciful with its fire. Their woven basket nests hung high in the sentinel palm out front. We never really had a front yard; views spread out in every direction.

Each spring and in the fall a reversed last gasp, nature’s morning convection pours cool air from the high desert into the bowl of the valley. The basin supplies its own bellows, invisible powers to reverse the process each night and return the warmed wind back up slope like a returned library book, filling the house with noises. Reading her poem now, recalls reading her to sleep each night.

Imagine hearing the world through the ears of another? Sounds we take for granted may seem quite mysterious to others. The noises come out to play mischief with our minds. Darkness becomes nothingness, overwhelmed by noises, bumps, howls, squeaks, and fear. Or maybe it is just a hungry stomach? Or laundry settling? Sound is the least understood of the senses, like the cat of our nature. It knows how to hide from us. It plays us. Not knowing the game, we scare easily.

So it was as I resisted dawn’s call many years later. I imagined myself alone in this 250 square mile desert wilderness. No one ventures out here in 110-degree weather. But how else am I going to get to Circlestone, the ancient native ceremonial observatory on the highest peak in these jagged mountains, on the summer solstice? If I don’t wake soon, my window to get up to the cooler elevation before the real heat arrives will close.

On schedule like an alarm, occasional scraping noises tease my hearing threshold, the sound of shale, rock on rock, random swipes, like a pre-dawn hiker climbing my way? Perhaps I will not be alone. Half asleep the chance to connect the dots goes ignored. Even the most casual consideration, the fact of my solitary soul under a sheet in the remote desert, did I say alone, together with these strange scraping scratching sounds, was at least cause for inspection, no? Sleep won out with an assist of dawn’s mist, or was it the notion of another hiker? More likely I dreamt the rest? Perhaps, but listen along just in case.
At last light wins and I arise. In backpacking mode this is simply sitting up, grabbing a snack, and rearranging things in your pack, organizing for the day’s walk. I am ready in a flash, really no more than 5 minutes. I will walk another five miles on a gradual incline along a riparian stretch in the Sonoran Desert until I climb a couple thousand feet to this place of mystery looking out over a crowded dry desert not far away, but far enough.

I bend over to grab my pack preparing to sling it over my back again for the thousandth time and I hear the same scraping sound. It is close, behind me I think. I turn, still half bent over, and imagine the weirdness to see the glowing eyes of a big black bear on all fours spying on me from maybe 15 feet? She is watching me organize my pack, me with my back to her in a contortion just short of spasm.

No time to think, pure adrenaline fueled my pack up and over my back in one smooth looping motion. Perhaps in similar shock, surprise or just disbelief, the bear threw herself up high on her hind legs to get a better look at me. And there we stood face-to-face. Though she seemed taller, possibly equally stunned, I like to think I made an impression on her as well.

Bear scat splattered the path of my walk in, even in the dimming light of the evening before. In the early summer it seems bears in this wilderness gorge on the seasonal sumac berries. It is sweet to them, medicine in some cultures, but messy.  Think of your mother’s laundry day back in the days of clotheslines. Remember the mulberry tree? So sweet, and so messy.

So many stimuli arriving on the scene simultaneously and incredibly they combine to tell me a story I should have already read. A bear is standing in front of me, and probably has had me on her radar all morning. No doubt she is the same one composting the sumac fruit along the trail. Perhaps I am not fully appreciating her mannerly warnings as maybe she has been trying to wake me up the last hour or so kicking rocks. I have no idea, but I do not have time for ideas.

It seemed like a long time, though it certainly was mere seconds. We stood motionless, each of us. My pack was elevated slightly above my height since I was still in process of securing it. So I probably appeared taller?  Years later, I imagine this to be the reason she turned finally to lope easily up the steep slope behind us leading up and then down deep in to Rough Canyon. I listened to her breath power her flight up the mountain. I could feel the engine of her breath roar in a conquering rhythm disappearing her out of my sight. I still hear her today.

There was no time to be scared, to think at all really. Stories like this change shape and color with time, though the sound remains the same. The aging process commenced immediately as I hiked along the creek that morning before heading up the mountain. And oh the clatter I made along the way, out of character with my usual walkabout ways. You see I did not want to meet my bear friend again on this hike. My noisy tramping was delayed fear and a very timid defense.

Recapping, all the unusual noises and the sign were on record right up until she was upon me. The word ‘record’ has an auditory connotation don’t you agree? Do I remember hearing anything as we stood facing each other? I do not, though her freight-train like ascent of the mountain behind still chugs along in my mind. She was stunningly powerful here in her wilderness. No doubt we shared the illusion that we were each here alone. We were not complacent, just lost in our natures. My nature is fully capable of ignoring messages hidden in sounds I do not understand.

Nearly halfway across Arizona, only a few miles north of Reavis Ranch in a different time, there was the riddle of the mice. Again. No matter where I camped, the critters seemed to play the same games with me, waking me in the middle of the night, seemingly every night, to the same scurrying rattling intermittent aggravation. And my pathetic response? I would toss pebbles their way, imagining this scared them away as the noises would go quiet a few moments. But I would fall asleep and my studies would go unfinished. The annoying jiggling, crinkling, scurrying as I imagined it, and rattling irritation to my sleep would follow me to almost each of my campsites. Perhaps the noises came to all of them, with sleep deprivation interceding occasionally with gifts of extra deep sleep? Checking my bedroll and my food bag each morning for signs of compromise, nothing ever seemed amiss. Perhaps they didn’t like my cooking?

Revelations come when you least expect. One perfect evening straddling the topmost ledge of Two Bar Ridge, looking west at the sunset and east at the evening star, before dusk turned opaque, I rested sipping a cup of tea. It was the evening before April 1. Earlier that day I broke camp in Rogers Canyon and spent the day traversing the wilderness from south to north. Confidence and a touch of pride were my toast this evening as I enjoyed the silent view. Then I heard the telltale rattle and prepared my plan of action. I had practiced it in the dark, so I was ready instantly. Stealthily grabbing a couple of small rocks, I whirled around and fired away. It was not nearly as perfect in execution as you may imagine, yet I hit the plastic bag square.

It was a standard grocery bag tied up with my essentials inside, resting easily accessible near the head end of my bedroll. The mystery was solved. The case was closed that night for good. No I did not hit a mouse or a critter of any sort, because there was none to give my aim. The sinister annoyance of the mice or critters of whatever type my imagination had conjured was nothing other than the standard issue grocery bag, performing summer stock with a light evening breeze. Paper or plastic? I had chosen plastic and it danced to the slightest puff.

I have friends with guns who would have taken more than one shot at this empty wind each night. Disrupting the silence of an afternoon or evening in the solitude of the natural world, I wince at the callous false front of these pretending men shooting real bullets at imagined rabbits, or nothing. Fortunately I was traveling solo. I had no weapon other than my pitching arm. No one was injured, though I discovered embarrassment needs no audience. Sounds we do not understand contort our reality into personal fantasy. And we over-react. Apologies may follow, if ignorance allows?

We hear sounds that do not exist, or imagine noises to be other than they are, inventing fears out of thin air. Thin air is nothing to fear. Still other sounds play in our subconscious as we occupy ourselves with other pleasures, sounds as real as life and death that we ignore merely for a few more minutes of sleep. Our imagination is truly peerless in concocting threats and nuisances from the inanimate, even the plastic contaminating our lives with much more than noise. Our own overreactions are often overwhelmed by the foolish force of sometime friends acting as stand-ins for the foolishness of mankind. Conquering plastic, we thing we are the subject, not the predicate. Is it the plastic, malleable, fake, alchemy of faux civilization that has conquered us? The verdict and sentence will be announced concurrently, soon enough I fear.

Plastic bags can distract and confuse and embarrass you, it is true. Not just humans either, as even the genius of nature is not immune. Early one evening, just after dark further north still, an owl assaulted me. A great horned owl attempted to take me on the cliff of the north rim of the Grand Canyon. It is quite true and the impromptu tattoo of three stripes, and a bruise long since healed, at the top of my left arm re-tells the story still. Owls are renowned for their hearing and nocturnal hunting habit. This evening she was listening as always. There is no alternative theory except that another plastic grocery  bag, they are everywhere, rustling in the wind, drove her to such violence. I heard nothing except the tumbling recovery of the big bird as he righted himself to take off again for his land, the sky. Yes, asleep on a cliff overlooking the north rim I taunted a bird of prey with a plastic sack. Humans do not mean any harm, we are just ignorant of the sacrifice we demand of nature. Sometimes retribution is in order. I was lucky his aim was a little off, just to the left of my noggin, he over-reacted all over my dominant arm. Good thing owls don’t shoot guns.

I hike with friends who will sometimes wear headphones while they walk. It is a difficult concept for me, draping yourself in nature except with plugs in your earholes? What? It’s like wearing sunscreen in a tanning booth. Is there something more attractive, more appealing, more compelling than the nothingness of nature’s sound? It is a gift and a blessing. For starters, there are the danger signals. The rattler’s tale, a barking dog, a friend in need of help. But assume there are no risks to be wary of, what about the pleasures of no sound. Nature’s no sound, her silence is the ultimate masterpiece of mystery and magic. Why would we hide from it? Do we know what we are doing, the risks we are taking?

Perhaps we are numbed into this sinful quiet by our own rude intrusions on our nature? So sad it is that our dreams must capitulate to such cruel reality. Resting later, on the day of the bear, in the orchard at Reavis Ranch, I watch the grosbeaks and scrub jays plume for dominance in the apple orchard. It has been the odd year for apples so pickings are slim. Maybe this is why the sumac is so popular? Plowing the blue above us at 20,000 feet, as if our own purchase on this sphere is for lease and open for plunder, great aluminum power plants churn out chemicals spewing them far and wide and on us below, with madding consequence. Grating still more, their noise is constant at a frequency that condenses to a dull din befalling all below. Every 10 minutes from dawn to dusk this rape continues. We, my bird friends and I, nibble a few apple bits in crunchy, imagined quiet.

There is a lone fruit tree, I will call it a walnut, quite tall and stout guarding the south entrance to Reavis Ranch, an abandoned apple ranch from the 1800s. It blooms profusely in a white sheet of flowers in the spring before the heat comes. It is this tree, much taller and broader than any of the 100s of apple trees nearby, that I rest against, meditating on the life before us. This ranch is a wonderland orchard of implements and perseverance, a tribute to what can be accomplished without the internal combustion engine. Old man Reavis got to heaven before he passed, and he died like we all wish we could, hiking in the Superstitions. Leave me here if you find me, just like Elisha buried in his namesake Reavis Canyon.

Forget about the meditation idea.  Just now, the same amount of time it took to read the previous paragraph, is how long an interval of silence lasts in this idyllic oasis along Reavis Creek. Like clockwork, we are forced to endure the evil of the orange, the great aluminum gods roaring over our nature departing to nowhere, packed with human folds of flesh, regurgitating their equal and opposite reaction against nature and yes, the meditation dies, or is variegated, intermixed with depression. Far above they can hear nothing, just the scare pitched whine of the turbines. They might gaze lost and aimless out the windows at the nothing below, and if they do they peep into my paradise. All the while their tin god pisses all over my prayer mat pinching one long extended  fart duet. I sit helpless below. The noise annoys, it poisons irrevocably the reverie of each and every rotation of the sun, relentless and permanent evidence of our primal progress.

Today we are entrapped mute in our voiceless wilderness, a paradise conscripted to endure the shrill life of combustion and the metallic synesthesia of our petrochemical stew. They call this the Anthropocene Age, and here we are force-marched to this tortured camp in the universe to hear its corrupt definition, our ears pinned back by civilization. All the while, we are frozen dumb to the sound of our own chemical mass malevolence melting and withering all creation in the acid condensation of our own premature death, a sad and baneful mist. We are blind to the corrosive scream at unheard frequencies of this civilized sacrifice of life in exchange for travels everywhere and blueberries everyday, melting the glacier of our civilization drop by drop. Killing us softly while we sleep.

Listening, in a world of false distraction, with competing orbits of confusion and chaos, is about the question. What is the question? Why is it a question, and why is it being asked? Need it be a question, and need it have an answer? Be cautious in your answer. There are many answers, perhaps an infinite number. But only a few questions are worthy. We fear what we do not understand, or we ignore it, or we misunderstand and over-react, or we block it out. We hide from listening at our peril. How else do we appraise our creation?

Sound is nothing, sound is everything,

Sound is nurturing and overwhelming,

Sound is nature, sound is not nature,

Sound is life, life is energy, in that order,

Use both ears, see what you hear.

Drape yourself in sound, see the bear.

Sound is mutual, Sound is personal,

Sound is listening, listening is life.

In the maze of my favorite desert park, on a mountain in the south where the raptors know me, there is a worthy question. I feel its lift glide over my head. Other times I see its shadow in the sun as together we hunt for solitude. Its power comes from above and from below, such is the mystery of the force that confronts nature’s laws with effortless faith. How else is it possible to climb above the clouds deep into the blue leaning only on the wealth of silence? We fight the panic of the falling dream. Listening, we can exchange the panic of falling for the dream of flight? The question is your gift.

Who listens to the wilderness? Is the wilderness voiceless against her daily rape? Are we conditioned to ignore our nature, that from which we spring, by the ever louder clanking chaos of our civilization? Have we lost the words to pray to god that we may find in our hearts to cherish our first home, before we are evicted? What is prayer if it is not listening to the purest opening in our heart to feel what we are called to cherish? Today we pray our wilderness finds her voice to nudge us into respecting her as our mother. Reminded by the rhythm of life, our creator’s breath left behind in us all, we can pray for a day when the blessing of life is our sacred honor to repay; that our true nature will return.

Nature is composed of the same energy as her master, and she knows how to use it. It is just a matter of time. We can invent our own stories from what sounds come our way. Like the cat pleasing us with the mouse she gifts at our feet which then escapes up our pant leg inspiring hysterical nonsense. Screaming, violence and histrionics cannot change the reality of the mysteries listening will deliver. Nor will myth, nor nightmares. Nor will blind obedience to a convenient fraud. The power of deafness, of darkness, of fraud and false idols may fool generations of fools. It will become unsustainable, finally. In the end,  the flying dream will bring silence and with it a choir. Listening again, as if for the first time, I will hear my daughter’s poem.

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