Brief glances of understanding

Posted 12/6/22

In numerous folk traditions, mid-winter is marked by uncanny goings-on, including the legend that animals can talk at midnight on Christmas Eve. What they reveal during this magical time can be benevolent or foreboding, depending on the storyteller.

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Brief glances of understanding


In numerous folk traditions, mid-winter is marked by uncanny goings-on, including the legend that animals can talk at midnight on Christmas Eve. What they reveal during this magical time can be benevolent or foreboding, depending on the storyteller. 

Variations on this Christmas theme are found in many cultures, and they link to more ancient, indigenous and universal traditions of animal spirits who reveal the secrets of the natural world, guide us on the quest for self-knowledge, and embody our best and worst traits to teach us about our foibles and untapped strengths. 

For most of us, this idea of conversing with animals inhabits the realm of metaphor, fairy tale and sometimes intuition—as in the humorous ventriloquism we use to express the thoughts of our pets.  But new research in the field of bioacoustics is bringing us closer to real-world experience of the astounding ways that animals and plants communicate with each other and might, someday, with us. 

Karen Bakker, a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of British Columbia, has surveyed these remarkable developments in a new book, “The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology Is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants.”  

Bakker begins by explaining the limits of human hearing. It exists along a narrow bandwidth that cannot detect the rich variety of sounds at the lower end of the range of human perception—the world of infrasound.

At the low end of infrasound frequency are the sounds emitted by the earth itself:  vibrations carried through the air and in the earth’s crust, such as the rhythmic pattern of ocean waves, which Bakker calls “the drumming heartbeat of our planet.”

At the opposite end of the sound spectrum, high-frequency ultrasonic sounds are perceived by certain insects, bats, small primates and plants, but are lost to the human range of hearing.  

Biosonar, also called echolocation, is another form of communication used by many other species but undetectable by most human ears.

With miniaturized microphones, robotic devices, drones and satellites, we are tuning into a world of complex communication we have never heard before. In particular, teams are concentrating on elephants, honey bees, whales and bats, all highly vocal and social species, using artificial intelligence to decode millions of sounds.  Bakker believes that within 10 years, we may have a lexicon of a few hundred words for each of these species, which will support rudimentary conversations. 

Among the other wonders Bakker describes:  male peacocks, as they spread their dazzling tail feathers in the mating dance, produce infrasound at a frequency that vibrates the comb on top of the peahen’s head. Microscopic coral larvae recognize their home reefs across miles of ocean by the sounds the reefs produce, and they can distinguish a healthy reef from an unhealthy one by the sounds it makes. Plants will react to recordings of insect predators by releasing defensive chemicals, but only when they recognize the particular insects that prey on their kind. 

In a recent interview with Nicola Jones for Yale Environment 360, Bakker commented on the debate about whether these plant strategies can be interpreted as intelligence: “If you believe that intelligence is an ability of an organism to receive information from the environment and use that to adapt and thrive and problem-solve, then, yes, plants are intelligent.”

One of the most fundamental human errors is the notion that what we see and hear and conceive is all there is. Our best thinkers in every culture—philosophers, shamans, scientists and poets—have urged us to listen with greater attention and imagine more broadly and deeply.  In his 1955 memoir “Tristes Tropiques,” anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote:  “Just as the individual is not alone in the group, nor any one society alone among the others, so man is not alone in the universe...  as long as we continue to exist and there is a world, that tenuous arch linking us to the inaccessible will still remain... in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that can be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with learning than all our books; or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat.” May you savor those wondrous experiences this Christmas and all through the year.

christmas eve, folklore, story, animals, tradition, sound


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