What the Woodpecker Told Me

Rennie Sparks in The New York Times:

Sparks-woodpecker-blog427I have a lot of notebooks full of scribbles. They often don’t lead to anything, but sometimes, on lucky days, the scribbles begin to connect into a mystery that I can not look away from until it is laid bare. What was once a jumble of words and ideas begins to feel magnetized and full of import. Oh, those are lucky days! Mostly I just sit on the couch and follow the sparks here and there until they disperse. That morning that began with a tap-tap-tapping led to an afternoon in which I learned a lot about woodpeckers. I found out that woodpeckers have very long tongues with barbs on the end. I found out that woodpeckers have specially designed skulls that protect them from impact, like a built-in crash helmet. I also found out that woodpecker hearing is amazingly acute. These birds can actually hear larvae slithering inside a tree trunk as they are flying past overhead. Yes! That fact resonated with me. I felt my head tingling with excitement.

I sat awhile and tried to imagine what it might be like to have hearing so acute that I could hear bugs wriggling through trees. At first it seemed a wonderful thing — to hear great orchestras within rocks and mountainsides, the secret songs of air and earth. And then I realized how distracting it would be. With such sensitive hearing wouldn’t we all end up lying for days with our ears pressed to dirt piles and knot holes, forgetting to eat, forgetting to sleep, utterly transfixed by the tiniest sounds? Why then, I wondered, aren’t woodpeckers driven to insane distraction by their acute hearing? How can these birds stand to hammer away at a tree trunk when their ears are sensitive enough to hear bugs crawling inside wood? Is the woodpecker brain, then, fine-tuned to hear some sounds acutely, but to ignore other sounds completely? What parts of reality do our own brains actively filter out as we try and perceive the world?

Suddenly, and seemingly without context, I thought of Mary Sweeney. Mary Sweeney was a woman briefly mentioned in Michael Lesy’s book, “Wisconsin Death Trip.”

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