Listening Point


We were sitting on the deck the other morning, watching a Maine sunrise over the islands to the east of us.


“Chickadees,” I said to Ada, nodding toward a stand of elderly trembling aspens just beyond the lawn.


She listened for a moment, then shook her head, indicating she hadn’t picked up the call.  But a moment later her face brightened.


“Downy woodpecker,” she countered.


It was my turn to frown and shake my head. “Downy woodpecker,” she said again, but I still couldn’t pick up the sound she was hearing. After three or four repetitions of Ada’s prodding, I finally caught it: a faint, miniature drum roll, as a tiny beak attacked a distant tree trunk. For me, the sound would have gone undetected, except for Ada’s insistence. Even when I heard it at last, the reverberation seemed something internal, like a buzzing in the ears.


As octogenarians now, each of us has a somewhat different apprehension of the auditory world. One hears the higher calls, the other catches the ground tones. On an early summer evening, both can walk to the pond and revel in the rich chorus of those tiny tree frogs called spring peepers. But in fall, when only an occasional peeper (which oldtimers on New England islands used to refer to as “pinkletinks”) emits an occasional “tink,” I am the sole beneficiary. My companion misses the call, though later she is the first alerted by a faroff clap of thunder.


Still, as long as one’s hearing holds out, the natural world gives back an essential resonance. There on the deck, the deep hum of small wings reveals the presence of a hummingbird that has slipped in along the wall behind us to feed on the blossoms of a Potentilla shrub. A breeze sets in motion the leaves of the aptly named trembling aspens, creating a rustling monody in the forest. If a ruffed grouse has drummed on a log, I won’t hear it, but Ada will. In fact, what may be a forest alive with migrating songbirds for a birder with sensitive hearing will be a disappointment for me.


“There aren’t as many birds as there used to be,” I’ll grumble. Such infirmities transform a sunny outlook into pessimism.


These observations the other morning were heightened because I have been re-reading Sigurd Olson’s eloquent book of 1979, Listening Point. Olson was keenly adapted to listening in on the natural world around his home in Minnesota—to the calls of animals, the sigh of wind through the forest, and “the all-engulfing silence of wilderness.” As a longtime guide on adventurous canoe trips through the Quetico-Superior country, he seemed to become part of the wilderness itself.


He bought a glaciated strip of rock on an unspoiled lake near his home and called it Listening Point. The point became his lookout on the universe. He savored the distant call of a wolf, the “chuckling” of the water in a shallow stream known as Singing Creek, and the sibilant fall of snow on the conifers at dusk. Once, during a camping trip, when the night was dark and silent, Olson was startled by “a half-choked screaming sound with the most frightening variations I had ever heard.” He listened “as echoes filled the little bay with their full and horrible crescendo.”


He knew that he was hearing the caterwauling of a bobcat. The possibility of hearing that wild sound once more kept drawing him back to Listening Point. “Some night toward the end of winter or in the early spring,” he wrote, “I might hear it once more, and for that I will stand and listen in the years to come.”


Many of us have our own Listening Points, wherever we live, and they give back to us what even the most thrilling views of wild places cannot obliterate.