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Listening at the Talbot County Free Library

by Bill Peak

We live on a two and a half acre wooded lot. The northern end of the property is marked by a ridge that stands some fifty feet above sea level, an elevation seldom encountered in Talbot County. From there, the ground descends slowly but surely toward the southern boundary, the wetlands bordering the Choptank River. When asked if we have waterfront property, we always smile and say, “No, but it is at least marsh-front.”

About halfway down the property, two streambeds enter our lot, one running along its eastern edge, and the other its western. The peaty floors of the valleys channeling these streams form two elongated wetlands. Our house sits on the spit of high ground separating the two valleys. I like to sit out on the southern end of this peninsula and look out over the spot where the two streams and their valleys converge into a single larger wetland.

As a result of its topography, our small piece of land is blessed with a number of different habitats: a mixed upland forest of loblolly, oak, beech, and hickory, with a darker understory of holly; a middle elevation consisting of more holly, tall and short bush blueberry, mountain laurel, sassafras, black and sweet gum, and the occasional, cherished, crane fly orchid; and then, further down, at the lowest elevation, wetlands comprised of bay magnolia, shad bush, pinxter azalea, ironwood, green ash, maple, spice bush, fern, wild rice, and swamp iris. In the summer the foliage becomes jungle-thick, blocking our view of the distant river, but we don't mind: the fragrances are heavenly.

When I sit out on the point overlooking the confluence of our two streambeds, I like to close my eyes and try to identify the sounds happening around me. In addition to all the bird calls (147 species and counting), these may include the seesawing, rasping song of a gray squirrel, the drawn-out, rubbery chupting of leopard frogs, the high-pitched yodeling of a dog fox, the double-stomp and snort of a white-tailed deer, or the rustling in the leaf litter that signals the presence of a snake or mouse.

Once I heard a raccoon give a most un-raccoon-like call, a call which—had I not watched the raccoon make it—I would have attributed to a coyote. On another occasion, way off to the west of me, I began hearing a low whisper, like the noise air makes when it leaks slowly from a puncture. Focusing on the gentle hissing noise, I realized its decibel level was growing second-by-second, becoming now the sound of a distant breeze, now that of a crowd of people speaking just beyond the range of understanding. The crescendo reached its peak when a great horned owl burst from the trees on my right pursued by a swirling comet's tail of angry complaining chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches.

I'm reading a wonderful book about sound just now, David George Haskell's Sounds Wild and Broken, that I checked out through the consortium of libraries that allows Talbot County Free Library card members to check out books, DVDs, and audio books from any library on the Eastern Shore. As with all good science books, Haskel's has enriched my enjoyment of the natural world. Now, when I sit out there at the end of the high ground and notice the surface of the water at the foot of our point roiling with small spawning fish, a part of me thinks that, instead of calling them banded killifish or golden shiners, I should refer to them (as a Choptank Indian might have) as brother or sister fish. For Haskell has taught me that each of us carries within us the inheritance of their and our marine ancestors.

When the first fishes crawled up out of the sea to become terrestrial animals, they carried with them, like the aqualungs we use to return to the sea, a portion of their watery environment. Thanks to the extraordinary organ known as skin, each of us still carries a semblance of that ocean environment within us; we remain, in essence, walking containers of our ancestors' liquid world.

We humans owe our ability to hear to three small bones in our inner ears, one of which began its evolutionary journey as part of a fish ancestor's gills. These bones transmit sound vibrations from the outside world to the ears' nerve center, the cochlea, a snail-like organ filled with, yet again, a sea-like liquid. Basically, when we sit by the fire and listen to a Bach toccata, we listen to it using ocean water and fish bones.

Twenty-eight years ago, shortly after we moved into our house, I was sitting out on the point listening to all the birdsong incited by the first warm day of spring when I heard a call unlike any I had ever heard before. Up until that point, I had lived most of my life in urban settings, so I was eager to identify the more natural sounds belonging to the landscape around our new home. I turned my chair toward the noise, which seemed to be coming from beyond the woods on the other side of the valley east of me, and focused on it. It was a high-pitched call, like the laughter of a woodpecker but less harsh, and there seemed to be more than one animal producing it.

After a moment's perplexity, I smiled. On a property upriver of us, two or three little girls were playing a game, perhaps jump-rope, their squeals of delight floating down to me on the moist, fragrant early-spring air. For the first time in my life I had heard human voices as animals must hear them: strange and wondrous, alien and alive.

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