View From the East: Animal Instinct


Greg Sandow

Warwick, NY: When you read this, it’ll be around Labor Day, time for going back to school, for work, for the concert season, and for other urban pursuits. But I’m writing in the country, on an August night, the air thick with the buzz of insects. So I thought I’d say goodbye to summer by writing about the sounds I hear around our country house. They’re also balm for any sadness on the anniversary of 9/11.

The sounds I like begin with peepers in the spring, a giant cluster of them, their nighttime voices high, mysterious, insistent, somehow always distant no matter where they’re coming from. I hear them first from wooded wetlands far behind our house, an area that’s just about impenetrable. Then they migrate to our pond, much closer to us, but still it’s hard to pin them down. When I walk to the pond, across our driveway and down a little slope, I still can’t find them, even though they’re all around me. They’re everywhere and nowhere.

Then in early summer, after a silent cacophony of tadpoles in the pond, the frogs appear. At night they sing, a group of them, or rather a collection of individuals, each one planted somewhere in the pond or near it, again impossible to find. They seem to listen to each other, or at least to be encouraged because they’re in a group. Often one will start, after a short silence, and others quickly follow.

Then in August come cicadas, or whatever buzzes in the trees. They come, if I can trust my ears, in two varieties, the ones that rasp continuously, and others that keep an intermittent, chugging beat. These last are the only noise-producing animal or insect—around here, at least—that sound as if they’ve found a groove.

Along with all these sounds, there’s choreography. If I sit out while twilight falls, I’ll see swallows, darting in the air. They’re catching insects, which they store inside their mouths while catching more, an amazing feat. But the swallows aren’t out for long. Soon it’s too dark for them, and they’re replaced by bats which dart and swoop. It’s a wonder that there are any insects left.

And then there are the silent animals. The cows, in fields nearby us, might as well be mute. I’m sure they moo sometimes, but I’ve never heard them. Wild turkeys never seem to make a sound, not even when we surprise a flock of them, or come across a mother and her babies, or even when—tonight, when I was on my bike—a group of them scramble off the road to get away from me.

An eagle I saw eating road kill didn’t cry or scream. Deer are absolutely silent, except, of course, when they’re crashing in the brush. They seem, in fact, to have an urgent air of silence, because they listen and communicate. On my bike, I’ll come across a family of them, one or two adults and a pair of fawns. They’ll hear me, and immediately they’ll freeze, turning toward me to see what I’m going to do. Sometimes they stay; sometimes they leap away. But one of the adults must make that decision, letting the others know with such mute, decisive certainty that the silence echoes all around them.

And then there are animals that in fact are silent, but don’t seem to be. Among them I’d list turtles. We have them in our pond. I’ll walk down there in the morning and find them on the banks, baking in the sun. As soon as I approach, they scurry toward the water, throw themselves in it with a tiny little splash, and swim away. The splash could almost be their voice. When I see them walking on the road, their bodies look positively garrulous, as if they were warning everyone to get out of their way. I saw one of them, a giant maybe two feet wide, start across the Palisades Parkway, which was thick with 60-mile an hour traffic. I’m sure that it got crushed (I’ve seen dead turtles in the road with broken shells), but while it lived, it looked as if it thought it made a nobler noise than all the cars.

Groundhogs don’t seem silent. They’ll root for something in the grass, then rise up to look around. They’re never still; they look as if they’re talking to themselves. Rabbits, too, seem very vocal, though I’d swear that if we heard their thoughts, they’d mostly wail in near-despair. They look so helpless, as if they know they’re prey. We had a clutch of young and baby ones, who’d come out at dusk. We never see them now; hawks or foxes must have eaten them.

But the most impressive sounds I’ve heard from any animal came from a bear. That we have bears around us isn’t news any longer; all of our neighbors say they’ve seen them. I saw one out of the corner of my eye, a low, brown, elusive shape I figured was a deer. But it was too dark for that, too round and compact. A little afterward, my wife and I and some people visiting us came upon some fresh scat, laid down, as far as we could tell, just moments before by something large. A book on animal signs left no doubt that this had been a bear. And then one night I heard it. It was late, completely dark; from somewhere near the house, from our lawn, our driveway, or else the road, or our meadow near the road, I heard a strangled roar. A large animal, I thought. But I couldn’t quite believe it was our bear, until I went online and found a site with bear sounds. They were exactly what I heard; they gave me chills.

But I haven’t mentioned birds. Of course we hear them, mostly in the morning and the early evening, but always, throughout the day there’s someone burbling or crying out in harsh alarm. Crows, I think, are the most outspoken; they always seem to know that someone’s listening when they caw.

But as I listened one afternoon to the aural carpet of birds, woven from many calls and songs, I thought of music. And not because the birds were musical, but instead because they weren’t…

For years I’ve listened to the sounds people make in groups, in parks or restaurants or parties. I’m convinced that there’s an improvised ensemble, an awareness we keep just below our consciousness of what everybody else is saying, and, even more importantly, how they’re saying it. A loud sound from somebody will provoke more loud sounds from others, with a rhythmic impetus that makes me think it’s all coordinated.

Once I taped a gathering and tried to transcribe what I heard. Many years ago, when I was at The Village Voice, I wrote a column about all this. Here’s what I said:

People talking in restaurants echoed the rhythm and intensity of conversations on the other side of the room, and filled in the pauses of the conversation at the next table. Sounds that reached my window from the street below seemed linked in a loose but unshakable web, no part of which could change without tugging, however slightly, on the rest. Sounds are music, I thought, but with a subtler rhythm, more changeable flow, and more profound counterpoint, in which—like lovers whose thoughts are always of each other, even though they’re faraway—two or more independent parts move forward together without ever marching in step.

…on a sunny Sunday afternoon I went to Washington Square and started to listen. At first I thought I was drowning in soup; there were more strands of sound in the music of the park than I’d hear in a dozen orchestras. Soon, though, I noticed radios, rhythmic, insistent, and distinct. After a while other sounds detached themselves from the stew: whistles, honks, the screech of brakes, a baby’s cry. The radios moved from place to place; a crowd watching a comedian in the fountain cheered. Soon the sounds began to connect. A knock or a slap—someone spinning on a skateboard—provoked a whistle 50 feet away. Another knock introduced applause from the crowd around the fountain, which in turn was echoed in a lengthened vowel from someone speaking right behind me. Three emphatic words jumping separately from three nearby conversations rose in volume and in pitch, like hammer-blows reaching a climax, one-two-perfect three, in rhythm. A Swedish girl behind me fit her next remark between two cries from a distant child. Someone matched a peak of music on the radio with a squeal. “Over there someplace,” said a girl in a bubblegum accent; she paused for two slaps from a skateboard and then happily resumed. The park had a rhythm, and everyone with anything to say found themselves joining in.

Birds, though, don’t do this. One day I sat on our porch, thinking I’d listen to the web of bird sounds the way I’ve listened to human voices. But it wasn’t a web. Each song, each rasp, each cry, each caw kept to itself, making no change in the sounds around it. I’ll make an exception for the honking of geese; they do seem to listen to each other, or at least to be joining in some collective effort, egging each other on to produce a heterophony of honks. But the birds near our house apparently ignore each other.

Just yesterday I heard dramatic proof of that. It was late. I could only hear two birds. One was an insistent tweeter, sitting on a nearby branch, insisting on tweet tweet tweet tweet tweet, repeated endlessly, sometimes with a stutter thrown in, so that tweet became tw-weet. The other bird was a mourning dove, further away and higher up, probably on a power line or telephone wire. Tuh-woo, it called, dropping down an approximate fourth, as mourning doves do. But no matter how often it repeated that, it couldn’t affect the manic tweeter, which kept its own rhythm, equally not affecting the mourning dove. Birds are intelligent; they make tools, talk to each other, migrate long distances, cooperate on tricky tasks, like driving off a hawk, which I’ve seen three small birds do, working as a team. They’ve been known to bang on windows, asking friendly humans for help. But they don’t make unconscious music together, the way people do.

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This column is dedicated to Tom Johnson, my predecessor at the Voice, who reviewed a bird one summer, and the next summer a brook.