Listening to the Redwoods

7th December, 2019 | Article By AG

Held tightly onto a steel wire one hundred fifty feet in the air, everything below me is a mere blur of green and brown. The wind whirs past my ear, and for the first time, I know what flying squirrels and howler monkeys experience as they jet about from branch to branch in their natural habitats. I am on a zip-line tour of exploration in the hearty Redwood Forest of coastal northern California. These colossal trees, which can be over three hundred feet in height, loom still further overhead, a silent circle of leviathans. I zoom my way safely onto a platform on the system of pulleys and cables built into the lattice of timber and take the time to notice my surroundings. I look upwards to see a mixture of fog enveloping the meager sunlight struggling to penetrate through the thick grove of extending limbs. I look below and notice only a vast leafy network, so entangled and thick it is difficult to tell where the boughs end and the shrubbery begins. It is a mythical land up here, devoid of any movement. Everything is strangely still, waiting for a break. In all this wilderness of trees I do not spy a single wild creature. I complain about this to my guide, he smiles and commands me to swing through to the next platform. 

In front of us is a rope bridge fastened between two of the largest trees inside this grove. My harness clipped to a safety line I am free to wander on my feet. I follow my docent onto the first rung of the bridge. My initial step reveals the trickiness of managing to cross the wobbly span. Tightening my grip on the hemp rails, my eyes centered on the step in front of me, I teeter my way forward. My lead stops midway on the swinging overpass and, after ages of sweat inducing acrobatics, I reach his side. 

“We’ll halt here and rest for a while,” he pronounces. As I swing towards the cable banister and lean to look down, he issues an unusual order, “I want you to close your eyes and forget about what you have seen. Pretend that you can’t see. Now, open your ears. Open them, wide! When I stop talking, I want you to listen, deeply listen to every sound, even the tiniest sounds that come to you. Don’t talk, don’t think, only listen.” I obey his instructions, keeping my hands tense around the rope. My thoughts fly to the possibility of falling from the bridge into the painfulness below. I think I remember seeing the sliver of a stream underneath, but am uncertain. Stilling my mind, I strain to hear the sound of trickling water, but all I sense is the rush of a gusty wind which passes through the forest. The silence is deafening, or perhaps that is my insides panicking, the sound of my blood rushing in torment through me. 

“How long am I supposed to keep my eyes closed?” I wonder. Followed by, “Is my guide still standing next to me?” My eyes crave to open, to reassure me, but I force them to stay lidded. To relax I respire deeply in and out while counting up. On an inhale whose number I lose, a sound catches my ear. 

“Peep. peep, terweep,” it murmurs. I incline my head towards the chirp. “Terweweep, terweep,” it repeats. Suddenly to this single song is added a baser thumping of a tiny hammer against wood. 

“Tick-tock-tick-tick-tickety. Tick-tickety-tickety-tock,” it drums, sending out its coded message. A distant cawing grows closer and strident, overtaking the other noises. 

“Caww, caaawww, cawwwwww!” The scream multiplies and reverberates in my head as echoes fly by. Only when the din clears, I am able to hear once more the softer chirps, now trilled from various throats that call from different Redwoods. It sounds like a choral group rehearsing. Underneath this melody I detect a sipping, simmering tune. All my nerves are in a tingle, as if each body part had been turned into an ear, listening, wondering from where that utterance emanates. I hold my breath and attempt to still my heartbeat so that their sounds won’t interfere with my ability to hone into that sibylline note. I am a human antenna, straining to attune to the faintest of signals. I almost believe I sense the chortling of the brook below me when every flurry and tweet and warble joins together in euphonic discord. It is a wild concerto, an orchestral masterpiece in the arbor. 

“You may open your eyes now,” directs my companion, breaking the spell. I open my eyes yet the music stays with me. I still hear the chatter of birds, the rustle of wings, the whisper of dancing leaves. The symphony is muted, but accompanied by the notes, I fancy I see the flutter of a red breast, the clip of a white wing, the trembling of a furry tail. “Still think that this forest has no wildlife?” the guide queries me. I mutely shake my head, my eyes agape. Sound has introduced me to a hidden world within the mighty Redwoods. This other world is vigorous, dynamic, and noisy, though skillfully veiled by the dusky cover of foliage. As I make my way across the second half of the bridge and prepare for my final flight path through the trees, I become conscious of the stunning power of listening. Now that I have opened my sense of hearing, it elevates my experience of my surroundings. I perceive that I have given too much importance to my ability to see, ignoring the subtler layers that can be found when I use more of my senses together. I am keen to explore the world outside this forest through my new found appreciation of sound. What city rackets have I been ignoring? What disguised polyphony has escaped my notice? What prior unattended harmonics will now be music to me? My ears have uncovered a camouflaged milieu of nature, and now the Redwoods I zip by are no longer a static environment. Their serene beauty has come alive with the richness of sound.


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