To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Part 2: Post 9: Growing Ears

So, Charlie told me to meet him at the Martin House twenty minutes before dawn. So, what is the Martin House? And when exactly is dawn? I mean, I know roughly when dawn is, because I'm in zazen when it happens, but obviously I'd need something more precise.

I went to the library, first, but Aaron wasn't there. They said he'd be back in a bit, so I went to the front office and asked Sharon where the Martin House is. She simply pointed out the window. I looked, but did not see a house. Sharon knows everything that happens around here, but getting her to share information is a trial. You have to ask the right question.

"Ok," I asked, "so what is the Martin House?"

"A house for martins." Not a house for Martin? Now we're getting somewhere.

"What is a martin? In this context?" She grinned at me briefly as though I'd caught her at something.

"A small bird."

"So I'm looking for a bird house?"

"Yes. So, Charlie agreed to teach you?"

"How did you know that?" I had just spoken to him about  it fifteen minutes earlier, and he was still outside. Sharon shrugged.

"Who else would tell you to find the Martin House? Somebody must have, or you wouldn't be asking directions to something you've walked past every day without noticing for two months." Like I said, Sharon knows everything.

And twenty minutes before dawn equals right before Zezen, so I hoped Charlie wasn't going to keep me very long. I was also pretty sure that hope was in vain, so I dressed warmly. Good thing I did.

When I got to the Martin House, Charlie was nowhere in evidence. It was light enough that I would have seen him if he was waiting for me in the open like a normal person, but there were vague shadows everywhere. I didn't have time to stand around waiting, so I just stared up at the Martin House until I heard him clear his throat behind me. I knew what he was doing, but I still startled a bit, which must have pleased him. He was dressed for the dawn chill and carried two squares of black foam for us to sit on, to keep us off the cold ground.

"I'm about to be late for zazen," I reminded him, since apparently he did intend for us to sit somewhere for a while.

"There's another session over lunch. You can go to that one," he told me. "If Greg objects, send him to me." He handed me one of the foam squares and set off towards a group of big pine trees near the woods behind where I think the gym used to be. I stared after him for a moment, then hurried to catch up and asked him what we were going to be doing. He told me were going to listen to birds.
“But I don’t know anything about birds!” I protested. "I'm not a birder!" He gave me the look such an inane comment deserved (I mean really, complaining to the teacher that you don’t already know the material?) before explaining.

“Neither am I. We’re going to listen to birds to see if we can’t grow you some ears.”

“Wait,” I told him, “yesterday you said I don’t have balls, now apparently I don’t have ears? Any other parts of my anatomy you care to deny?” Charlie just laughed.

“Don’t take it so hard,” he said. “Everybody needs a boogeyman.” He wasn't growling, though. There still wasn't enough light for me to see his face clearly, and if Charlie carried a flashlight it was still on his belt, but he seemed looser, more relaxed than I'd ever seen him. He seemed happy.

What Charlie meant by growing me some ears was teaching me to differentiate bird sounds—not to identify them, just to know that this sound is different from that sound. It’s a lot harder than you’d think. We sat under one of the trees and he set me to counting species by sound in five minute intervals, and he wouldn’t let me leave until I could match his count three consecutive times.

I had been vaguely aware that birds were singing, but I hadn't been paying attention. The first time I tried counting, all I heard was a wall of sound. It was pretty sound, but undifferentiatable, just this swell of musical chatter. At the end of five minutes, I had no idea. It could have been one species singing; it could have been a hundred.

"I don't know, a hundred," I told Charlie.

"There aren't a hundred species of birds here," he told me, with what sounded like a smile. "Try again. This time, try to find one song, and notice every time you hear it, and every time you hear something that is not it."

So I tried again. At first I could hear no distinctions at all, and the sound was completely continuous. Then I heard a single, harsher note that was different, a different voice. Then I heard it again.  Twice more I heard it before the five minutes were up.

"Two," I told Charlie, meaning the harsh note and the wall of sound. He chuckled.

"Nope, five. Try again."

I listened again for the harsh note, but did not hear it. This time the wall divided itself into two dialects: chirpy sounds and warbly sounds. And a crow cawed in the distance.


"Nope, five."

The next time I simply guessed five, and Charlie, angry, asked if I wanted to go to breakfast or not.

"What happens if we miss breakfast?" I asked. It was now almost broad daylight, and I wasn't sure I had made any progress at all. Would he really keep me past breakfast?

"We go hungry," he told me. I caught the "we," in his answer and buckled down. Another five minutes passed.


"Are you guessing?"

"No: seven."

"Wrong: six. You can be wrong, Daniel, but do not be unsure of yourself."

We went on like this for nearly three hours. At one point I got frustrated and tried to solve the puzzle by brute mental force, trying to hear and focus on every single sound I heard, but as soon as I found a new song in the auditory mess, the previous one vanished from my brain like a dream.


"'Arg' is not a number, Daniel."

Finally I started getting it right, though never twice in a row. The day had warmed enough that Charlie had stripped off his shoes and socks. His feet looked big and broad and calloused, but still very white after the long winter. When Charlie called "time" again, I had no idea.

"What, were you thinking about my feet the whole time?"

"Yes. Charlie, I'm sorry, I'm getting so tired...."

"Good. That's usually when the miracle happens."

And indeed it did. I was too exhausted, mentally, to think of anything but bird song. I couldn't even really think. The sound just swelled and undulated around me. I closed my eyes and began almost conducting the chorus in my head, pointing, in my imagination, at each singing bird I heard, locating it in mental space, and when a new bird sang I located it in a different place with a different shape of sound. I was watching sound. And I started getting it right more often.

Finally, after two consecutive right answers, Charlie said I was one over--I'd said nine, he said eight. Wrong again. I slumped.

"But one of those birds made two different noises. Good job. We're done for the day."

I didn't react for a moment. I was just too dazed.

"Daniel? You got the number of bird species right. You're done." I got up and stretched, all stiff and cold. Charlie got up, too. He had to get to class.

"I'm sorry I kept you from breakfast," I told him.

"You didn't keep me, I kept me. I didn't expect you to get it quickly. You're rewriting your brain, Daniel, growing new neurological connections. It's not just knowledge that birders have, it is a learned capacity to notice. You're growing that. It's hard work. Now go to work or to class or to wherever it is you go. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Twenty minutes before dawn?"


And we've done that every day since this week. He's told me he expects me to be listening to bird song all the time, whenever I'm outside to hear it, anyway, and I'm trying. I still can't remember these songs from one minute to the next--I asked one of the students, who is a birder, to name some of the songs for me and he did and all the names could have been snow in June for the way they totally failed to stick around, but I'm starting to hear a little better. I haven't missed breakfast again. And if I've complained, Charlie hasn't heard me do it, nor will he. I know what he means by "boogeyman." He means someone to blame for getting up too early and missing breakfast and most of lunch, so I can say "he made me do it," instead of the truth, which is that I want to learn to hear, I want it desperately. But not so desperately as to sit around for three hours and miss breakfast on my own initiative. I have to admit that.

Does everybody need a boogeyman? I don't know. Charlie thinks everyone does, anyway, which raises a question; who is Charlie's boogeyman? I suppose I am. After all, I made him teach me.

[Next Post: April 19th: Wildflowers]

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