The old saw about the tree that falls in the forest has weirdly become shorthand for philosophical gibble-gabble, but the question of whether or not it makes a sound is actually a really deeply interesting one. The answer is no, but also yes, but mostly that it depends on what we mean by “sound”. Its crashing death produces soundwaves, reverberating through the forest primeval, but without anything to pick them up, to transform them from waves into actual tangible sounds that we hear, what are they?
(And yes, there are animals who are hearing the sounds in their own way, but ignore them for now. After all, what’s a rabbit or katydid ever done for you? Nothing, that’s what. They can go straight to hell.)
The very nature of physical phenomena is subjective in a way that highlights and minimizes our tangible place in the world. We can only perceive a very small percentage of what is around us. There is so much light on the invisible spectrum that what we think of as “light” is just a small and not terribly significant part. There is so much life- the enormous majority of life, as the breathtaking new Tree of Life proves once again- that is invisible to us, even as it dominates that planet. Our outsized presence on this planet masks that we’re barely a part of it at all. We go through life blind and deaf to most of what is around us. We’re drunkards in a haunted motel, dimly perceiving that something strange is going on, but not having the capacity to figure out what’s flittering just beyond our stupored senses.
But maybe that’s catching up. In a fascinating article in The New Republic, Colin Dickey takes a serious look at the phenomenon of “The Hum”, a low, pulsing, mechanical sound that is heard in places around the world. It has sometimes been explained, and often not. Probably its most famous location is Taos, where it has been reported since the early 1990s.
The cool thing about Dickey’s article is that he takes the sounds seriously, or at least takes seriously the people who hear it. There are some scientific explanations as well. We’re surrounded by noise. Right now, as I type this at 7:30 in a quiet suburb, I can hear an airplane taking off from O’Hare, a few garbage trucks stretching for their morning runs, and the low thrum of traffic from a busy street a few blocks away. I’d still consider it a quiet morning, though, as the dominant sound is birds. But there is still something always there.
All ears are slightly different, and, as some explain, that may point to why some people in Taos (and other locales) hear the Hum, while others don’t. They can pick out a thread of noise in the din and focus on it. A low-level hysteria can also explain things; once a few people claim to have heard something, others might suddenly start hearing it as well.
What that doesn’t explain, though, is why the Hum is only reported in areas that don’t have a lot of sound, far outside of major cities. It could be for the same reason that those are the areas from which we get most of our UFO sightings, and that is: people are fucking bored. But if you’ll allow me to indulge my inner X-Files fandom, and grant that this is nothing more than idle musing, not even rising to the level of speculation, I might have an idea.
The cacophony that we have raised since the industrial age, the constant grinding of gears and pounding of machines, the honking and screaming, the sound we’ve pushed through our radio waves, the endless voices shooting from satellites into and out of our phones, the rumbling trains, the anonymous roar of a billion voices, have changed something in the soundwaves on the planet. It’s like a tuning fork being nudged. There’s something slightly out of wack, and it is mostly hidden by the rest of the noise, and most people can’t hear it. Some can, and maybe it drives some of them mad. And maybe, one day, we’ll all hear it.
Or maybe not. Maybe it isn’t a thing at all. But maybe there is so much of the world, and the universe, that we can’t see or hear, and that we’re affecting in ways that are both subtle and devastating. Maybe our basic epiphenomenal ignorance has combined with our blithe assumption of dominance in a way that, just maybe, is coming back to haunt us. For some reason, that doesn’t seem too far-fetched.