Listening Loudly

By Paul Burnham. Paul, 51, is a civil engineer from Kalispell, USA. Please read his article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

We can hear the footfalls of a millipede next to our tent. Six miles to the southwest we also hear the clattering of ceramic plates and the clinking of wine glasses. People are laughing. The atmosphere carries no moisture here, but still brings these voices across the Grand Canyon.

My son and I sit absolutely still, listening, tuning our ears to the voices, straining to hear individual words. But six miles is too far for single words to remain single. The words mix and overlap by the time they reach us—a half minute after they are spoken. There is no wind here, but the voices fade, as though carried off to another quarter of this desert.

We’ve found flat ground in this margin between canyon rim and canyon floor. The Colorado River moves far below us. But we haven’t seen the river or another hiker since we left the main trail two days ago.

I’ve never known so much quiet. Awe-inspiring quiet. I wonder for a moment if I put my ear to the ground, if I would hear the rumbling of the earth’s molten core, or at least feel the pulsing river so far below us. I’ve heard my heartbeat in my own ears before—in a snowy canyon, on a midwinter night. But this is a more profound quiet, and I can hear my heartbeat, not in my ears, but through my chest, resonating against the rocks around us.

A giant cricket emerges, with antennae twice the length of her body. She waves them up and down, testing the night air. My son and I remain still. She looks into the light of our headlamps. She can see us, no doubt. But she can also hear us. Breathing. Maybe she hears the rush of blood in our feet. She wanders to the edge of the light and disappears into the night. We can hear her footfalls too, and the rasping of her swollen abdomen and ovipositors dragging on the sand.

In our tent, our conversation turns to desert creatures; to millipedes and crickets and ringtails and Chupacabras. We laugh at this last one. But I dreamt of one only last night. I was terrified in the dark and confusing moments between dreaming and waking. We rename our trail The Trail of Chupacabra.

There are no other sounds here to distract me, and I find myself listening to my son more closely than I have ever before. I listen to more than his voice. I listen to the intonation, to the subtle rise and fall of each word. His pitch feels strained. His voice cracks.

I’m not sure I would have heard this anywhere else. The background noise of any other place might have masked that signal, that breaking, that change.

He’s thirteen years old. He tells me about school, which starts in two weeks. Eighth grade. The last year of middle school. I listen more closely. He says he’s glad to have only one more year in middle school, that he’s ready for high school.

The sky is moonless, and through the mosquito-net ceiling of our tent I can see the glow of the Milky Way. I see more stars than I have ever seen before. Anywhere. A bright planet hangs in the western sky. Probably Venus. Another planet rises in the southeast. I close my eyes and listen to my son. The cadence of his words spreads and slows. He’s falling asleep and trying to talk. Soon he is quiet. I only hear his breathing.

I open my eyes again, turning my attention from sound to sight. A satellite tracks between the stars.

Words start going through my head. I’m looking for one in particular to describe how I want to listen to my son. I’m wide awake now, looking for an adverb.

Attentively. I could listen attentively. But that’s not quite right. My attention might drift.

Diligently. But I might become weary of diligence.

Earnestly. Too heavy. No room for laughter.

Thoughtfully. Too narrow. Listening requires more that thoughts.

Zealously. Feels short-term. Zealots. Fanatics. They always give up or perish.

Untiringly. Idealistic. We all tire. I might even give up.

Carefully. Carefully almost feels right. Full of care. I’m closer.

Loudly. Sound touches everything in its path, and its path is a sphere. If something is done loudly, nothing escapes its influence. Scientists have boiled water with sound.

Loudly. Yes. I’ll listen loudly.

A hundred miles to the north and west, in another desert canyon, I have listened this way. Loudly. That narrow canyon was host to wrens and katydids and squirrels—all calling, chirping, chattering. But hiding in the back row of this disparate orchestra sat a timid percussionist, a tiny frog, softly tapping on a pair of congas, on my ear drums. He flattened his palms on the tightly stretched skins, and kept a slow, steady beat. Quiet. So I listened. Loudly.

I thought I would move closer to him. But he was shy, and he stopped when he knew my attention was entirely on him. I went back to my shaded rock and lay quietly. Listening. Loudly.

He began again. I didn’t move. The other sounds were still there: the descending call of the wren, the raspy chirp-chirp-chirp of the katydid, the chatter of the squirrel. But it was the frog I wanted to hear the most. So I listened loudly and didn’t move.

He found me and wasn’t afraid this time. He pulled the congas closer and began banging harder. Pounding away, until I could hear only him, until he knew I could hear nothing else.

The stars cast enough light in this canyon that I can see the giant tower of the Zoroaster Temple above us. I can see the black horizon of the south rim, six miles away. No more sounds come to us from that direction. No sounds come from any direction.

I need to sleep now. I need to rest. It’s ten o’clock. We’ll be up and on the trail in five hours—headlamps burning—long before the sun catches us away from water.

My son will be awake then.

He’ll have things to say. He may share something I don’t immediately understand. I might not grasp what he is trying to tell me. I’ll need all my energy to hear him—to make sure I understand him, to listen loudly.


26 comments on “Listening Loudly

  1. Christina on

    Taken aback by your piece. I really enjoyed reading through the different ways one can listen and appreciate how you ended up with loudly. Thanks for helping me be more attentive to how I listen to my daughters.

  2. Mark on

    God gave us two ears and one mouth so we can listen louder than we speak. Well written and thought provoking. A lesson in important irony.

  3. Pierre Ketele on

    I have read and re-read this several times. When I am at work and stressed out, I think of solitary places where I might hear something more important than what I am currently doing. Thanks for bringing my attention to a quiet place, where I can listen and hear.

  4. Maria Westerberg on

    I think you were listening with your whole heart and mind. We need more of those moments when we are not distracted by thoughts, technology and daily life. Sometimes we need to return to nature… to remeber who we are. Beautifully written, love it.


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