SONG WITHOUT WORDS
The most important attribute of hearing aids is not—for me and I suspect for countless others—their gift of words and simpler lyricals, but their evocation of what so enchanted Kenneth Grahame’s Rat—the thin, clear, happy call of the wind in the willows. Though speech needs to be heard with precision and is made only a louder blur by hearing aids, they can unanchor from the depths of memory the sounds of earlier times—in my case, of early childhood.
When I turned them on during weekend visits to Main Harbor, the birds reappeared—not the one or two that for years appeared among the locusts, a crow in a tree or a seagull—but dozens, flocks of heavenly songs I had not heard since early Main Harbor, waxwings out of the shadows and skylarks over the shoreline. The amplified waves of cochlear fluids restored the ocean waves on rocks and sand, the rattling of pebbles down the beach with the retreating tide, rainfall on rooftops, and the wind, blowing through trees, or through willows when I was close to its clear happy call. My own footsteps were reborn, steps on a floor or court, or brushed across a rug, as were the nearby paces of a dog on a pavement. Silent rivers, the Housatonic in Connecticut in summer, the Arlberg in the Tyrol in the winter, now had voices—their own. And everywhere I went I reveled in the sound of a stream falling into still water.
Crickets had once filled each summer at Main Harbor until they died that seventh year. During the first August I wore hearing aids, just after returning from mop as facts, pie-lines, and bartered bankers, I rented a weekend house in Dutchess County, about two hours up the Taconic Parkway from New York City. Millbrook is very much in the country, and the house lay in the hollow of a two-hundred-acre bowl of fields you could survey from a large backyard bounded by low hedges. My first Friday evening I made myself a gin and tonic and went out back to sit on a bench alone. I was wearing the hearing aids with the switches off. There wasn’t a soul for miles. All I could hear was the buzz of the locusts in my head.
As I looked out over the waves of tall grass, I felt suddenly not alone. At first I thought it was the silent swaying of the grass in the wind, the breathless hush of evening that lingers on the brink of . . . I turned on the glasses. In a fraction of an instant,the fields came alive with crickets. Not one or two or ten or twenty crickets, but thousands upon thousands of them, with the glorious high-pitched trill of their wings, silencing my locusts. The chorus came from everywhere—north, south, east, west—stretching in from over the hills and fields and pouring into my electrified ears. I turned around in circles to hear it, a melody more hypnotizing even than Puccini’s, coming from every direction. The hearing aids were reaching out to the orthoptera, real ones this time, crickets running the bows of their upper wings along the strings of the lower and amplifying the sound with the membranes along their surface as faithfully as the spruce and maple of a violin’s hourglass.
I had not heard them since before the scarlet fever, and when I turned the hearing aids off, I became, suddenly, deafer again to them than the female cricket who, though deaf, has an olfactory sense that detects her lover when he lifts his wings. I turned the hearing aids on and off: from noise without and silence within to noise within and silence without, and back again. Thousands of real lives, out there in the field, restoring a distant past and raising a new present, born of the displacement of molecules in the air bearing those and other sounds that gentle Rat could hear and Beethoven could not. The birds, the rainfall, the footsteps, the breaths, the water, the crickets, the merry bubble and joy of my life as a young child.
The wind in the willows comes to us also in the form of music. Hearing aids didn’t change my own voice, spoken or sung, other than to make it sound, to me, as if I were speaking or singing in a hollow tunnel or into a microphone because of the electric character of the signal. Nor did they alter the sound of lower-pitched musical instruments—the bass fiddles, cellos, oboes, drums, or low brasses of an orchestra—other than to make them louder. But they did bring with them the violins, flutes, piccolos, and upper strings of piano and harp, making whole what had been half-orchestras and introducing concertos, symphonies, and operas (except for the lyrics, unreachable lyricals) as completed musical compositions. The effect is spellbinding. The silent violins in overtures become audible; human voices appear in Wagner; sopranos, mezzos, and tenors come to life; bass fiddles and cellos playing harmonics or in counterpoint are relegated to their supporting roles as they lose the melody to the violins and flutes. Peter rivals the Wolf in Prokofiev, and here, too, I become a child again, as my long confusion is spiritually unraveled by returning, unrepentant, splendrous sounds.