In the Chihuahuan desert, no one would expect to hear what might be the most eerie sound of the watery forests, a bird more commonly known throughout the northern portions of the US. Especially a water bird. Yet I did, in disbelief.
I heard it the other morning, but I discounted it. ‘No way!,’ I thought. But I heard it again this morning. I know that wail like the blood that runs in my veins and my ears. It stirs deep inside like a wolf howl.
My childhood and most of my adulthood was spent in the northern regions in this country: Maine, New York, and Oregon. I know this sound, I know this bird. It is ingrained in my being like the beating of my heart.
Conversely, the common loon is very rare here in these parts of the desert. Water is scarce, and loons are an aquatic bird. The only documented reports of loons in this area are 1937 and 1988 (in Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio del Norte). Both were spotted on the Rio del Norte in the National Park. Another report of a loon spotting was in Boquillas Canyon a couple years ago.
It is amazing how (and even that it does) our ‘lizard brain’ responds to certain sounds. People usually don’t question man-made sounds, or sounds of a predator. They are typically associated with danger, pleasure, risk, etc, which is a plausible explanation. But a bird call that has no threat, instead eliciting a profound feeling of inate and inexplicable comfort and alliance is almost always casually dismissed by the scientific community.
There is one that could offer an explanation, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran*, who researches synesthesia and mirror neurons. He is one of the few scientists that ‘thinks outside the box.’ If the smell of rain is almost universally associated with the color green, and with pleasure, is it not possible that a bird call can elicit a profound psychological response other than fear?
At one point long ago, as a conventionally trained scientist I would have dismissed all this. Until a wonderful professor in my graduate biochemistry class impressed upon me once that we must at some point in our lives accept that sometimes there is no explanation for what we ‘know’. And ‘knowing’ is a dynamic process. It’s a journey, not a destination. For a chemist to tell me that, it altered they way I understand things. And it enhanced my life both as an individual and as a scientist in so many ways.
The loon call literally gives me goosebumps and, simultaneously, a surge of endorphins. It stirs inexplicable primitive feelings in which no words can explain. All I can do is close my eyes and become a part of the sound, the bird and it’s environment.
It’s a ‘Zen’ thing.
* V.S. Ramachandran is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Distinguished and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego. He is also Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. I highly recommend reading his book, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind and listening to his many podcasts on iTunes and elsewhere. He’s also a fantastic speaker with a great sense of humor.