Sound and Scene

Diane Ackerman, writing about the mysteries of bat echolocation in The Moon By Whale Light, says this:

It’s not hard to understand echolocation if you picture bats calling or whistling to their prey with a steady stream of high frequency clicks. For most of us, their vocal braille is too high to hear. At our best and youngest, we might hear sounds of twenty thousand vibrations a second; but bats click at up to two hundred thousand.

And this:

Many can detect the movement of a moth flexing its wings as it sits on a leaf. As the bat closes in it may click faster in order to pinpoint its prey. And there’s a qualitative difference between the steady, solid echos bouncing off a brick wall and the light, fluid echo of a swaying flower. By shouting at the world, and listening to the echoes, bats can compose a picture of their landscape and the object in it that includes texture, motion, distance, size and probably other features, too. They shout very loudly; we just cannot hear them.

When I am scurrying my way through a draft, I cannot often the sounds. Visual imagery comes easily. Auditory snatches feel elusive and faint, as if I have not yet tuned in to the story I’m trying to tell. It’s all part of the deal, returning many times to the story until I begin to hear not just the characters but the sounds of the places through which they move. And then many more leaps until the whole thing comes together, sound and setting and characters all one, moving forward in rhythm, nothing out of tune. Well, that’s the aim, anyway.

Randall Jarrell’s immortal The Bat-Poet is one of those books I return to when I want to get the feel of a small character in a deeply personal setting, all of it filled with heart:

The bat had always heard the Mockingbird. The mockingbird would sit on the highest branch of a tree, in the moonlight and sing half the night. About love to listen to him. He could imitate all the other birds – he’s even imitate the way the squirrels shattered when they were angry, like two rocks being knocked together; and he could imitate the milk bottles being put down on the porch and the barn door closing, a long rusty squeak.

There. Mystery, reality, wonder, all of a piece.

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