Unfolding the Map
The cosmic symphony comes alive in today's post, as William Least Heast-Moon passes by Sand Mountain, an enormous dune in the alkali flat desert of Nevada off Highway 50. Did you know a sand mountain can sing? Read on, and read about other types of sounds in our natural environment. To see where Sand Mountain is located, click on the map thumbnail, to your right, while you groove to the sounds of Earth, Wind and Fire (below).
"The argument whether or not Sand Mountain had crossed the highway made more sense when I saw the thing - a single massive mound of tawny sand, a wavy hump between two larger ridges of sage and rock. It was of such size that, while it wasn't perhaps big enough to be a mountain by everybody's definition, it was surely more than a dune. Nevadans once called it "Singing Sand Mountain" because of the pleasant hum in the blowing sands, but no one has heard the mountain since off-road vehicles from California took it over."
Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 10
Sand Mountain, Nevada
The existence of a "singing sand mountain" makes me feel strangely happy. I couldn't really put my finger on it at first, but I think I understand why. The sense that the earth "sings" is comforting for a number of reasons.
I have not stepped foot on Sand Mountain. Like LHM, I passed by it on Highway 50 at a distance. My wife and I noted that it was there, and I think that she read while we zipped by that it was a singing sand mountain. As a sand dune, it is subject to the elements and therefore, not only does it sing, it has probably moved to various places during its existence. This is alluded to when LHM stops in Frenchman and a person sitting near him at the counter mentions that Sand Mountain has moved across the highway. Knowing these facts about a natural feature almost begs us to give it some kind of anthropomorphic attributes. For a moment, I can get in touch with those primordial feelings that made our human ancestors worship geographical phenomena, like mountains and rivers, as actual gods, or manifestations of divinity on earth.
But there is more to it than that. I buy into the fact that humans affect the planet with our activities. I have no problem that we contribute to climate change through our release of chemical compounds into the atmosphere. I know that we affect the environment. Our endeavors have leveled mountains, and have created lakes where there once were rivers. The Three Gorges Dam in China, for example, concentrated so much water in one place that it had perceptible effects on the very rotation of the earth. We have remade landscapes to suit us. We have and continue to mow down forests. We create giant landfills to store our discarded items that will take thousands of years to decompose. Even now, pools of melted radioactive materials are sitting at the bottom of reactors in Japan after a tsunami hit them, and who knows how long it will be before humans can safely inhabit those areas again. We have left our calling cards in the world's highest and lowest places, and even on the moon.
And yet, a sand dune sings!
We know that people sing, and we hear songlike attributes in many animals. My dog sometimes trills in her excitment, and my other dog, gone now for about five years or so, used to howl when we hit notes, with our voices or with instruments, that resonated with him. Much has been made of the communicative songs of whales and other mammals in the ocean depths. Birds sing in communication, and insects use their legs and other parts of their bodies to create marvelous little rhythmic tunes. Once a seal, watching me curiously from the water with only it's head exposed, seemed to sing a little short tune at me before diving into the waves.
When I was much younger, I used to have an album by Stewart Copeland called The Rhythmatist, which was the music from his documentary of the same name. He had traveled through Africa, and was introduced to rocks called rock gongs. When struck, these rocks make sounds, some audible, others so low on the frequency scale that they can not be heard by human ears. One can always hit or strike things in nature to make a sound. A band from the Basque Country in Spain, Oreka Tx, has a documentary called Nömadak Tx that chronicles their music making adventures with other cultures around the world. In one part they make their native instrument, txalaparta, out of stone, in another part they makeone out of ice. As beautiful as the sounds of these instruments are, they need human help to make the sound. Natural sounds, made by nature through nature, are different.
Inanimate objects we don't often associate with singing, yet well placed crevices or cracks and a rush of wind or water can cause natural sounds that change with the rhythm of air or waves. As I grew up on the Northern California coast, I knew a number of spots where seawater, rushing into cracks along the rocky coastline, either pushed water or air through holes and created moaning or whistling sounds. These sounds were often crashing and mournful, as if some being had been locked up in the tides and was mourning the loss of her freedom.
Apparently atoms can make sounds. A couple of articles I found seems to indicate that atoms moving make a simple click sound as they move. Scientists observing atoms, if they do certain procedures, can create a sound which seems "heartbreaking."
In fact the entire earth, according to scientists, actually emits notes and tunes of power and complexity. the scientists don't know what causes these tunes, which are imperceptible to the human ear but which I have to believe have some impact upon us on a subconscious level. What might the earth be singing about? Is it singing in eternal joy? Is it communicating with its brothers and sisters in the solar system? Is it singing its loneliness in the cosmos?
But why stop there? Radio telescopes pick up the sounds of stars being born, stars dying, distant objects moving toward or away from us, and even sounds from the instant after the Big Bang. We are surrounded by the singing of the universe around us. Every moment, every happening, is accompanied by a movement of energy that can be converted into a sound if we choose to do so.
Is this the physical manifestion of what Dante called "the sweet symphony of Paradise?" Is this the seven perfect tones that Cicero believed held the universe together? These questions are beyond my ability to understand. I've always been drawn to music, and regardless of whether that music comes from the intellect of human musical genius, an animal communicating something to another, an earthly non-human source, or the cosmos, I am glad that a universal song is constantly playing. When I sing or make a note on an instrument, I too join that cosmic symphony and am connected with the universe.
And I'm comforted to know that after I am long gone, after humans have played out their journey in this universe, most likely somewhere, sand dunes will still be singing.
This song seems very appropriate for the musical interlude, given that it's a joyful song, advocates singing as healing, and was conceived by a band that takes its name from the elements. I must say that I really love Earth, Wind and Fire. Enjoy Sing a Song.
If you want to know more about Sand Mountain
Next up: Salt Wells, Nevada