It was the kind of May morning that inspires sonnets and songs. Blue defined by a cloudless sky and green so tender it unfurled in leaves like flags on a Sunday afternoon parade.

I remember feeling a bit nervous in the early morning hours. It was far too early for an exam. But there was no better time for the Ornithology class instructor to lead a class of yawning college students on a walk through the verdant forest.  It was by the best setting I had ever had an exam. On this morning we quietly stepped single file on a winding trail keeping our eye on the instructor. When he raised his hand and pointed towards a nearby or not-so-nearby bird singing it was our job to write down the identity of the bird on our numbered page. Twenty times he paused and we craned our necks and listened for any sign of a familiar solo. With each refrain, the instructor would raise his hand. That way we knew which bird out of the dawn chorus he wanted us to identify.

I took great pride in the fact that I identified all twenty of the birds correctly. In fact, I think I might have been the only one in the class to ID 100 percent of the birds by their songs.

Luckily for me I eventually landed a job where I could practice and hone my skills at identifying birds by their song. As a professional naturalist, I often lead bird hikes or taught some aspect of ornithology.

Then one day my world was rocked. A volunteer at the nature center paused, held up her hand, looked at me in an inquiring manner. “Tom,” she asked, “is that a blue gray gnatcatcher?”

I stopped to listen. . . and listen. . . .and listen.  I whispered, “Raise your hand when you hear it sing.” Every few seconds she raised her hand like a vertical metronome. I could not pick out the squeaky high-pitched notes of the gnatcatcher. Looking puzzled, I softly inquired, “Where?” She gave me an incredulous look and pointed directly overhead. Only then, by cupping my hand around my right ear, to create a mini-parabola to better gather the song, did I hear the whispering song. I nodded an affirmation that only felt partly satisfying. At that moment I knew I was losing some of my hearing.

The years passed and sadly the forests became quieter.  About 8 years ago I had my hearing checked by an audiologist. Sitting in the tiny, dark soundproof room with headphones on, I was instructed to click a button every time I heard any sound.

I remember the horrifying feeling when I experienced spans of silence that seemed far too long.

When I stepped out, the audiologist asked me, “Do you hunt?”

I nodded but added that I rarely shot a box or two shells during an entire hunting season. “And let me guess.” she added, “You shoot right handed.”  She was spot on. It turns out that my left ear, the one that is not tucked in tight to my right shoulder, but instead is out in the open receiving the full retort of the explosive blast. A steady diet of audio abuse has whittled away my ability to hear high frequency sounds, like the songs of a gnatcatcher or a blackpoll warbler.

The damage had likely been done when as a teen my buddies and I would numerous boxes of shotgun shells as we shot clay pigeons every weekend. To add to the breakdown, I worked ten-hour days during summers worked at a manufacturing plant. Standing between a bevy of gigantic presses that crashed and shook the building likely did not help my hearing. Sadly in those days, no hearing protection was even offered to the workers.

I asked her if I need hearing aids. She held up her hand and wobbled it, telling me that I was on the edge. I could go either way.

Eight years have passed and it should be no surprise that my hearing has not improved.  I’m overdue on catching the annual bird symphonies and I look forward to hearing the love songs of blue-gray gnatcatchers, blackpoll warblers, brown creepers and vesper sparrows.

Soon my wife, Nancy, and I will be joining my daughter and her husband in Peru. After trekking a few days to Machu Picchu, we will board a plane for a two-hour flight; take a half-day boat trip to a Peruvian research center in the Amazonian rainforest. We will be there for about a week in which I hope to reacquaint myself with a few of Peru’s roughly 1800 species of birds. It’s been about twenty years ago when I had the opportunity to spy on scarlet macaws, big beaked toucans, outrageously colored tanagers and catch the song of the musician wren.  However, if I am to discern the various bird songs, I need a hearing boost.

I can honestly say that it is the long, haunting song of the musician wren that is prodding me to bite the bullet and purchase my first pair of hearing aids.

So this past week, I had my hearing test again.  The young lady who tested me looked over the information sheets I filled out in the reception room. Upon reading of my career, she perked up. “Oh I see you were a naturist at a nature center.”

“Yes,” I responded with a smile, “and I still practice it often in the privacy of my home.” She looked a bit puzzled and I covered her by apologizing for my penmanship and informed her that I was a professional naturalist rather than a professional naturist. “Naturist is just another way to describe a nudist.”

She laughed into her hand and apologized. No problem. I’m also a naturist in the privacy of my home but I don’t get paid for it.” At any rate it was a good icebreaker for my hearing test.

Tomorrow morning I pick up the hearing aids that will be programmed for my hearing deficiencies. Vanity be damned! Who cares?  I eased into my current Baby Boomer chapter with a pair of cheater magnifying eyeglasses about half a dozen years ago so this is simply another faze of my life were cheating is totally expected.

I can’t wait to wander under giant Ceiba trees tethered by braided climbing vines. It will be Christmas morning all over again when I spy sensual orchids  and  smile at the swooping, lazy flight of a giant blue morpho butterfly. And I will find heaven on earth when I dial my hearing aids into “musician wren.”












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