Prof. Oddfellow goes into the field (in this case, an icy lake freezing around his precarious canoe) to listen for unicorns. Join the adventure on YouTube
or the superior Vimeo
The next morning, only the canoe's wake remains unfrozen (see bottom photo).
Discover Oddfellow's surprising tools for luring unicorns.
[We have rescued this article from limbo. It was set to appear in a Norwegian art and literary magazine back in 2009. The magazine, like so many unicorns before it, seemed to dematerialize as quickly as it appeared. Fans of our Field Guide to Identifying Unicorns by Sound
will hear some familiar echoes of our research. Continued whispered thanks to Jonathan Caws-Elwitt
for his refinement(s).]
Hoofbeats in a Snowball:Field Notes from a Cryptozoologist
by Craig Conley
Freshly fallen snow can actually store the sounds of unsubstantiated wildlife as well as project them with clarity. A carefully gathered snowball is like a library of sounds stored on crystalline shelves. When held to the ear like a seashell, it may whisper the mythic secrets it has absorbed. Ergo, composer and music theorist John Rahn describes "a little snowball of sounds” (Perspectives on Musical Aesthetics
, 1995). Snow expert Nancy Armstrong explains that "When snow is newly fallen, sound waves are absorbed into its soft surface. Later, when the surface has hardened, sounds may travel further and sound clearer, because the snow reflects sound waves, sending them more quickly through the air” (Snowman in a Box
, 2002). Barbara Blair concurs: "snow is a wonderful substance to enhance awareness” (Communing with the Infinite
Here’s a secret: cryptozoologists can "see” more disputed wildlife, per capita, with their eyelids shut than the average person can see with eyes wide open. That’s because they have an intimate friendship with the sounds unsubstantiated creatures make. As you concentrate with eyes closed and mind focused, you may detect the telltale song of the unicorn, for example, announcing the presence of the venerable creature and beckoning you to begin your quest. When you open your eyes, the unicorn may not be immediately visible, but you’ll know where to start looking.
Hearing disputed wildlife requires time, patience, and "deep listening” skill on the part of the human, and vocal projection on the part of the animal. Because we live in a highly visual world, we rarely exercise the full range of our hearing. Yet our ears can detect things that our eyes automatically neglect. By listening as opposed to looking, we can avoid overlooking. Practice can be richly rewarding, whether one is listening for unicorns in particular or neglected delights in general.
Wintry days are excellent for listening practice. Wisps of glittering snowflakes gently falling to earth—that faint sound is subtle but by no means imperceptible. The key is to distinguish it from total silence. Barbara Wright explains: "the lovely sound of snowfall” is "no sound at all, really, but neither [is] it silence” (Plain Language
, 2003). Sandra Meek agrees, but adds an intriguing qualifier: "No sound for snow, no definition of ice. The unsaid among shuttered wings” (Nomadic Foundations
, 2002). Without question, unsaid utterances can resound in the silence between two beings. Perhaps they are unspeakable. Perhaps they are ineffable. In any case, they spiral, grow, and ring in our ears. As Mary Summer Rain has noted, deep silence intensifies the sound of falling snow (Soul Sounds
The delicately complex sound of snowflakes can connote anything from serenity to ominousness, depending upon the unsubstantiated wildlife’s intentions. Donna Andrews records "the eerie, muffled sound” of snow (You’ve Got Murder
, 2002), while Judith Hendricks offers a more endearing description of "the soft, purring sound of snowfall, like a big cat.” She adds, in parentheses, "Yes, there is a sound, but you can only hear it in absolute silence” (The Baker’s Apprentice
, 2005). Indeed, according to professional sound designers Deena Kaye and James LeBrecht (Sound and Music for Theatre
, 1999), the sound of snow has a broad range:
It should come as no surprise that unicorns make a sound like falling snow, for snowflake crystals and unicorns share many characteristics:
- no two alike
- sparkly white in color (having absorbed all of the surrounding sunlight or moonlight)
- difficult to predict
- symbols of purity
- natural materializations
- symbols of innocence
- can be dangerous at times
- symbols of serenity
- excellent insulators
- blend into the landscape
The suggestive sound of snow can also be:
- divinely musical
- like a whimpering specter
- like sieved flour
- like spilling sugar
- gently caressing
- faintly ticking
- softly sputtering
If not distorted by foliage, a gust of wind might carry fragrances from afar, winged seeds, the moans of trees, echoes of laughter and distant whistles, the howls of storms, sudden chills, the invocations printed on prayer flags, and the sounds of a gamboling unicorn. It is common knowledge that unicorn sound waves can be better detected downwind of the beast than upwind. But why is that, considering the fact that wind velocities are a mere fraction of the speed of sound (750 miles per hour)? The phenomenon may derive from wind shears deflecting sound waves either downward (more toward the listener) or upward (away from earshot). Naturally, if a unicorn sound is carried by the wind, the source of that sound will be upwind (opposite the direction of the gust). In the case of whirlwinds, anything goes.
Beautiful to the human ear, rustling sounds are typically caused by stealthy movements and rubbing. Rustling sounds are various in tone:
- brushing, like a broom sweeping away cobwebs
- hissing, like a fierce whisper
- soft and muffled, like a blanket or thick rug
- crackling, like leaves or dry grass, or kindling catching fire
- fluttering, like the wings of frightened birds
- crumpling, like a scattering of parchment on a composer’s cluttered piano, or someone stepping on a paper doll
- brief and slight, like toffee wrappers
- scraping, like razors on skin
- popping, like static electricity
- prolonged whooshing, like blowing air into a balloon
- sputtering, like steam from a leaky boiler
- sighing, like sand slipping through one’s fingers
- heavy, like the pages of the Sunday newspaper
- waxen, like the unwrapping of a sandwich
The ruffling sounds of a unicorn are reminiscent of:
- the feathers of a settling peacock
- a pillow being fluffed
- riffling through the pages of an enormous dictionary
- the rippling of a boat’s sail
- the gentle shoveling of fresh popcorn into a bucket
- a breeze whispering through leafy treetops or a field of grass on a mild summer’s day
- a pigeon fidgeting on a windowsill
- a bedsheet being shaken
- a curtain being pulled back
- unfurling scrolls of small waves
The ethereal, magical voice of a unicorn tends to unfold like a flower captured by time-lapse photography, its sweet melody swirling around the listener like a beautiful fragrance. It can also sound like:
- crumpled silk
- an expression of gratitude
- a soft, primitive incantation
- humming high-tension wires
- an otherworldly harp
- a menu item that is unavailable this evening
- a stone dropping into a quiet pool
- dream-like remembrances
- an entire forest of songbirds
- the ringing of a crystal bowl
- a pinwheel
- a stereo that has been powered up but on which nothing is being played
Bear in mind that the signature "distant” sound may not indicate physical remoteness. The ethereal, unworldly nature of the unicorn gives its voice a decidedly far-off quality. Think of it as a "special effect.” The exotic reverberations evoke bygone eras, distant memories, faraway lands, remote connections, out-of-print books, and reserved feelings. Our ears pick up on that detachment and our brains try to account for it, "interpreting” it as coming from far away. Be aware that a seemingly distant chiming could indicate a unicorn right around the corner or even close enough to touch.
To sensitize your brain to notice unicorn sounds, take special notice of silence, which is available locally in many areas. Focus on the spaces between sounds. Here are some things to practice listening for, as suggested by New Zealand naturalist Pete McGregor in "Sounds and Silence” (2006):
- a fumbling and buzzing bumble bee settling onto a blue clothes peg
- a lone swallow swooping past without a sound
- the soft rattle of cabbage tree leaves ceasing when the wind dies down
- a far-off airplane flying behind the clouds
- the soft rustle of long grass dislodging the weight of old rain, then resuming quiet contentment
- a bird singing silence (some notes and phrases are beyond our range of hearing)
Be aware that listening to silence can be a profound experience. Silence takes us beyond the ordinary. In "The Sound of Silence” (2003), Thomas Váczy Hightower recalls his first encounter with silence: "Standing by the inland ice, I heard for the first time the sound of silence. It nearly struck me to the ground, so strong was the pressure.”
Natural unicorn quietude is a wondrous thing. But an unnatural hush has come over unicorn populations around the world. A "culture of silence” disseminates the misinformation that unicorns don’t exist, thereby perpetuating a vicious cycle. Something natural goes into hiding, essentially becoming invisible. Unicorns’ needs are hidden and go unrecognized, thus perpetuating poor public policy and fueling the culture of silence.
"If we can all think about unicorns in this world, then anything is possible."
—Camomile Hixon, explaining why she hung 2,000 "Missing Unicorn" posters all around New York City. Read all about it here
In this passage, two detective monks exploring a labyrinthine library encounter a book about unicorns in what amounts to the "Fiction" section:
"But why have they also put a book with the unicorn among the falsehoods?" I asked.
"Obviously the founders of the library had strange ideas. They must have believed that this book which speaks of fantastic animals and beasts living in distant lands was part of the catalogue of falsehoods spread by the infidels...."
"But is the unicorn a falsehood? It's the sweetest of animals and a noble symbol. It stands for Christ, and for chastity; it can be captured only by setting a virgin the forest, so that the animal, catching her most chaste odor, will go and lay its head in her lap, offering itself as prey to the hunters' snares."
"So it is said, Adso. But many tend to believe that it's a fable, an invention of the pagans."
"What a disappointment," I said. "I would have liked to encounter one, crossing a wood. Otherwise what's the pleasure of crossing a wood?"
. . .
"But console yourself, they exist in these books, which, if they do not speak of real existence, speak of possible existence."
—Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Clint Marsh, author of The Mentalist's Handbook
, shares his lovely review of our unicorn field guide
. We've bolded our favorite bits:
Craig Conley is a true Renaissance man of the modern era, diving headfirst into comprehensive, open-minded study of realms obscured or merely obscure
. A voracious researcher, he possesses both the focus required to compile book-length arcana on a given topic and the objectiveness to consider sources other scholars might ignore
. It is precisely this tendency to "overlook" that forms the basis for Conley's Field Guide
. As he states in the book's introduction, "Because we live in a highly visual world, we rarely exercise the full range of our hearing. Yet our ears can detect things that our eyes automatically reject. By listening as opposed to looking, we can avoid overlooking. Practice can be richly rewarding, whether one is listening for unicorns in particular or neglected delights in general." And so Conley mines the known literature on unicorns, nobly eschewing distinctions between historical accounts, fantasy novels, and instances of metaphor,
organizing the brief excerpts and other tidbits found into 51 short lessons in the art of "deep listening" necessary to perceive the fabulous beasts. Soundwave diagrams impart insight into audible tendencies of the unicorn as rustling, laughter, mimicry of orchestral instruments, soft nickering, cries of ruin, and the creature's alarm "sneeze." More complex diagrams contribute to the mapping of the once well-maintained highways between magic and science
, illuminating such correspondences as the Fibonacci Spiral with the shape of the outer ear and the comparative curl of the unicorn's horn with that of the human cochlea. Conley also offers an companion compact disc with four tracks of listening exercises set in a sylvan soundscape. Narrator Michael Warwick guides the listener through the first half of the CD, then departs, leaving only the birdsong and delicate, layered crackle and murmur of the forest and whatever one might discover there. This book and recording are fine works of practical esoterica. Highly recommended.
New on Kindle: our Field Guide to Identifying Unicorns by Sound
Also of note: in Robert Altman's Images
, a children's book within the film likens the voice of a unicorn to the song of a butterfly: "Straight past his nose zoomed seven enormous butterflies, with eyes like stars and bright blue wings, and each one was humming. And then Hero started to tremble, for it seemed to be him who was humming—not with his usual tuneless hum but a butterfly's humming, just as if one had flown down his throat."
Robert Altman's Images
concerns a story about unicorns.
Thanks to the Daily Unicorn
for this review of our field guide
This is an *essential* guide to Unicorn identification. It is an ancient historical manuscript, containing lore passed down through the ages by Unicorn scholars, Unicornologists, and various wizards. Highly recommended reading.
The Daily Unicorn
followed up with us:
Haha, glad to see you noticed; the guide is easily one of the most entertaining things I've ever read, and the tone is perfect for the kind of blog I run. Keep up the good work.
The artist Marti McGinnis
took our Field Guide to Identifying Unicorns by Sound
into the wild and shares how her adventure led into sculpted depths of Kentucky limestone:
In his book . . . writer and renowned unicorn researcher, Craig Conley describes places to search for these mythic creatures and ways to do so. This is a practical handbook that draws liberally from literature and other written sources to illustrate its points. . . . Yesterday I set out to collect an experience of listening for unicorns accompanied by a willing, limber horsewoman and opti-mystic (one who believes in miracles). Our path took to a limb and leaf strewn, moss frosted hill down to a lively flow of water that has painstakingly and persistently carved the layers upon layers of hardened Kentucky limestone into hundreds, even thousands, of the most beautifully sculpted fairy landscaping vignettes the eye and mind can ever hope to behold.
show a place located between the pasture I see every day when I look out the window over my kitchen sink and the rise just beyond. It may have been there since the day I moved here six years ago. Is it odd I just discovered it? Not really, I just started looking.
Unicorns live in places usually described as being so impossible to conceive of let alone view from one’s usual vantage they become not just invisible, but non-existent. In the field of equine advocacy right now there is a dichotomy of thought so rife with conflict, so infused with righteous and conflictual fervor it is hard to imagine any common ground.
That it does exist is without question to the Opti-Mystic. It is beautiful, stable and teaming with unicorns. Right now both sides claim that no such place does nor even can exist and for them in this moment this is quite true. But some of us are quite aware that just because they can’t see, feel, taste, hear or otherwise perceive this place conventionally right now doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and doesn’t likewise mean they are unable to do so ever. All it means is they haven’t ventured out beyond their typical boundaries to have a look or a listen.
We're particularly delighted by Marti's conclusion:
As I search for unicorns I find I am surrounded by leagues of the creatures. Sparkly, ice-white, speckled starry night apaloosaed. Minuscule and humongous. Breezy and cheesy. They nicker and whicker at me using windchimed breezes, and baby step agreements from yin yang parties always encouraging me to live in the land of positive outcome. As though it exists. And dang if it does after all. Without exception.
Read the entire illustrated adventure here.
"Nothing is harder, yet nothing is more necessary, than to speak of certain things whose existence is neither demonstrable nor probable. The very fact that serious and conscientious men treat them as existing things
brings them a step closer to existence and to the possibility of being born."
—Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game
, translated by Richard & Clara Winston
Hermann Hesse, via.
shares this unicorn-related word:
a.) Made of or like ivory.*
[Origin: From Latin eburneus meaning "ivory." ]
*The horn of the unicorn, though typically considered to be eburnean (probably due to its association in the Middle Ages with the tusk of the narwhal), was originally described as red, white, and black by Ctesias (the origin of which most likely lies in its significance as an ancient calender symbol).
Jonathan Caws-Elwitt quips:
Q. What's black and white and red all over?
U. My horn!
Thanks for eburnean!
"the single horn of the exclamation mark, the shadow of a unicorn surmounted by its long eburnean shadow, a distant comet and its swart trail."
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