Animals drawn from memory (apparently), from Bibliophile
(1908). The caption reads: "Hec animalia sunt veraciter depicta sicut vidimus in terra sancta."
Unicorn Sonnet, by Gary Barwin
I send you this email. I am no unicorn. You ask the number of my horns. A hundred? A thousand? Perhaps they are uncountable, considering body surface area and thickness. Needle-like, perhaps they mirror flesh in slivers, a silver aura of pixels or data points, a fiber optic network of breath or light. Perhaps they are beams sent from the cemeteries of distant stars, or broad as trees, root you to the ground while reaching toward a rhizomatic sun.
I reply: No, I have no horn. Unscrewed from my forehead, I keep it in my desk at work, my mother, father, sister, son. Springtime a shopping cart or unicorn, moving air and light in its chrome matrix. Soft familiar music from everywhere, winter, its white pelt & warm skin now also in a desk. I am no unicorn, but send this email. I am a spammer of friends and of feelings that bud like sticky leaves now unfolding.
To paraphrase José Ortega Y Gasset
, when we hear a unicorn
, it is the unicorn that is present and evident, not our hearing it. We do not hear our hearing when we are listening. In order to realize that there is such a thing as our hearing, we have to stop listening and remember that a moment ago we were hearing. We hear our hearing when we are outside it, when it is not immediate to us, when the reality with which it had to do -- hearing the unicorn -- is reality no longer, but rather we are in another reality which we call 'remembering a past event': recalling that we heard a unicorn. To those who think that unicorns are not real, we reply that what we think is never reality; a thought doesn't and can't think itself -- a thought, far from being fundamental reality, is no more than an invention -- something hypothetical or theoretical. To truly know unicorns, it is necessary to subtract all of that which has been thought, to realize that the reality of unicorns is always different from that which is thought. In a nutshell, the pre-intellectual executive act consists in the coexistence of oneself with unicorns.
If we had to choose but one shop to carry our whimsical field guide to identifying unicorns by sound
, it would be Castle in the Air
in Berkeley, California. Imagine our delight to hear that our book is back in stock there, and that folks have been "pawing through it, gleaning its wisdom." [Thanks, Clint
Speaking of castles in the air, we spotted the immaterial tower below within the world of Google Maps. This castle "exists" in the town of Warwick, England. But get this: we spent so much quality time bi-locating to England that Google defaulted our browser to the U.K. version. No kidding: we're automatically redirected to Google.co.uk, even when we explicitly type "google.com." Can't make this stuff up.
Followers of our unicorn research
might be intrigued by our latest collaboration with the living legend of magic and mentalism, Kenton Knepper
. We developed a novel system for determining how one's personality type aligns with nine historical unicorns. We also include another world exclusive: a system for identifying one's totem mythological hybrid beastie. Secret symbolism, shamanism, mythology and psychology — it's all part of what we call Myth Logic Readings
Though we have raised the price of our field guide to identifying unicorns by sound
so as to discourage the general public from seeing its contents, exceptional people are reviewing it. This review is by someone who previously reviewed only two other items at Amazon: a window fan and a Wi-Fi connector of some sort:
I've always been inclined to assume that I have never seen a unicorn, but I hadn't even finished reading the introduction when my assumption was challenged by a simple question: "How many bird watchers have spied a warbler perched upon a tapered branch, never dreaming that the selfsame branch is, in actuality, a unicorn's horn?"
It's a problem. Vision is an unreliable tool under the best conditions, and as the author points out, "there are great odds that a unicorn will approach from one of your many blind spots." This, of course, to remind us that the most troublesome blind spot of all — in the center of our field of vision, where the optic nerve is connected — is filled in by the brain. Thus, the mind that rejects the existence of unicorns is unlikely to fill that empty optical space with a unicorn.
This leaves sound as the only reliable ally. More than a collection of unicorn-sound waveforms and beyond its value as a compendium of unicorn knowledge, the book calls on us to stare with our ears, as Ken Nordine intended.
"My unicorn can whisper strange things when I want him to, and sometimes when I don’t." —Larry Niven, as quoted in A Field Guide to Identifying Unicorns by Sound
to receive, in spite of an omission of biblical proportions, a five-star review of our unicorn field guide
The book is nothing if not thorough in reproducing what seems to be everything ever said anywhere in literature pertaining to the sounds made by unicorns. Listening for all of these will charge your humdrum, everyday reality with magic, or at least give it some zip. Conley's omission of the many references to the unicorn in the King James Bible, however, is a puzzler (see Nu 23:22; 24:8; Dt 33:17; Job 39: 9-12; Pss 22:21; 29:6; 92:10; Isa 34:7). Surely Conley knows that fundamentalist champions of the KJV in their millions would find themselves theologically bound to agree with him in presuming the existence of unicorns. Was this deliberate? And if so, was the omission a contemptuous snub or a gesture of respect? I'm almost tempted to deduct a star, but I'm going to take this as a refusal to divide his audience by religion, seeing as how fundamentalist bashers are at least as vocal and nasty as the worst of their targets, and it would be difficult to hear even the clumsiest unicorn over the cantankerous clatter that could result. —Dan Olson
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
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Original Content Copyright © 2014 by Craig Conley. All rights reserved.