“Brilliant! I read it as a stylistically sly and wonderfully evocative poem. A riot for the senses.” —Beeg Srahka, recording artist
“This is remarkable . . . I’ve sometimes thought I have seen or been in the presence of unicorns, but now I have the skills to actually seek them out! What a revelation. My favourite parts were ‘Practice keeping an ear out for . . . an improbable tinkling of wind chimes . . . [and] a flatted fifth from an uninvited trombone’ from Chapter 1.” —Jesta Flash, “The Temple of Sublime Truth”
“Today’s reading for the slightly off-center gardener . . . You wouldn’t want to miss knowing you had a unicorn in your garden simply because you weren’t listening.” —“The Random Yak”
“One-of-a-kind. ‘Innocent appearing’ sputtering wit and sense of absurdity. The ‘Field Guide’ is a wonderful gift. Its subject is perfect. Everyone loves unicorns; they are acutely sympatico and don’t age. A hundred years from now, the book will be just as funny.” —Julie von der Ropp, graphic designer
“4 Stars. Whimsical, silly and strangely touching, this short illustrated handbook is replete with ‘accounts’ from literature about unicorns through history, and offers readers a comprehensive (and often contradictory) guide to spotting them. It’s breezy, and rarely failed to put a smile on my face.” —Thomas Hale
“A very lovely book to own and keep forever.” —Miss Grayson
“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
“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 such 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 remapping 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 a companion compact disc with four tracks of listening exercises set in a sylvan soundscape.” —Clint Marsh for The Pamphleteer
“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.” —Jeff Hawkins
A rustle of leaves in the breeze. A subtle creaking of tree branches. (An eerie whinny?) A humming of insects. A chirping of songbirds. (A soft clomping of hooves?)
Though they “aren’t as rare as you might think,” unicorns, like other retiring creatures of the forest, are often shrouded by their habitat. 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? Truth be told, far more unicorn herds are heard than are ever seen. Out of the gleeful chorus of wilderness creatures, the simplest way to pinpoint an elusive unicorn is to listen for its song.
Here’s a secret: expert unicorn spotters can “see” more unicorns, 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 unicorns make. As you concentrate with eyes closed and mind focused, you may detect the telltale song of the unicorn, 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 a unicorn requires time, patience, and “deep listening” skill on the part of the human, and vocal projection on the part of the unicorn. 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.
This compact yet comprehensive guide will help you to identify the various calls of the mysterious unicorn as it frolics in its natural environment. Along the way, you will become better acquainted with unicorns’ habits, eccentricities, antics, attitudes, and manners. Before you know it, encountering unicorns will become second nature to you, and you will have collected a treasure-trove of observations, anecdotes, snapshots, sketches, and memories for your unicorn scrapbook!
A few preliminary listening tips are in order:
Sit for a spell. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no need to wear camouflage or to hide, at least as far as the unicorn is concerned. (If, however, you feel more comfortable wearing camouflage or hiding, you may do so without ill effect.) If you are still, relaxed, and “at one with nature,” the typical unicorn won’t be frightened. Find a comfortable place, such as under a tree, and allow yourself to “tune in” to the environment. After a few minutes, you’ll notice a marked refinement in your hearing—you’ll pick up on subtle auditory changes.
Since the human field of vision is less than 180°, there are great odds that a unicorn will approach from one of your many blind spots. Close your eyes and practice being aware of sounds coming from different directions, especially from behind you. One of the advantages of hearing over sight is that our ears offer a 360° scope.
Birdsong will likely be prominent in the soundscape, so practice listening beyond it to more subtle noises. Undue attention to birds when listening for unicorns is the sensory equivalent of overindulging in hors d’oeuvres and thereby spoiling one’s appetite for dinner.
Experiment with listening at different times of day, as unicorns can have unpredictable schedules. Sunset and midnight are recommended listening times. So is the break of dawn:
The sounds of the unicorns rose from the canyon below them as the first signs of the new day appeared in the sky. (Walter Dean Myers, Shadow of the Red Moon, 1997)
Listen for sudden changes in the sounds that come—or fail to come—from conventional animals. An animal’s alarm call might warn of a predator, while celebratory sounds, noncommittal murmurings, or eerie silence might signal the presence of a unicorn. Chapter One explores environmental changes in detail. Without further ado, let the adventure begin!