Thursday, April 19, 2007

Aeolian Sands

[Links to sound files have been repaired.]

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let them say among the nations, "The LORD reigns!"
Let the sea resound, and all that is in it;
let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them!
Then the trees of the forest will sing,
they will sing for joy before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
1 Chronicles 16:31-33

If David emerged from the abyss of 3000 years, how would he and his psalm of thanks fare today? He describes the sublime, still within reach (for the moment). But even in these hills, nothing’s easier than to tune it out completely. Jubilant fields? Trees singing for joy? What’s THAT got to do with making and spending money?

It’s easy to give up on the prospect of seeing the unseen or hearing the unheard. But on some level, people are hungry to see and hear these mysteries…

The wind got me thinking about this. The wind howled the other night. It roared like it almost never roars. All night. I’d already been recollecting aeolian harps. Once, I’d thought, they were archaic instruments lost to the past. But now I see where artisans are creating contemporary aeolian harps, rather magnificent works. Somewhere on this planet at this very moment, an aeolian harp is singing out, brushed by the wind.

David tells us in an ancient midrash that his harp sometimes began to sound: "Other kings slumber soundly through the entire night and are wakened up by the sunrise's rays of light; but I wake up at dawn. My harp is standing over my bed. At midnight the north wind, blowing through my chambers, causes the harp to sound by itself. These sounds awaken me and I spend the rest of the night singing psalms and hymns to praise God."

In the 18th and 19th centuries it was custom in Germany to place aeolian harps at caverns and parks and fallen castles. Goethe must have heard these harps when he wrote:
And I am seized by a long forgotten yearning
For that kingdom of spirits, still and grave;
To flowing song I see my feelings turning,
As from aeolian harps, wave upon wave;
A shudder grips me, tear on tear falls burning,
Soft feels my heart, once so severe and brave;
What I possess, seems far away to me,
And what is gone becomes reality.

There’s another sound heard in 35 deserts around the world. It’s been compared with distant kettle drums, artillery fire, thunder, low-flying propeller aircraft, bass violins, pipe organs and humming telegraph wires. In the 13th century Marco Polo blamed evil desert spirits for the singing sands of the Sahara, which "at times fill the air with the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments, and also of drums and the clash of arms."

University of Paris researcher Bruno Andreotti went to Morocco to record the mysterious natural music. Given the right conditions of heat and dryness, long crescent shaped sand dunes generate eerie low frequency sounds when closely packed sand grains slide over each other, like an avalanche down the slip face of a dune. Stationary sand underneath acts as a giant sounding board or amplifier to produce the enormous volume of sound. Seen under a microscope, the sand is more rounded and finely polished than ordinary sand.

An example of the "booming sands" is heard in this sound recording made at Sand Mountain, Nevada. The last minute of this 2 ½ minute recording is the clearest part of the track, the sound of billions of sand particles rolling down the dunes.

Leaving the singing sands of the deserts, some people claim to have HEARD the Northern Lights. However, highly sensitive microphones have been unable to detect the sound.
But a magnetometer hooked up to a recorder left this record of variations in the magnetic field caused by incoming solar particles. Listen to the sound generated from the magnetometer at Andøya Rocket Range
[And for an impressive assemblage of arcane knowledge of an obscure subject, see Flowers in Ultraviolet Arranged by Plant Family, Photography by Bjørn Rørslett/NN."]
We’re constantly bombarded with radio waves, and I wonder how this must affect humans and other organisms that have had virtually no time to adapt (on an evolutionary scale). So it doesn’t surprise me to read a news story like the one released this week, suggesting that cell phones and other high-tech devices are emitting signals that are disrupting the bees’ mysterious navigational capabilities. This might explain colony collapse disorder and the abrupt disappearance of bees to pollinate crops. According to the report in The Independent, Dr George Carlo headed a massive study by the US government and mobile phone industry of hazards from mobiles in the 1990s, and said: "I am convinced the possibility is real."

I am convinced that a lot of possibilities are real. Spring flowers basking in ultraviolet light, desert sands booming, auroral sounds ringing in the icy atmosphere, aeolian harps singing in the wind. Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad.

The Aeolian Harp at Baden Baden

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