by Maureen Ramirez
I heard the Blue Jays’ alarm calls in our backyard in February, piercing the cold morning air. Sharp and shrill, the chickadees joined the chorus. I called to my husband, “Can you hear that?”
I plunged my arm into my winter coat, grabbed my binoculars, zipped up my boots, and tiptoed across the kitchen to the back door. Jim stepped past me and soon we were standing in the snow, breathing in the crisp air, watching. Waiting.
My husband saw it first, a Northern Saw-Whet owl in the fir tree. A cinnamon-streaked breast and cream-colored facial feathers framing deep brown eyes. Not much bigger than a robin, she clutched a dead mouse in her claws. Quiet.
The easiest way to see a Northern Saw Whet owl—or any owl, really—is to listen to the birds who saw it first. Silence makes owls powerful hunters. Turbulent air glides under and over their flight feathers; the plush texture suppresses sound. A robin’s wings crash like a pair of cymbals. Wood Ducks whistle as they lift off the lake.
I learned to watch birds, identify birds, and listen to birds, from my husband. I watched him identify birds by the shape of their wings, the relative length of their bodies and tails, the size of their heads, their flight patterns, and wing beats.
Every fall, along Lake Superior’s bluffs, thousands of migrating hawks, eagles, and falcons travel south for the winter. A great concentration of birds congregates on the same thoroughfare. Coasting along the air currents, the raptors follow the shoreline of the planet’s largest inland lake. If the winds cooperate, the birds fly low enough so that an experienced observer can detect whether the Sharp-Shinned Hawk flying overhead is a hatch-year or an adult, a male or female, all depending on your ability to see the pattern of his feathers, the color of her eyes.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota-Duluth take shifts, covering every hour of daylight, counting every migrating bird. Every fall. Every spring. Using binoculars, they work the sky in a grid pattern. Like archeologists of the heavens, they square, section, and scan every inch of blue sky.
When General Motors wanted to diagnose defects in their production lines, they funded Floyd Firestone’s research lab at the University of Michigan. His invention, the Supersonic Reflectoscope, wasn’t a device of the occult, but a scientific advancement that allowed access to the internal organs of automobiles, railroad cars, and cargo boats—any solid surface, really. Previously, there was no practical way to see inside a wheel axle or inspect the lining of a cargo hull without injuring the transportation vessel or the precious cargo. But now, he didn’t need to see. The Supersonic Reflectoscope could hear mistakes.
Firestone obtained a US Patent for his invention and published his results in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America in 1946. Soon after, doctors and engineers in Glasgow, Minneapolis, and Boston sent radiofrequency waves through soft tissues, using the ultramodern sound system to diagnose and treat patients
Every fall and every spring, my dad and my uncle spend a weekend working at my uncle’s cabin. In May, they drive north to put the dock in, plant trees, repair any damages. In October, they drive north to trim trees, take the dock out, repair any damages. My uncle has owned a few different properties, but the rhythm of the work they perform together stays the same.
On one occasion, my dad, nearly 70 years old at the time, fell off a ladder. More precisely, he fell down the side of a fiberglass ladder; the fall’s friction generated burns on his legs. He landed on his backside, in wet grass, and I imagine him afterward, lying on the ground, feeling his body for broken bones. Finding none, he would’ve had to stand up, find the ladder, and set it up for my uncle to climb down from the roof. My uncle drove him home, a five-hour journey south, where my mom determined he should go to the hospital. The nurses in the burn unit explained how to change his dressings and sent him home for a slow recovery. His blood vessels were damaged, closed off, putting him at risk for clots. I took him to the clinic for a radiofrequency ablation, a simple laser treatment using heat to heal his veins. I sat with him in the examination room while the nurse marked his legs. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to do this; your skin is so dark I can’t see your veins.” She said it under her breath, and I hear it like a scream so many years later.
Many years before my dad’s fall, I was in another doctor’s office with my four-month-old daughter for a routine check-up when the pediatrician offered me her stethoscope. “Do you want to hear it?” she asked. I placed the cold hard metal disc to my daughter’s warm skin.
The pediatrician translates the turbulence into language: she can hear a whoosh, a ripple. A flaw in the body’s internal transportation system. She schedules an ultrasound. The sonographer peels back the soft blanket, squeezes a cold clear gel onto a wand, and presses the Supersonic Reflectoscope to my daughter’s chest. I look up, searching.
What does a broken heart sound like?
Maureen Ramirez is a writer currently living in West St Paul, MN. She was awarded an Emerging Writers Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction by the Loft Literary Center in 2021. Maureen enjoys writing about migration, family, belonging, and nature.