A few years ago I saw a video of a man who lived by himself on a lake in Alaska, in a cabin he had built from the trees he found there. It was small, with basic furnishings he had made and a well-designed kitchen. He had two dogs and a small herd of goats.
In the opening scene he was cutting firewood with a chainsaw. His hands were like birds, fluttering quickly from saw to logs to sawhorse. He seemed to know exactly where each piece would fall as he cut it, and he moved the logs into the sawhorse and stacked the cut wood with economical confidence, not missing a piece.
He was blind.
As I watched him move with such easy competence I thought, “If he can do that, I can do anything.”
In another scene the camera followed him across the lake in winter. There were other cabins nearby, and he would walk over the ice to visit his neighbors from time to time. This day was sunny and windless. He walked a few yards, then stopped and clapped his hands. He would listen intently, tilting his head to one side as people do, and then make a slight course correction if needed.
He was using echolocation.
I’ve been taught to use my senses, or perhaps I should say re-taught to re-use my senses, in ways that allow me to be highly aware of my surroundings, but I had never thought about human echolocation.
We all know that the qualities of sound very according to where we are. There’s the deep silence of being outdoors in a fresh snowfall, and there’s the slowly fading echo of beautiful music in a great cathedral. We know that singing in the shower sounds better (to the singer, at least) than singing in the home office.
I decided to experiment with my own echolocation. I began by walking down a hallway at home with eyes closed, pausing to clap and listen to the differences in the sound. The difference from wall to doorway was immediately obvious. I experimented further. There was a subtler change in the quality of the echo when I got to the top of the stairway that went from the hall down to the front door.
With a bit of practice, I was able to navigate with my eyes closed around the house, and even to know when I was next to a person.
I took my new awareness outdoors, to less familiar territory, and found that I could tell when I was next to a wall, and how far away the wall was. There were differences between grassy lawns and lakes, forests and urban streets. This felt like an awakening, a new muscle being discovered and exercised. I was reminded once again that my sensory brain is capable of so much more than what I use it for.
Why not try it?
Posted January 7, 2022