On Ears

The inner ear is a flowerbed inside a blacksmith’s shop. Down below the auditory canal—past the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup—sprout the hair cells of the cochlea, planted in tidy rows along the basilar membrane like geraniums in a window box. As the hammer and anvil pound sound waves into shape, the stirrup taps out the beat on the basilar membrane, which sets the hairs cells swaying like a summer breeze through a cornfield. Each of the hair cells’ undulations fires electrical signals to the brain, where we discern the cause of the commotion—a cymbal crash, for instance, or the soft exhalations of a child breathing. Other senses may rest, but the ear never sleeps. It is insomniac, always alert to the slightest pulses, awake to the faintest tremors. If, as English novelist George Meredith wrote, “Speech is the small change of silence,” then let’s hear it for the ear! A moment of silence, please, followed by three resoundingly soundless cheers.

A version of this abbreviated essay appeared in the July-August issue of Ode , on newsstands now.