Straining to Hear: An Acoustic Biography

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How recording sounds is helping a researcher understand her neurodivergent brain and listen to the Chihuahuan Desert more closely.

by Michelle E. Carreon

This story was reported and written as part of BorderLore’s Culture and Climate in Community program, with funding from the Southwestern Foundation for Education and Historical Preservation.

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February 1988. El Paso, Texas. I’m turning five, and my parents have gifted me Bob Ballard’s book, Exploring the Titanic. I hold it close, smelling the new pages. A kid growing up in the ’80s, thousands of miles away from the North Atlantic Ocean, I’m drawn in by the history. Since watching the movie Back to the Future on a loop, I’ve always wanted to travel through time.  

In awe of the ship’s size, I take in a four-page spread explaining each compartment—first, second, third class, the boiler and engine rooms. A boy of six spins his top on the first-class deck as a group of men watch. Captain Edward Smith stares at me from the past with his full white beard. Turning the pages, I see a porcelain doll head resting on the ocean floor, paired with the image of three-year-old Loraine Allison—the only child from first class who did not survive—only two years younger than me. Faces frozen in time juxtaposed with shots of the wreckage at the bottom of the ocean, overtaken by dark red and orange rusticles.

Despite my distance from that cold April night in 1912, in both geography and time, everything about the Titanic weighed heavy on my young heart. I experienced grief for those who lost their lives and for a ghost ship I had personified. I wondered what it was like to be on the ship that night, hearing the panicked screams and the cracking of the ship breaking. Seeing those images at the bottom of the cold, dark ocean, I thought about those who perished, and the ship herself, silenced forever.

Grieving losses—past, future, and the unknown

While considered a smart child, I struggled with numbers and social interactions. Labeled “gifted and talented” in school but always feeling a few steps behind everyone else. I remember the embarrassment of being separated from the rest of my first-grade class for special instruction when I struggled with counting money. I was completely absorbed in topics, like Titanic, and watched movies over and over—to the annoyance of my father. People puzzled me, but I’d hurt deeply when seeing their struggles. I felt sadness when other kids were bullied but I was rarely bullied myself, using humor as my defense.

Growing up, I was sensitive to sound, from loud bangs to the hum of appliances. Throughout college and graduate school, I suffered in silence trying to focus while surrounded by noise. Everything seemed ear-piercing for me, and I wondered why no one else seemed to be bothered. 

And yet, I loved music. My mother introduced me to Motown and the Beatles, and, as I came of age, I savored the sounds of alternative and jazz. Nirvana was a safety valve for my frustration, and the repetition of trip-hop soothed my brain. Headphones were my refuge—an escape from a loud world into a world of my own, with my ears as the vehicle.

In 2020, someone close to me coldly remarked that I had “autistic traits.” In the moment, I felt confusion and shame, only to learn how little I understood about autism. Learning about the experiences of autistic adults, who graciously shared their stories on YouTube and discussion boards, I was surprised by how much I connected with their lived experiences and challenges. The stereotypes about autism I grew up with did not reflect the reality of a misunderstood and non-linear spectrum. 1

After over a year of research and hitting wall after wall, I found a local psychologist who offered testing for adults. Following a draining two-day assessment and month-long wait for results, I received an official diagnosis.2

I am a part of what some consider a “missing generation” of countless adults who grew up in the 1980s and prior and went undiagnosed due largely to narrow perceptions of autism, which often also excluded considerations of race and gender.3

Since my diagnosis, it’s been a complicated journey marked by a sense of relief, sadness, lessons in patience, and learning how my brain works. As part of my neurological design, I experience sensory overload and audio processing challenges on a daily basis. I hear everything. Yet, in a crowded room with multiple conversations and competing noise all at once, I process little. 

The author on her third birthday.

February 1986. For my third birthday, kids line up in our backyard for their turn at the Daisy Duck piñata. Regrettable haircuts and fashion forced on us by our parents. With every swing, Daisy is hoisted in the air by my father, standing on the roof. My mother keeps kids from knocking each other upside the head. Someone hits the sweet spot, and candy cascades from the duck’s bowels. Everyone rushes to scoop up all they can. I run up behind in my little red dress, white tights, and pink windbreaker, pigtails bouncing with every step. No candy left. I’m empty handed, until some older kids offer some pieces. Candy for the birthday girl.

Later, I wander by myself, engrossed by a candy wrapper in my hands and catching an occasional glimpse of kids taking a swing at what is left of Daisy. My grandmother holds the torso of the piñata duck against her body like a dress, wanting to make me laugh, as she always does. She calls my name, but I don’t hear her. Everyone tries to get my attention. My mother bends down and repeats my name over and over. I look around, unable to focus until someone turns my body toward my grandma, who’s looking at me with love in her eyes. When I finally see her, I smile.

Learning to listen and listening to learn

I know now that my ears are not the source of the problem. Rather, it’s how my brain processes sound. For years, this experience has been a source of anxiety and shame. Following my diagnosis, I have wrestled with making sense of my past while seeing a future through a new lens. People I shared the revelation with offered mixed responses—from dismissal and denial to unconditional love. 

I have learned that, in many ways, my path to understanding must be walked alone.

In times of solitude, the Chihuahuan Desert—the place I call home—offers respite. I escape to the trails to find moments of silence but really, the desert borderlands are anything but quiet. 

Last spring, after hearing about my experiences with auditory overload, someone introduced me to the field of acoustic ecology, the study of how beings interact with and are impacted by their sound environments. A broad field, acoustic ecology often involves capturing sounds through field recordings in varying contexts and for varying amounts of time. For me, it offered a world of possibility where my identities as a researcher seeking to understand climate change and an autistic person facing daily challenges can coexist. As I learn more and develop my own practice, scouting sites and capturing sounds in nature with a Zoom recorder and headphones in hand, I am experiencing my sonic world in dynamic ways.

Summer 2023. A thunderstorm rages. My heart is racing. I hear each thump inside my ears as blood pumps throughout my body. With the cracking of thunder and sirens in the distance, I try to find calm. It’s not that I’m afraid. I just can’t focus. Each unanticipated crack of thunder and flash of lightning catches me off-guard. I tell myself the rain is welcome, that our plants need it desperately, a lesson I learned from my grandmother.

The author’s dog, Vincent Van Dogh, during a thunderstorm.

Visiting her house in Northeast El Paso during the summer was a salve. Skidding across the pavement on a blue tricycle, I’d approach my grandmother’s laundry on the clothesline, slowly pedaling under a drying bed sheet, the warm fabric gliding over my face. I’d watch her water her flowers and smell the mint growing in pots. Hiding behind my grandfather’s shed, my cousin and I licked the sweet honeysuckle growing wild. I’d climb all over the patio furniture, while my grandmother shouted, “Te caes!” (“You’ll fall!”), an expression of her attention and care.

When storms came, the loud clapping of thunder startled me, but I found safety in my grandmother’s arms. During downpours, she’d give me plastic containers to catch the rainwater flowing from the roof. She taught me to be grateful for rainy days in the desert and to hold this gratitude tightly in a vessel, even if just for a moment. After the rains, I’d listen to the sound of her broom as she swept rainwater from her porch, cleaning it of dirt. When I complained about the winds, she told me her father said they carried the germs and bad things away. 

Tonight, each clack of thunder assaults my ears, but my grandmother is no longer on this earth to hold me close. My anxious dog, Vincent Van Dogh, pants at my feet. Storms disrupt his senses, too.

I want to reach for my earplugs to drown it all out. But instead, I grab my recorder. Through my headphones, I hear the melodic sound of rain falling to the ground—drops hitting the dry earth, gathering into puddles. The repetitive pattern helps my heart find its normal rhythm again. Sirens in the distance are less a disruption and more of a reminder of this strange coexistence of modernity and natural chaos.

May thunderstorm. El Paso, TX. Recorded by the author.


Contending with chaos in a loud world

“Today the world suffers from an overpopulation of sounds,” wrote R. Murray Schafer in 1977. His book The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World explored the origins of “sound congestion” and its impact on natural soundscapes and human beings in an increasingly industrial society. 

Almost fifty years later, this sound congestion has intensified. Drastic shifts in temperatures, as well as increased wind, humidity, and fluctuating precipitation (from monsoons to intense drought), alter natural soundscapes, impacting wildlife in significant ways. These disruptions can change the physiology of organisms like crickets and frogs, whose vocalizations are affected by temperature.4 Warming oceans speed up underwater sounds, disrupting the communication, feeding habits, and migratory patterns of whales and dolphins. As the habitats of birds and insects are increasingly threatened by warming temperatures and urbanization, so, too, are their sonic ways of being. In these losses, we risk losing something we can never recover: connection to the natural world and, ultimately, to ourselves. 

Both climate change and noise pollution have also made life harder for those of us with sensory sensitivities. With increasing temperatures, winds, and climate disasters, sensory overload is inevitable and can cause meltdowns, shutdowns, and burnout.5 The climate crisis can also exacerbate health and economic risks, as well as audio processing challenges, for autistic people.

In an increasingly loud world, we contend with the chaos.

Listening for cliff swallows at Artcraft Road Overpass, El Paso, TX.

Walking along the Rio Grande on a hot day in July, I come to the Artcraft Road overpass. Cars and semi-trucks rumble above. It is deafening but provides a moment of shade. Looking up, I see a swoop of cliff swallows. I’m used to seeing their nests while riding my bike along the trail. But this time, I stop, set my recorder on the riverbed, pull on my headphones, and listen closely.

The birds tend to their nests, flying in and out from under the concrete structure. A sonic melding of nature and urbanism. The traffic noise is almost too loud for me to process much else, but the rhythm of the swallows pulls my attention. I sit for what feels like hours, but more likely fifteen minutes, mesmerized by their graceful patterns wondering, aren’t they disturbed by the noise? Have they merely learned to adapt? Is there some sort of evolutionary difference between these modern swallows and their pre-industrial ancestors? I’m unsure how to read their swooping and chirping. Still, they thrive in this landscape, where urban traffic meets the tranquility of the river.

Artcraft Road Overpass  – Cliff Swallows. El Paso, TX. Recorded by the author.

There is humor in a desert kid’s fascination with water—from that famous historic ocean liner swallowed by the Atlantic to this river I consider home. But water is scarce in the Chihuahuan Desert. Long histories of geopolitical conflict, human rights violations, and environmental loss accompany the Rio Grande. But, since time immemorial, the river has also been a source of life and sacredness.

Now, I capture the sounds of the river to learn about changes in the environment and wildlife, remembering the complex histories it holds. I am comforted by its presence and open to its lessons but, sadly, see litter scattered along its banks. Picking up beer cans, I wonder, have I grown up to be the person Captain Planet wanted me to be?

Rio Grande Currents – House Sparrow, White-winged Dove, and Verdin. El Paso, TX. Recorded by the author.
Dry River Bed, – Red-winged Blackbirds, Anthony, NM. Recorded by the author.

The Rio Grande is full only a few months a year, when water from the Elephant Butte Reservoir in southern New Mexico is released for irrigation. During these months, you can hear the flowing waters and see birds skip along its surface. Dragonflies glide along the vegetation while mosquitos invade my personal space and whisper into the microphone.

I also visit the river during dry seasons, remembering the ephemeral nature of its flowing waters. Wildlife calls the river home year-round. Birds breed new life. Various species of vegetation provide habitats and lessons of adaptation. Isn’t that at the heart of those who inhabit the Chihuahuan Desert and borderlands? We refuse to leave. Instead, we creatively contend with the elements, knowing there is beauty and wisdom here.  As we face increasing heat and drought on a global scale, there is much to be learned from the desert. This is where hope resides.

Above: Rio Grande, flowing. Below: Rio Grande, dry.

September 2023. I meet a friend at Hueco Tanks, a place many call an oasis in the desert, with unique microclimates nurturing life in canyons and crevices. I call it my auditory sanctuary, where I go to get away from the noise of the city.

We walk along the west side of North Mountain gazing up at the cliffs. Crawling between boulders, we marvel at pictographs and huecos, natural water-filled depressions in the rock. After an hour or so, the winds ease, and a fusion of bird calls echoes from the cliffs. I follow the chorus along a narrow trail, then climb a rock to set up my recorder.

As often is the case, as soon as I hit record, all the birds go silent. By now, I know to wait. When the birds begin again, I wonder if I was hearing a gossip session or a bickering battle. A rare, meditative moment for my brain, accustomed to running 100 mph, I sit and listen, feeling like time has paused. The birds call out in repetition. Cars, motorcycles, and an airplane passes in the distance. But the birds continue. Again, a moment of coexistence, a dance of sound.

Hueco Tanks Chorus – House Finch, Rock Wren, and Unidentified Bird. El Paso, TX. Recorded by the author.
Recording at Hueco Tanks. El Paso, TX.

Finding hope where least expected

As I’ve delved into bird watching, I’ve grown more curious about what’s called the “dawn chorus”—the outbreak of birdsong that signals a new day. I read somewhere that scientists believe birds sing before dawn as a way to tell their mates that they made it through the night, as a way to say, “I’m still here.” 

My ears are still being trained to identify the bird songs, and I have much to learn about migratory patterns in the Chihuahuan Desert. But not long ago, I heard a morning symphony outside my window. 

I quickly set up my recorder on the back porch. Shortly after I hit the record button, screeching cats—other members of this urban ecosystem—drowned out the birdsong. Disappointed, I returned inside and grabbed the dog leash. With the morning sun rising over the Franklin Mountains, Vincent and I took our usual route past Delgado Park. He sniffed the grass and trees, marking his territory along the way. Dogs barked in the distance, and cars rumbled down the street. I greeted a neighbor walking her small dog, and a brief moment of silence followed. Then, I heard it—the chorus. Birds singing, each in their own way, “We are still here.”

I pulled out my phone and fumbled to find the voice recorder app. Without my headphones, I had no idea if   I was capturing what I was hearing. Vincent and I stood quietly and listened—our ears perked up. I heard a confident squawk just past some trees by the playground. A great-tailed grackle perched at the top of a light pole, shaking its head after each call. Nearby, sparrows and white-winged doves circled and sang. I had stumbled upon an unexpected dawn chorus.

Unexpected Delgado Park Dawn Chorus – Northern Mockingbird, Chipping Sparrow or House Sparrow, and Great-tailed Grackle. El Paso, TX. Recorded by the author.

~

The obstacles I face on a daily basis are still present and often invisible to others. Living in an urban setting can be disruptive and deafening. Overstimulation is exacerbated by stress, and I still turn to earplugs on a regular basis to cope with my circumstances. But even in the monotony of everyday life, my brain can find moments of calm, and my ears can be attuned to the symphonies of the here and now. 

A desert kid at heart, I have fostered curious kinships with wildlife and plants my entire life and grow more concerned for how climate change and modern noise affects them. As I navigate an increasingly loud planet myself, I wonder, are there lessons to help us understand climate disruption better through another’s ears? What connections can we draw between neurodiversity and biodiversity?

I form sonic bonds with the white-winged doves nesting in my backyard trees, the quail rushing across Hueco Tanks as if late for a business meeting, the red-winged blackbirds singing in the dry riverbed. I find lessons in the silences. I chase precipitation, venturing to the shores of the Rio Grande, while reconciling with the absence of water too many months out of the year. 

I am often hesitant to embark on field recording in more urban and industrial settings because of my auditory sensitivities. But I know this is necessary to grasp a fuller picture of the interactions and impacts among the natural and urban chaos that makes up this acoustic ecosystem.

And so, I scout sites across the Chihuahuan Desert borderlands listening intentionally and recording soundscapes. A practice in patience, I often come home with only a handful of viable recordings but am learning to trust my senses and adapt. I have a lot to learn about acoustic ecology, from its origins and current research to the nuts and bolts of field recording technologies. Although I trek across desert trails and along the Rio Grande alone, I feel connected to a wider community of others who have the same curiosity and concern as I do.

Hueco Tanks at dawn.

In an era of increasing climate change, many of us feel a sense of loss bearing witness to environmental degradation and erasures of ecosystems, species, and natural soundscapes across the globe. We are all in the same boat. The metaphorical iceberg is not straight ahead—it’s already here.

My childhood friend still rests at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean, broken in two. Titanic bears the weight and interruptions of submersibles. Tours exclusive to the wealthy exploit her tragedy with each sigh of her decks. She is not quiet, like I once assumed.

Some have described Titanic’s sound as “an eerie distress signal as she still thinks she’s alive, or that she’s singing herself to sleep.”6 She is a reef now. Above deck, through every window, doorframe, and crevice, there is movement. Sounds at frequencies we humans cannot hear. Ocean currents shift debris. Deteriorated steel structures give out. Aquatic animals and plants take up residence within and atop her body. As she settles, a symphony of underwater tones plays around her. 

UNESCO estimates that the ship’s wreckage could be completely gone by 2050, but some scientists say that could happen as early as 2030. In 2010, scientists isolated rusticles from the wreckage and identified a species of bacteria, Halmonas titanicae,7 accelerating corrosion of the steel. Now, these bacteria are being studied more closely as potential bioremediators to purposely accelerate the decomposition of Titanic and other shipwrecks littering the ocean floor, potentially releasing nutrients back into the water. In losing Titanic, a ship that has rested at the bottom of the ocean for over 100 years and captured the curiosity of generations, there is an unexpected possibility of environmental restoration. In the grief of impermanence, there is hope.  

As a late-diagnosed autistic person, I continue to reconcile with a sense of loss for decades of not knowing. And while I still face challenges from day to day, I am not drowning. I’m learning to swim with the current and catch the sound waves around me as they come. 

And so, I continue to chase the desert chorus.


  1. To learn more about autism and disability rights advocacy, I recommend the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (https://autisticadvocacy.org/) as a useful resource. ASAN is a nonprofit run by and for autistic people. ↩︎
  2. It’s critical to note that self-diagnosis is valid. Access to testing for adults is limited and often expensive, not only in the U.S. but in other countries, as well. I consider it pure luck I was able to access assessment covered by insurance. ↩︎
  3.  https://neurodivergentrebel.com/2022/02/02/where-are-the-missing-generation-of-autistic-neurodivergent-adults/  ↩︎
  4. ttps://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2019/11/climate-change-biophony/ ↩︎
  5.  https://fortheclimate.eu/blog/climate-change-and-people-on-the-spectrum/ ↩︎
  6. A member response on Reddit to a user question asking whether the Titanic makes noise at the bottom of the ocean. https://www.reddit.com/r/titanic/comments/14hxmvh/does_the_titanic_actually_make_noise_sitting_on/ ↩︎
  7.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halomonas_titanicae ↩︎

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Michelle E. Carreon lives in El Paso, Texas and was a member of BorderLore’s 2023 Culture and Climate in Community cohort. She holds a PhD in the interdisciplinary field of American Studies. Her forthcoming digital project, Chasing the Desert Chorus, will document her efforts to capture soundscapes and visual stories from the Chihuahuan Desert borderlands. 

1 thought on “Straining to Hear: An Acoustic Biography”

  1. There’s a worthwhile book here, one that is scholarly and personal. One people need to experience. Keep listening and writing. Appreciate your work.

    Reply

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