Sensory Agility

This Earth Culture/Wisdom of the Breakdown piece is inspired by Lyall Watson’s extraordinary book, The Gifts of Unknown Things. Watson was a profoundly aware and educated man who grew up in South Africa, traveled widely, spoke Indonesian and other languages fluently and had a keen and open mind as well as a naturally generous heart. He wrote 21 books and had degrees in geology, chemistry, marine biology, ecology, anthropology and ethology. In addition, he was a botanist and zoologist. He was at one time director of the Johannesburg zoo and whaling commissioner for the Seychelles. As a child he learned from local Zulu and !Kung bushmen, later in life from Australian aborigines and indigenous peoples in Indonesia and elsewhere. He is credited with coining the term and concept of the ‘Hundredth Monkey.’ Even so, as you will see, he struggles to fit the round peg of what he discovers into the square hole of linear western thinking. 

His explorations provide stepping stones made up of images and stories that invite us deeper into the conversation about what we have been missing and how to reclaim the birthright of our senses. The loss of the sensory agility of our ancestors, and its supplanting with electrical trinkets is the true Fake News because it is accomplished by co-opting Nature’s dense messages and songs with the staccato of mechanical artifice. We are the poorer for the diminishment of our sensory awareness, and the world is in grave danger because of it. Yet this kind of poverty is seldom addressed because of our fixation with the material poverty of others rather than our own, more pernicious cultural, spiritual and social starvation. The more zealously we try to ‘fix’ the material poverty of indigenous and traditional peoples, the faster we kill our capacity to live in resonance with our original design. Even those of us who could be considered sensitive to subtle energies are only functioning at a fraction of our rightful capacity. 

It is heartbreaking that we Westerners are so bereft of the gifts described in the excerpt below, and that those who yet possess them are seen as aberrant. As you read this passage, imagine the colors of the modern world we live in now: the continuous blare of headline news; the idiotic, strident political commentary; and the junk noise of mainstream media. What colors do these sounds create? Surely the drab and jagged palette we live in has blinded us. Talk about showing our true colors… perhaps this expression has deeper origins than we realize.


On the morning it all began the tide was out. Ghost crabs burst pale green and rectangular out of burrows in the sand and, bodies raised high on absolute tiptoe, skittered around on their points from one piece of jetsam to the next… The only way to get a close look at them is to sit absolutely still and to flick small objects out onto the sand in a way that attracts their attention and brings the closest ones in en bourrée to investigate. 

I was playing this game with the crabs when I saw Tia, the tiny dancer, shaking a sleeping mat out the door of the house of her uncle. She waved and, a little later, came down to the beach to join me. It was dawn, and light was bright and clear on the peak of Gunung Api, the ‘fire mountain’ at the far end of the island. 

We walked together down the beach and a small and mottled heron flew up at our feet, landed ahead on the sand, ruffled, walked, watched us coming on, lengthened its neck in new alarm, and flew another few reluctant yards. 

Every time it took flight, it uttered a sharp, broken “kew” sound on a descending tone. 

Puchong laut,” said Tia, and laughed gently. “He sings a green song.”

For a moment I simply enjoyed the bird and the poetry of her description, but then it occurred to me that only I knew it as a little green heron. In fact, it isn’t very green at all. The literal translation of her name for it was something like “longlegs of the sea.”

“Why green?” I asked her. 

“That is his color. His voice is like a sharp new leaf or a thorn.”

“Not brown?”

“No, of course not. Brown is the sound of katak.”

Katak was the local toad. The common lumpy one that propped itself up near lights in the village at night and produced a derisory sound that was indeed rather brown.

The idea was beginning to grow on me.

“What makes a black sound?
“Buffalo. And thunder.”

“The sea where it touches the sand.”

Now I was totally hooked.

Tia was giving me these examples without hesitation, as though she were used to hearing sounds in color. And what really appealed to me was that the colors were totally appropriate. They were the colors of the objects producing the sound. 

I thought of the tawny roar of a lion; of the scarlet scream of a macaw; of the deep bronze boom of an important bell, and of how the little ones that tinkled tended to be silver.

“’Tia,’” I said her name clearly. “What color is that?
“Pink when you say it, like an orchid. Paman Abu makes it yellow.”

“And ‘Abu’?”

“Sometimes blue, sometimes brown. It depends.”
“On what?”

“The one who says it, and if the person feels friendly.”

She was clearly getting a little impatient with all this talk about something so obvious, but I couldn’t leave it alone.

“All sounds have colors?
Astaga! You did not know?


“How can you listen to talk or music without color?” Her eyes were full of pity. “When the drums talk, they lay a carpet of brown, like soft sand on the ground. A dancer stands on this. Then the gongs call in green and yellow, building forests through which we move and turn. And if we lose our way, there is always the white thread of the flute or the song to guide us home.”

She shook her head in sorrow and dismay and, faced with the wisdom of this twelve-year-old, I felt like a backward child.

Later I had the chance to test her with a variety of sounds. I chose more than a hundred, and when I questioned her about them again after several months, she still gave me exactly the same responses. Tia had multicolored hearing. She lived permanently in a roseate world with a unity of sight and sound that the rest of us, sensory cripples, can experience only fleetingly with the help of hallucinogenic chemicals. 

And yet that word “hallucination” worries me. It is a much too convenient label we attach to anything that doesn’t happen to fit our current description of reality. I suspect that most, if not all children, customarily link several senses together. Physiologists call it sensory blending or synesthesia and usually deal with it only when discussing the obvious linkage between taste and smell. But it seems likely that all our senses are ultimately interconnected and that every one of us depends, for fine discrimination of delicate emotional shades, on a blend of information.

Tia knew her own people better than I, but she astonished me with her ability to make rapid, sensitive and invariably correct judgments about situations based on her appreciation of tone and color. When I or someone else was about to get angry, she would know instantly by what she called warna sakit, “sick colors,” in our voices.

One day in school, I talked about this and most of the children seemed to think it was self-evident. They were not all as adept as Tia, but there was a general agreement about which colors went with particular sounds. We compiled a list of colored words and, looking for some pattern in them, found that each of the usual vowel sounds in Indonesian had its characteristic color. 

Barat, “the west,” was a red word, so the vowel “a” was usually red. The “e” sound is almost totally suppressed in Indonesian, so we decided that it had to be gray. The nearest you get to hearing it is in belum, which sounds more like “bloom”; it is one of those marvelous flexible words and means everything from “not quite yet” to “never”. The people hate to give an outright negative answer to anything, so even if you ask an octogenarian spinster if she is married, the answer you will get is “belum – not yet.”

A very polite and suitably gray word.

The sound of the vowel “i” is sharp, as in English, “gin,” and it is white. It is the color of iklim, “the climate,” and every maiden aunt, or bibi. “O” is round, as in “order,” and so a shop, or toko, is black. The vowel “u” is pronounced “oo” as in buku, “a book,” and everyone agreed that books were blue. 

There was a close relationship between pitch and brightness. Deep voices, big drums, and low-pitched sounds all had dark colors – blues, browns, and black. High-pitched sounds were always attached to brighter colors. The strident call of the sulfur-crested cockatoo was white, like the bird. A loud whistle was accompanied by a blinding flash, and one little boy even claimed to be able to locate mosquitoes in the dark by seeing the fine white light of their whine. 

This started me thinking for the first time that the colors need not be mental associates of the sound but could exist as sensory inputs in their own right. It may well be true that the world actually is as these children, and probably all others everywhere, see it. When the rest of us grow up, we stop doing things that way. We no longer feel the texture of a sound or see the image of a taste. We miss the smell of the sunset and the color of a peacock’s call. We put away sensory blending along with other childish things. It seems a pity.

In our bodies we have everything we need to re-enliven ourselves by giving the world a fresh coat of auditory paint. Let’s go outside and listen. Let’s dance as if the soles of our feet still knew how to move with the colors of music and the textures of natural sounds.