Animal sounds are my connection to the changing seasons. Every week, a new voice emerges or fades. Early winter arrives with the rush of reeds. The clucking of nesting bluebirds signals the start of summer, closely followed by the first cicadas.

This year, however, the annual cycle lacked a voice. In that absence, I learned something about my creeping deafness and, beyond that, the Faustian bargains our ancestors struck through evolution.

Where I live in the Southeast, late spring is marked by the songs of blackpolls, tiny black and white birds migrating from South America to the boreal forests of Canada where they breed. They are here for a week just as the school year ends and tomato planting season begins, a joyous time. This year, I haven’t heard any. My companion, however, could hear their high-pitched song and pointed out the birds as they fluttered in the treetops.

The sound erasure felt deeply unsettling. I could hear other everyday sounds – passing cars, cardinals whistling, neighborhood children playing – but the song of the blackpoll was gone.

Charts from my audiologist show hearing loss across all sound frequencies, but especially for high sounds, so I’ve been waiting for this moment. However, the loss of black-pollinated birds hit me hard. I looked forward to hearing them all winter and then…nothing. Now, in summer, I notice other gaps in the soundscape, especially the high, shrill chatter of the meadow katydids. Here is a strange annoyance: The songs are there, but not for me. I miss them.

As a biologist fascinated by sound, I tried to protect my ears by using earplugs around power tools and at loud concerts. However, my hearing loss is now worse than most of my cohort of friends in their mid-50s, a quirk of my genes. I am not alone. The National Institutes of Health reports that approximately 15 percent of Americans over the age of 18 report some hearing problems. Among those older than 75, nearly half do.

We can lose hearing in many ways. Eardrums, middle ear bones and nerves can become dislodged, as can auditory processing in the brain. For many people, loss of function in hair cells in the inner ear is to blame. These cells amplify the movements of sound waves in the inner ear, and then turn the movement into nerve impulses.

The hair cells in our ears are descendants of the fluttering cilia hairs that animate single-celled creatures swimming around in ponds and ocean water. These cilia enable hearing throughout the animal kingdom, from vibration-sensitive organs in the skin of fish to sound detectors in the legs of insects.

Sudden shocks like gunshots kill inner ear hair cells. Other losses take time, such as prolonged exposure to loud noise. Some pharmaceutical drugs can kill hair cells. But much of the loss has little to do with outside attacks. Instead, aging undermines hair cells. Even a life spent without drugs in quiet surroundings would not protect our ears from the erosive power of passing years. Once gone, the cells never grow back or heal.

Just by being alive, we are locked into a process of sensory decline. Why?

All sensory experience is mediated by cells. Cells accumulate damage over time, eventually slowing down or stopping their work. And so, to experience the passage of time in an animal body is to experience sensory diminution. The only animals known to have broken this agreement over time are relatives of jellyfish called hydra. Their bodies are sacks topped with tentacles. Their nerves are woven into a web, without a brain or complex sense organs. This simple body allows hydra to regularly clean and replace defective cells. These eternally youthful inverted jellyfish live seemingly without aging, at the expense of having rudimentary senses.

Evolution struck a different deal for our ancestors: We live in richly sensual bodies, but are too complex to be ageless.

We can, however, partially break the agreement. Sensory experience is as much about attention as it is about the physiology of cells. The undergraduate students in my field biology class generally have ears that can pick up more frequencies than mine. However, when we go outside, I hear more. At least at first. I invite students, regardless of hearing “ability”, in what the philosopher Simone Weil called the “rarest and purest form of generosity”: attention.

We listen through our chests for low hums and percussive beats. We rest our fingertips on twigs to perceive how wind converses with wood. We send our bodily attention outward, using ears, palms, soles, intestines and muscles.

What we find differs between us in its tones and textures. We connect to stories of the world around us, carried in the many pulsations of sound. We share these stories, listening through each other’s perceptions. We name birds, insects and frog species, and hear the diversity of human voices. We study the energies of traffic and buildings. We follow vibrations back to their sources, some beautiful and life-affirming, like the music of other species, and others broken, like excessive and unfair noise.

With repetition, sensory awareness works its way into everyday experience. I paradoxically listen more and with greater pleasure than in previous years, even when my inner ear hair cells are dying. Doing this with other people helps. I find the warbler through the ears of my companions. I share with others what my listening has taught me. Take that, hydra.

Opening our senses to the living world does not erase the sorrows of aging. But paying attention in community can bring joy in the moment, and is a challenging and joyful response to the legacy of evolution.

David George Haskell, a professor at the University of the South, is the author of “Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction,” a 2023 Pulitzer finalist.

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