30 March 2013
The human ear looks very strange compared to the rest of the body! Dishes of flesh jut rudely from the sides of the head, a bizarre swirl of creases and folds surrounding the sensitive ear canal. What else on the human body compares to this irregular form, this enormous inconsistency? I have spent many a year of my long life pondering this question, never quite reaching a satisfying answer.
On the surface, the answer seems simple enough. The visible part of the outer ear—comprised entirely of skin-covered cartilage—is called the auricle or pinna. Very fine hair follicles and quite a number of sebaceous (oil) glands cover much of the pinna’s skin. And the odd shape of the pinna amplifies and distorts incoming sounds in such a way that we hear usable noises very efficiently, particularly among those frequencies common to human speech. The strange shape of the pinna also amplifies sounds directionally, helping us to locate their sources. So the bizarre look of the outer ear stems almost entirely from its sound-directing properties.
And also, by the way, physiologists regard the exposed ear as such a significant territory that they have given each section of this fleshy protuberance its own place name. We might well think of our ears as large islands, like two little Madagascars grafted onto our smiling heads. Islands with their own terrain, vegetation, and inhabitants. One might shudder to think of it!
If human ears were not odd enough by themselves, people have taken to modifying them in an assortment of bizarre configurations. When I was young, many women ornamented their ear lobes with jewelry, and such simple adornment of such a boneless and relatively nerve-free area did not seem overwhelmingly out-of-place, though in retrospect even this practice defies logic. Nowadays, however, I have seen ears that shock the non-desensitized, with thick metal loops or spikes of various dimensions poking from just about every location of the ears of either gender, and I’ve seen ear lobes stretched to absurd proportions with disks or hoops. I even saw one pierced and tattooed man jumping rope with his dangling ear lobe. I admit that I cannot long look upon such ears; the culture evolves even when old men do not!
So what kind of ears would better fit in with the rest of our bodies? After pondering this matter for a considerable amount of time, I have finally arrived at the answer: koala ears would blend in perfectly! The ear hair would entirely cover the ears while blending in with the surrounding hair of our scalps, which would of course have to grow over the empty places where our previous ears used to be.
Anyhow, despite knowing that the properties of the ear at least partially determine its shape, I don’t think this system of harmonics completely settles the inconsistency of our ears’ appearance. I remember as a young man clinging to a seat on a city bus, and I noticed all of these ears sticking out ahead of me like mushrooms in the morning grass. They surrounded me, in fact, this bizarre gathering of protruding cartilage, some ears large and some small, each of them surrounded by a nest of hair. Each fleshy ovoid stared at me with its expressionless alien spiral face. I could almost feel those ears listening, voraciously absorbing the vibrations of all things at all times, even of my own breathing, whether their owners could distinguish the sounds or not or even paid attention to the information that they constantly delivered. Even the word “ear”, with enough repetition, starts to sound like a mythical forest creature of medieval times, friend to the gnome and the brownie. I tried to shake these perceptions, but the questions lingered: from where did our ears come, and why are they so very odd?
Not long after my unusual bus experience, I met a grizzled old bartender who said that he had learned the answer to this very question back during “the war”.
“Well, tell me!” I pleaded.
He furrowed his shaggy brows: “It’ll cost you twenty.”
“Twenty cents?” I naively asked.
“No, young man, twenty big ones. Dollars!” (And twenty dollars during those long-lost days was “twenty big ones”!)
I sucked in a breath, torn between the value of hard-earned cash and an overwhelming curiosity. I grimly offered him two ten dollar bills, half of my week’s salary. Twin Alexander Hamiltons smirked at me in condescending disapproval and then vanished before I could reconsider my foolishness.
Then the bartender leaned forward and whispered, his cigarette breath revoltingly sharp. “Ears. Everyone’s got two, right?” I nodded, anxious that he continue. “Well, long, long ago, back in the days before Noah and the Great Flood, everyone in the world was deef. Not one man or woman had ears ‘t all! Ears used to hop around on the ground and eat grass seeds, and people would step on ’em and squarsh ’em dead into the ground. Well, when the Flood waters came rushing in, ears hopped onto the heads of the whole Noah family so they could live inside the ark, and the whole family could alla the sudden hear sounds, jus’ like that!” And the old barkeep smacked his hands together to illustrate his point. “What a surprise it musta been for ’em, a whole new sense! The song of that flying dove with its green olive branch. Well, the Noah family enjoyed hearing those sounds so much that when the Flood was all done, they just kept the ears hanging around on their heads, and when they had their babies, those ears had babies too so that the human babies had ears on their heads when they was born! And you wanna know something else?”
“What,” I growled, feeling very much like the fool.
“They’re still alive yet! I talk to my ears in the mirror every morning, I do!” And the bartender nodded in apparent self-satisfaction, done with his story.
At the time I scoffed at this crazy old man who’d suckered me out of such a large portion of my pay. But now that I’ve succumbed to the passage of time and lost a few of my own marbles here and there along the way, I’ve begun to reconsider that bartender’s words. Our bodies are comprised of groups of individual cells somehow acting in concert; the sum greater than the whole. In turn, groups of cells form our various organs, including the seemingly enormous inconsistency and irregular form of our ears. This leads me to a strange and unanswerable question: at some level do our organs, even our ears, possess an awareness of their own existence? The thought is quite unsettling!
 Brugge, John. “III. Functions And Pathophysiology Of The External Ear.” Hearing and Balance. Department of Physiology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, 22 Mar. 1996. Web. 30 Mar. 2013. http://www.neurophys.wisc.edu/h&b/textbook/external_ear.html.
 University of Minnesota Duluth. “Hearing Mechanisms.” Powerpoint Presentations. University of Minnesota Duluth, Fall 2008. Web. 30 Mar. 2013. http://www.d.umn.edu/~floven/Courses/CSD3103/ppt/documents/OuterEar.ppt.
 Sometimes at night I dream of an adventurous skin bacterium, a Propionibacterium acnes. I always think of this bacterium as “Johnny”. Johnny the bacterium straps on a heavy backpack and sets out on a journey across the great island of the ear, departing its home town in the land of Lobe. Johnny treks all afternoon, crawling on its little flagella across the slightly oily but mostly empty Lobal plain, then up the gradual rise of territory called Antitragus and down the steep descent of the enormous cliff called the Intratragic Notch, so named for the many poor bacteria that have tragically plunged to their deaths during this dangerous descent. At the bottom of this cliff, Johnny reaches the bowl-shaped valley of Concha, and the bacterium eventually sights the precipice of a dark abyss awkwardly called External Auditory Meatus, and known to humans as the Ear Canal. Great stalks of hair poke inward along the walls of the great hole, catching dust and wax. Never has Johnny witnessed such a beautiful vista, and the bacterium snaps a few pictures with its E. Phonia before moving on. Johnny trudges across the Cavum Conchae valley and up the Crus of Helix, where it camps. During the night Johnny divides in two through asexual fission, and after a breakfast of skin flakes, the two Johnnies together descend into the Cymba Conchae valley, where they meet a vicious pair of Staphylococcus epidermidis bacteria. The two S. epidermidi snarl at the Johnnies: “Move on pizza-faced acnes! This is staph turf, and we don’t give kindly to strangers coming ’round here!” Battle ensues. Our two adventurers fight bravely, driving these monsters away in terror, but sadly one of the staph had punctured Johnny 2’s plasma membrane. Our original Johnny solemnly buries its burst offspring beneath a pile of cerumen rocks and weeps all the way through the narrow pass between the Crura of Antihelix and the great Helix itself, then into the dark void of Triangular Fossa. Johnny climbs the Crura of Antihelix and then down into the valley of Scaphoid Fossa, then it embarks on another dangerous climb—sometimes upside-down—up the terrifying slopes of Helix. When Johnny reaches the summit in the towering plateau of Helix, the outer rim of the edge of the outer ear and the end of the line, the bacterium leaps up and down overcome with joy at its accomplishment, overseeing the panorama of the ear territories spread out below, and then Johnny stops for a well-earned sebum fatty-acid sandwich. Then I dream that Johnny has built a little ear-fuzz cabin on Auricular Tubercle, producing dozens of little Johnnies before it dies an old microbe a few weeks later. At this point I awaken, overwhelmed with grief. What stories the little critters on our ears could tell us, were we just able to communicate with them! If a genie could grant me just one wish, just one, I would wish to discuss the particulars of life with my tiny ear microbes!