Sunday, December 9, 2007
Taoseños' Ears Still Humming
By Polly Summar
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Northern Bureau
TAOS Presbyterian minister Wayne Mell thinks it comes from inside his house, but not inside his head. Retired math teacher Sadie Boyer thinks the Rio Grande Gorge is the culprit. Rosa Herrington says her blue heeler Lucy thinks it's electric poles on the mesa.
Whatever the source, the low-pitch "Taos hum" is still in town, keeping folks awake at night and taking a solid place among unexplained phenomena like mutilated cattle and jet contrails.
First attracting serious attention in the early '90s through the efforts of then-congressmen Bill Richardson and Steve Schiff, the hum has been poked and prodded with the best scientific equipment New Mexico's federal labs have to offer with no answers and no relief.
But in a town where the "admission mantra" is, "If the mountain gives you permission, you stay," many Taoseños don't care what the government found.
"I think a lot of people here are hypersensitive to energy or whatever you want to call it," says Nita Murphy, a librarian at Taos' Southwest Research Center, who doesn't hear the hum herself. "I'm a pretty practical person myself but open to all kinds of possibilities."
Nancy Gormley of Providence, R.I., who was visiting Taos for the first time last week, wanted to know where to find the hum.
"Where can we hear it?" Gormley asked. She wondered if the hum was "some kind of spiritual thing" or "some resonance from the mountains."
Boyer, a native of Taos, says most of the people who have heard the hum live on the west side of town near the Gorge.
"Maybe it's the wind and the electrical charges," said Boyer, who has never heard anything until recently, when she moved into a new house closer to the Gorge. "I think you can hear the electricity run through the house."
Sitting in his church office on Paseo del Pueblo Norte, Mell sounds out the hum he hears: "Ommmmm," like a calming meditation, but he says it's anything but soothing.
Mell moved to Taos seven years ago without knowing about the troublesome noise but woke up several times in the middle of the night hearing a loud hum. Thinking it was the refrigerator, he walked toward the kitchen, but the sound seemed to recede.
When he walked outside, the hum completely disappeared.
The story makes perfect sense to Joe Mullins, the retired University of New Mexico physicist who in the 1990s headed up a task force of scientists from the national laboratories at Sandia and Los Alamos and from Phillips Air Force Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base to interview "hum hearers" and examine every possible sound surrounding them.
"I don't think it's Taos at all," says Mullins, who lives on Albuquerque's West Side.
"It's a worldwide thing" that's been reported everywhere from China and Japan to Kokomo, Ind.
The Internet has numerous site and chat rooms, including the "hum forum" on Yahoo, where hearers from around the world gauge relief methods and discuss hum locations.
Stephen Daniels, who owns Needlepoint de Taos and Starving Artists Gallery, said he happened to be talking about the Taos hum with a hotel clerk last month in Phoenix.
"He said, 'You know, I hear the Taos hum here.' ''
Mullins says the task force conclusion was that the hum stems from some kind of ear condition that probably affects about 2 percent of the population.
"It's generated from the inside," he said, comparing it to tinnitus, which is a high-pitch sound.
But the hum can't be categorized as tinnitus because what hum-hearers describe is a low-pitch noise.
The task force considered further research on the ear condition, but Mullins said it was difficult to get funding.
"This is not life-threatening," he said.
As annoying as the hum has been for Mell, he's learned how to deal with it:
"It's not painful, and if I focus on something else, I'll lose consciousness of it."
There have also been mornings when he awakens, notices the humidifier was never turned on to produce white noise that would mask the hum and realizes he slept all night without any disturbance.
The hum seems most bothersome at night.
"If you live in a noisy area like New York City, you're not likely to hear it," Mullins said. A rural place like Taos is prime real estate for the hum to surface.
City noises mask the hum, which is why the task force suggested using a "white noise" machine to mask it during sleep hours.
And if that doesn't work?
"I knew some people who moved away because it bothered them so much," said Joel Lage, who works at Import Outlet.
But Mullins says moving is a bad option.
It's true that leaving Taos' high altitude for a sea level locale can at first cause changes in the ear so that the hum goes away. But it's just temporary, he says it will come back.
Gallery owner Lage said that Taos had moved on from the hum and that locals were now more interested in the vapor trails, called "chemtrails," left in skies by aircraft.
One conspiracy theory is that some jet contrails are composed of chemicals being deliberately distributed by the government as part of high-tech military communications or for other nefarious reasons.
"People think that a grid is being laid down," Lage said.
"Big brother," he said.