Huffin the Puffin (A children’s story)—D. McShea, 2012
Huffin the puffin sat on a fence overlooking the sea. Seagull fluttered down next to him.
“I was wondering,” said Huffin, not waiting for a hello.
“Hello,” said Seagull, paying no attention to Huffin’s not waiting for a hello.
“Yeah,” said Huffin. “I was wondering. You know that silly old puzzle about the tree in the forest?”
“Tree in the forest?”
“You know,” said Huffin, “the one about the tree that falls in a forest. It’s an easy one, but there’s one thing I’m not sure about.”
“What forest?” Seagull looked around for a forest. But there wasn’t one, and hadn’t been for as long as he could remember coming to this spot. Just a grassy cliff, overlooking the sea. And this fence. He looked down at the fence under his feet. There was the fence. But no forest.
“We’ll talk about the fence later,” said Huffin, as if able to read Seagull’s mind.
“How did you know …?”
“An imaginary forest,” Huffin went on. “Imagine a forest.” He paused to give Seagull time to imagine a forest. “Now imagine a tree in that forest.” He paused again. “Got it?”
“It’s a pine tree.” Seagull’s eyes were closed so that he could picture the tree and the forest.
“Okay now imagine there’s no one in the forest. And I mean no one. No birds. No mice. No rabbits. No people. No earthworms. No mosquitos. Nobody. … Got it?”
“Got it.” Seagull shut his eyes tight, to help hold the image.
“Now suppose the tree falls.”
“I just made it fall,” said Seagull shutting them even tighter.
“Good,” said Huffin. “So here’s the old puzzle, a puzzle that people have puzzled over since the early days of puzzles. And I know the answer. But I still have a question.”
“What’s the puzzle?” Seagull looked puzzled. “I think I’ve heard this one, but remind me.”
“Well,” said Huffin,” it’s this: does the falling tree make a sound.”
“If there’s no one to hear it? If a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one to hear, does it make a sound? I’ve heard that one!”
“It’s easy,” said Seagull. “It does make a sound. When trees fall, they always make a sound. There’s a big crack. The bark splits. It’s a huge noise. I’ve heard it happen. Very scary. One came down near me once. Thank goodness for the huge noise. I only just got out of the way.”
“But the puzzle wants to know whether it would have made a sound if you hadn’t been there. If no one had been there. If the tree falls when there are no ears to hear it, does it still make a sound?“
“Oh, right,” said Seagull, uncertainly. Then, “Oh!” Seagull said, excitedly. And then, “Oh …” Seagull said, unhappily.
“You’re right that it’s an easy one,” said Huffin. “But my question is harder …”
“Of course it makes a sound,” interrupted Seagull. “When the bark is cracking, how could the bark know whether there’s anyone to hear it. It’s going to crack in the same way, and make the same sound whether there’s anyone there or not,” Seagull puffed his feathers up, pleased with himself for having found a nice clear way to think about the problem. But then he made the mistake of thinking about it some more, and as he did, his feathers began to deflate. “Of course, if there’s no one there, there’s no one to know whether there was sound or not?” He shift uncomfortably, raising one webbed foot as if to dry it in the breeze, placing it carefully back down on the fence, and then raising the other. He did this a few times, first one foot and then the other. And finally, “I’m going to say there is a sound. It doesn’t matter if anyone hears it. There’s a sound whether anyone hears it or not.”
“Yeah,” said Huffin, looking sideways at Seagull. “That’s the right answer.” Seagull puffed himself up again. “So, about that sound,” Huffin continued. “The sound the tree makes when it falls. The sound that’s there whether anyone knows it or not. What would you say that sound sounds like?”
“What do you mean, ‘What does it sound like?’”
“I mean: Is it loud? Is it soft? Is it a bang, a crunch, a pop-pop? What does it sound like?”
“Sort of a combination of all those. And pretty loud. The one that fell near me was like that.”
“But you were there for that one. I mean the one that falls when no one’s there. What does that one sound like, do you suppose?”
“Same as any other, I think. Same as the ones that fall where there’s someone to listen.”
“But you don’t really know, do you? For all you know, it could be that the ones that fall when no one’s around sound really different from the ones that fall when someone is around.”
“I don’t think they would sound different. I mean, why would they?”
“You’re right, I’m sure. Probably they sound the same. But you don’t really know, do you?
“I could put a microphone in the forest, or a cell phone, and I could …”
“Well that’s the same as if you were in the forest listening. The puzzle wants to know what it sounds like if no one is listening, and that rules out listening from outside the forest.”
A long pause, followed by a longer pause, followed by an even longer pause. Many long pauses in a row.
“Oh,” Seagull sighed sadly. “I don’t know.”
“So if you have no idea what it sounds like, how do you know that there’s a sound.”
“I just do,” Seagull said, standing tall. “I know there’s a sound. There has to be.”
“I think that’s right,” Huffin nodded his head gull in agreement.
“What?” Seagull was caught off guard.
“I think that’s right,” Huffin said again. “I think there’s a sound, even if there’s no one to hear it.”
“Really?” Seagull said cheerfully.
“Yes. Tree falls. Makes a sound. It doesn’t check to see whether anyone is hearing it.”
“Great!” Seagull sighed a sigh that said he was grateful to have this answered. And he was, because the answer made sense to him, sortof. “That makes sense. Doesn’t matter what it sounds like. It makes some kind of noise.”
“No I don’t think so,” said Huffin matter-of-factly.
“I don’t think it does.” Huffin repeated.
“But you just said it makes a sound.”
“And so it does.” Huffin’s voice was calm, even.
“Does what?” Seagull’s voice was rising.
“It makes a sound.”
“Yes, a noise. A loud noise!” Seagull said excitedly.
“No, I don’t think so,” Huffin said.
“You think it makes a soft noise?” Seagull demanded.
“No, it doesn’t make any noise,” Huffin came back.
“But you just said … ,” complained Seagull.
“That it makes a sound,” Huffin finished Seagull’s sentence.
“And then you said it makes no noise!” Seagull was jumping up and down on the fence now.
“Right,” said Huffin.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!” Seagull yelled loudly, his voice cracking and splitting. He surprised himself how loud it came out. The echo hung in the air for some moments afterward. They both waited a heartbeat or two for the noise to die away.
“That was loud,” said Huffin, grinning.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” said Seagull.
Huffin grinned again at Seagull, and Seagull grinned back. They both laughed, neither of them quite sure what they were laughing at, but happy to be laughing.
“So,” said Huffin, getting things back on track. “The tree that falls when no ones hears. It makes a sound, but not a noise.”
“Oh,” said Seagull. “What’s the difference?”
“A sound is something happening out there. Outside your head. It’s a wave. A sound wave. It’s the air moving back and forth. Vibrating. It happens out there, in the air.”
“And a noise?”
“A noise is different. A noise happens in your head. In your mind. It’s what happens in your mind when a sound hits your ear.”
“So the falling tree?
“It makes a sound, whether or not there’s anyone there. But if there’s no one there, it doesn’t make a noise. For a noise to be a noise it has to be heard. Otherwise it’s just a sound.”
“I get it!” said Seagull.
Huffin tilted his head toward seagull. He looked worried. “Well?”
“Well what?” said Seagull.
“Are you going to scream?”
“No,” said Seagull. “No, I’m good.” And then, “I get it. Makes a sound. Sounds are out there. But noises are in your head. No head out there means no noise. Makes sense. So that was your puzzle?”
“No,” said Huffin. “That was the old puzzle. I have a different puzzle.”
“Uh-oh,” said Seagull.
“My puzzle is different.”
“Yeah?” Seagull felt a chill coming over him.
“I’m not worried about the sound and the noise.”
“No?” said Seagull, stiffening himself.
“No. I’m worried about the tree,” said Huffin.
“Well,” said Seagull. “If you hear one falling, just get out of the way.”
“I’m worried about this: when a tree falls in a forest, if there’s no one around, is there a tree?”
Seagull gulped. Then smiled broadly. “That’s easy! It’s just like the sound and the noise. The falling tree makes light waves, as well as sound waves. But if there’s no one to see the light waves, then there’s no … what’s the right word? … there’s no image of the tree. An image is something that happens only in your head! It’s like a noise!” He stood straight up, posing for the world, a proud seagull who had understood something, something hard to understand.
“That’s good,” said Huffin. “I like that. No one there, so no image. Just like a noise. Nice.”
“So we answered your puzzle!”
“Even better,” said Huffin, “it works for smell and touch and taste. All of the five senses. There’s a part that’s real, out there. And a part that only exists if there’s someone to smell, touch, or taste it.”
“How would you taste a falling tree?” wondered Seagull.
“I agree it would be risky,” said Huffin. “Maybe wait until it’s done falling.”
“I don’t think that would make it taste any better,” Seagull said, his face scrunched up.
“Anyway, that’s settled.” Huffin nodded his head, in a way that said it was settled.
A long pause.
“Well,” said Huffin, “almost settled. I was really wondering about the tree itself.”
“We answered that,” Seagull came back.
“No, we answered the question whether the tree by itself makes sound waves and a noise. And we decided, it just makes sound waves. And we wondered whether it makes light waves or an image. And we decided it makes just light waves. But what about the tree itself? I mean, never mind the sound and the light and the smell and the touch and the taste, what about the tree itself? The thing itself. Without the noise, and without the image, without the smell: is it there? Without its weight and its heaviness, and without its length and its width. Without the strength and the solidness that holds it together. Without all that stuff that someone there could notice, is it there? And if it is there, exactly what is it that’s there? Without all the stuff that you could notice, what is the tree?”
Seagull was quiet, but his eyes were wide with alarm.
“I guess it doesn’t matter,” Huffin sighed, and crouched, getting ready to fly. “We figured out the important part. We figured out the sound and noise part. And whole thing is just a silly puzzle anyway. It’s not like it really matters.” He eyed Seagull sideways. “Of course, this fence is made of the same stuff the tree is made of. And since the fence is holding us up, it would be nice to know what it really is, I mean underneath all the stuff that’s in our heads – the image of the fence, the way it smells, the way it feels, its size, and its heaviness. What’s underneath all that, what’s inside holding all those things together, do you suppose …” he trailed off.
Seagull stared down at the fence under his webbed feet. It still held him up.
“But I wouldn’t worry about it. There must be something underneath, something inside,” Huffin spread his wings. “I’ll be seeing you.” His wings caught the air and lifted him slightly as he got ready to fly.
“I wasn’t worried before,” Seagull said. “But I am now.” He gingerly stepped off the fence and fluttered to the ground next to it. He looked up at the fence with some concern. Then he stared down at the grassy ground, now holding up his feet. “And the ground too!” He lifted his head. “And the air too! Huffin, what’s your point? The fence, the ground, the air. Is there anything there?” He looked helplessly up at where Huffin had stood. But Huffin was gone.