Jerry Nelson: Hoping to avoid hearing aids, maybe zebrafish can help

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

“Can you hear that?” my wife asked.

We were watching TV in our living room. She was seated a few feet away from me and was holding our cat, Sparkles, on her lap.

I had to confess that I couldn’t hear what she thought I should be hearing.

“You mean you can’t hear Sparkles’ purr? She’s rumbling like a bulldozer!”

I picked up my iPhone, held it near the kitty and shot a short video. I believed my wife, but there’s nothing wrong with confirming a spouse’s assertions. “Trust but verify” is a good strategy for domestic relationships and international nuclear arms treaties.

When I played the video, I could indeed hear Sparkles’ purring. But I also had the iPhone’s volume cranked up to the “Saturn V rocket launch” level.

It should come as no surprise that I have attenuated auditory abilities. Time and ear abuse have taken a toll.

Sadly, I cannot chalk this up to attending earsplitting rock concerts during my wasted youth. Growing up on a dairy farm meant milking cows twice a day, which meant that any raucous rock concert would have to be held nearby and after we had completed evening chores. And while I’m still a fan of Led Zeppelin, they never held any concerts that were close enough and early enough for me to attend.

The majority of my acoustic assault took place on the seats of tractors. When I was a teenager, I desperately wanted a radio to help me keep up with the latest Top 40 hits while I rocked along out in the field. I eventually equipped our tractor with an AM radio that was the size of a breadbox and just as ugly.

Jerry Nelson

The radio needed to compete with the roar of the tractor’s engine, so I had to crank its volume way up. Neighbors who lived up to a mile away got to enjoy my musical tastes whether they wanted to or not.

As a beginning farmer, I purchased a John Deere 4020 that had a cheap aftermarket cab. The cab kept me dry when it rained, but I think it actually magnified the engine noise. In other words, it was the opposite of soundproof. One of the first things I did for the 4020 was install a radio in its cab.

I’ve also done my share of hunting through the years. My auditory canals have been mere inches away from the deafening reports of high-powered rifles and booming blasts from 12-gauge shotguns. Ear protection was unheard of back then.

When I was a kid, an old neighbor named Edwin stopped at our farm for a visit. He mentioned that he had just been to the doctor to see about his rapidly declining hearing.

“The doc used a special tool to clean out my ears,” Edwin said. “He washed out all kinds of stuff, wax, oat chaff, bits of silage. He said that there was enough dirt in my ears to raise a crop of turnips. I can hear better now, but it’s a mixed blessing. I’d forgotten how much my wife likes to yak!”

My Grandpa Nelson became hard of hearing when he contracted measles as a child. If Grandpa wasn’t wearing his hearing aids, you had to shout yourself hoarse to carry out even a brief conversation. He would cup a hand behind an ear and say, “Speak up! I’m a bit deaf!” Except he would pronounce deaf as “deef.”

Whenever Grandpa wore his hearing aids he would be perpetually twiddling with their controls. Sometimes the squeal of feedback could be heard by everyone in the room – except for Grandpa, it seemed.

My wife and I recently visited a local ice cream shop that’s managed by a young guy named Josh. We chatted with Josh and learned that he’s a trained marine biologist. This seemed improbable, but it soon became obvious that he knows a lot more about sea life that the average denizen of the prairie.         

During our chat, Josh mentioned that research involving zebrafish could eventually lead to a treatment for hearing loss. Zebrafish have the genetic ability to regrow the hair-like inner-ear cilia that can be damaged by loud noises such as overamped AM radios and roaring tractor engines.

It appears that my cilia have migrated to the outer ear where they transformed themselves into fast-growing hairs that can swiftly attain lengths that are commonly associated with Cher.

But there’s hope that hearing aids may not be part of my future. I look forward to the day when Sparkles purrs and looks up at me as if to say, “Can you hear me now?”

Jerry Nelson's book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at and in bookstores nationwide.