In the Presence of Elephants and Whales
Katy Payne is a visiting fellow with the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology. She was part of the research team that produced the original recording Songs of the Humpback Whale. Her book is Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants.
August 13, 2015
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: “We are made and set here,” the writer Annie Dillard once wrote, “to give voice to our astonishments.” Katy Payne is an acoustic biologist with a Quaker sensibility, and she’s found her astonishment in listening to two of the world’s most exotic creatures. She has decoded the language of elephants and was among the first scientists to discover that whales are composers of song.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
KATY PAYNE: By golly, they’re singing, of all things. They’re doing something that we recognize as singing. And so what that has done for me is to make me feel that what lies ahead to be discovered is absolutely limitless. We are not at the pinnacle of human knowledge. We are just beginning.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: For more than two decades, Katy Payne worked with the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology. She’s best known for creating the Elephant Listening Project in dense forest areas of Central Africa. But before that she raised her four children in part on the wild coast of Argentina, while listening to whales. I spoke with Katy Payne in 2007.
MS. TIPPETT: I usually start my conversations by talking about the background of your life, where you grew up, you grew up on a farm it sounds like, most of those years of your childhood, is that right?
MS. PAYNE: Yes, I spent the first 17 years of my life on a farm on the edge of a waterfall in this region here called the Finger Lakes region of Ithaca, New York.
MS. TIPPETT: And you then in college studied both music and biology?
MS. PAYNE: Well, nobody told me I was going to have to earn my living through what I did in college. And I loved music, and I wanted to learn a good deal more about that than I’d been able to learn back in the farming days. And then after college, I was married to a biologist, Roger Payne, who became very interested in studying whales and when we went to sea, we heard for the first time the wonderful sounds that humpback whales make in the ocean. At that time, nobody knew about them.
MS. TIPPETT: Really? Nobody knew about the song?
MS. PAYNE: No, they didn’t, they didn’t know it was a song. This was something we realized. You listen for a very long time and you hear these long sequences of phrases and notes begin to repeat and you say, “Oh, that was a song.” So, we were the first, and I spent 15 years then listening to these ever-changing songs of whales, and by the time I was through, people were calling me a biologist.
MS. TIPPETT: Is that what it means when you are referred to — they call you a self-trained acoustic biologist?
MS. PAYNE: Oh yeah, that’s pretty good.
MS. TIPPETT: Is that what it means, that you just started doing this?
MS. PAYNE: Well I guess it does!
MS. PAYNE: Of course, many animals make sounds, everything from crickets to humans to whales, birds, of course, frogs. And these sounds, in the case of animals, are thought of in relation to reproduction and courtship. In humans, although they may serve exactly the same function, they’re thought of in relation to aesthetics.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. PAYNE: And one of the aspects of my work has been to say, “Look, we don’t have to have two languages for this.”
MS. TIPPETT: So something that’s written about you is that you discovered that whale song is always changing. I mean, what is the significance of that?
MS. PAYNE: Well, the significance is that whales, like people, are composers. The songs are very complex. They consist of six to eight themes. Each theme has a melodic phrase that repeats over and over again and then changes to the next one.
[Sounds of whales singing]
MS. PAYNE: And so it would continue as a sequence of events, which then, as a whole, repeat song after song after song. But if you keep listening for months on end, and then for years on end, you discover that the song — each facet of it — is continually evolving to something slightly different. And all the whales in the ocean or in that singing population are changing their song in the same way. So that was something I discovered, and at the end of the day, I had studied 32 years’ worth of songs, many of them in two different populations.
MS. TIPPETT: So you’ve worked with whales and then you began to work with elephants. And although those are two very different kinds of creatures, they are two of the world’s largest and somehow most mysterious, exotic, and also somehow intelligent creatures. But tell me the story of how you began to work with elephants, then, out of all those years that you’d worked with whales.
MS. PAYNE: Well, the changing whale song was an example of cultural evolution. That is to say, an evolution — a gradual progressive change — that was occurring, because the animals were learning from each other. It wasn’t inborn. And a number of people at that time when we were doing that work, were interested in evidence of cultural evolution in various animals, so I was invited to go to the West Coast and participate in a symposium that gathered a number of us to talk about what we were finding.
While I was there, just by chance, I learned that in the Portland Oregon zoo a baby elephant had been born. In fact, there were three of them and they were being kept together, with their mothers who came from different continents, as if they were one family. So elephants are another very social — as you say, very intelligent, long-lived, huge animal, and I thought it would just be fun to sit in the zoo for a week and see what elephants are like. A very innocent, playful, childish thing. I was given permission to do this.
And I noticed, little by little through that week, that I was feeling over and over again a throbbing in the air, change of pressure in my ears, that would occur when I was near the elephant cages, but not when I was in other parts of the zoo. And I knew just enough — perhaps because of the whale studies — to know that there is sound below the pitches of the sound that human beings can hear. And lo and behold, we discovered there was a whole other communication system there that no one had known about. It was just below the frequencies our ears could hear.
MS. TIPPETT: You know what, what really strikes me though, also in you, I mean, I think that must be a certain kind of skill or gift, to feel a sound. In your book, Silent Thunder, you tell a story about how when you were young you read The Jungle Book, and you were riveted by this password that Mowgli had that allowed him to communicate with the animals. And I have this feeling as I read about you that it was this ability you had to hear even — or to feel sound beyond what everybody else standing around you might have heard or felt that kind of unlocked that communication for you.
MS. PAYNE: Well, thank you. You give me credit for something very pleasant. I think there’s a humbler way to express it, which was that I never really grew up. I think that children are aware of all kinds of things that they close themselves off for when they grow up. In that week when I was sitting in the zoo, I was just a child again, and all possibilities were open to me and this one just — there it was.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I mean you use words — I wrote down some of the words you used to describe. You described that “the air was thrilling or shuddering or throbbing,” and perhaps that’s true that the rest of us could experience that but we’re not paying attention on that level somehow.
MS. PAYNE: Oh, yes. Yes, go to a zoo and you’ll experience it.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s good.
MS. PAYNE: Oh, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: OK…
MS. PAYNE: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean I’d like you to talk a little bit about what you could then learn about elephants by listening to these infrasonic calls, or charting these. You founded something called the Elephant Listening Project in 1999.
MS. PAYNE: Yes, this is right. Well that was after about ten or twelve years of basic work with people in the Savannah elephant country in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Namibia, where we were really just recording from free-ranging, undisturbed elephants and trying to figure out how they were using their calls. And we found that there were lots of calls, maybe 70 or more, different circumstances in which elephants were calling to one another. Most of them were calls that organized the family. Families in elephants are females related to one another — sometimes three or even more generations — who live together and take care of each others young. A very tight, very integrated community. The males are considered to be outside the family even though they are of course progenitors but they live a very different kind of social life that involves competition between themselves. Most of the calls we found — although there were some calls associated with aggression, some calls associated with moving from one place to the next, many of them were calls between calves and their mothers or their aunts or their cousins.
MS. TIPPETT: It is fascinating how paying attention to these sounds and the calls does help you understand the social collective nature of elephant life, isn’t it?
MS. PAYNE: Yes, it is, and other people are picking up from where we did our beginnings there, in the Savannah elephants. The Elephant Listening Project is a little bit different. After a number of years getting the baseline information, I was pretty sure that the more calls we were hearing, the more elephants were present. This sounds like a pretty obvious conclusion but actually its not because there are days when you get very little activity and very little calling. But then there are also other days when there’s just a mass of calling. So I thought overall, I wonder whether we could use numbers of calls to tell us about numbers of elephants?
MS. TIPPETT: Right. As I understand it you were studying elephants who live in forests where sightings are rare, where it’s difficult to count and to know the numbers just visually.
MS. PAYNE: Yes, you’re exactly right. So this is what took us to the forest. It was the hunch that we could learn about elephants that we can’t see by making recordings of their calls, using remote recording devices that can store recorded sounds for long periods of time so that we can plant them in the forest and find out who’s there, who’s troubled, who’s thriving, how big the populations are, how they’re using the day and night, how they’re using the landscape, and that this could then be used for purposes of conservation.
[music: “Bi Lamban” by Toumani Diabaté & Ballake Sissoko]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with Katy Payne – an acoustic biologist with a Quaker sensibility – on lessons from a life spent listening to whales and elephants.
[music: “Bi Lamban” by Toumani Diabaté & Ballake Sissoko]
MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, I’m very intrigued by the language you use to talk about elephants. In one place you write that you developed a profound interest in these extremely social, long-lived beings whose intelligence is informed by deep memories and passions.
MS. PAYNE: The passions you see right in front of you if you just watch a social group of elephants. There’s competition, there’s play, there’s tons of fun. There are attachments among them. And the oldest female in an elephant family group is called the matriarch. She makes most of the decisions, unless you could say that the youngest baby makes most of the decisions. She follows very closely what the youngest baby is up to, often her grandchild. On one occasion when we were watching from an observation tower that stood above a very large forest clearing, we heard a scream from a baby way over on the east side of the clearing. Well, there were 80 elephants in front of us, but way over on the west side, one huge adult matriarch came running and ran the full length of the clearing. Well, it was the baby’s grandmother. So there is a passion, there is acquaintance with a call of an animal who probably hasn’t made very many calls in her life. And there is this huge sense of responsibility for the welfare of that calf.
Then we saw one day — this is a very sad and very marvelous thing that we witnessed. We witnessed the death of a young calf, a yearling calf, on the clearing right in front of our observation platform. This baby had come in with her mother repeatedly. She was very thin and weak, and on that day we knew she was going to die. She lay down and within a couple of hours, indeed, she had died. We were keeping a video record. It was very painful and hard for us to do so, but we did this for the rest of the day and all the next day. And during that time, more than 100 elephants, unrelated to the calf, walked past the place where the little corpse lay on the ground. Every single one of them did something that showed alarm, concern, or somehow showed they were aware of something novel that they were approaching. Some of them took a detour around. About a quarter of them tried to lift the body up with their tusks and their trunks, sometimes trying over and over again. One adolescent male attempted to lift up this little corpse 57 times, and walked away from it and came back five different times. Now, these were not related animals.
MS. TIPPETT: How do you understand what was going on? How do you understand that?
MS. PAYNE: You know, I have to interpret it as a human, and I have to say that on this occasion it seemed that elephants were taking responsibility for other members of their species, without regard for relationship at a time when they perceived somehow that help was needed.
MS. TIPPETT: Without regard for biological kinship, you mean.
MS. PAYNE: Yeah, that’s what I mean. And, you know, I think that this clearing that we watch and record is kind of like Grand Central Station for elephants. They’re coming from all over the map…
MS. TIPPETT: What’s it called? What is this clearing called?
MS. PAYNE: It’s called Dzanga, D-Z-A-N-G-A. It’s the Dzanga forest clearing in the Central African Republic, right in the heart of the equatorial rain forest. But supposing you were in Grand Central Station, surrounded by people you didn’t know, and suddenly you found a youngster in trouble. Would you be perturbed because it’s a member of your species? If there was no one caring for it, would you care for it? Well, about a quarter of those elephants who passed this body did, and the other three-quarters registered some kind of awareness that something was wrong.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, as a scientist, you’re very aware of thinking about evolutionary pressures and reasons for behavior to be as it is, and you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why social cohesion makes practical sense for elephants. But you’re also documenting behaviors like this, which don’t quite make sense, if you just think about it in evolutionary terms. Is that right? Is that a line you feel yourself crossing or …
MS. PAYNE: Well, I don’t know whether I’m crossing a line or whether that line has been too firmly drawn in the past. My sense is that community responsibility, when it’s managed well, results in peace. And peace benefits everyone. That taking care of someone or something to which you are not immediately genetically related pays you back in other dimensions, and the payback is part of your well-being. Compassion is useful and beneficial for all.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I mean, compassion is often a word you use to describe an ever-present — a quality at least especially among the females, the matriarchs and their families and the children.
MS. PAYNE: Right. Well, we sure saw a lot of it. And we saw a lot of competition and non-compassion, too. I mean, this is a social system just as humans have a social system, in which elephants fight for material goods — in the case of elephants, access to the mineral pits, in the case of male elephants, access to the fertile females. So we saw everything from soup to nuts. It was all, all very interesting and, really, all very familiar.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, you speak about elephants as being quite emotional. As you learned early on, as you first became interested in elephants, people who’d worked with them for a long time, as kind of being intrigued and fascinated and affectionate towards them and also finding them quite eccentric and tempestuous in a way.
MS. PAYNE: I would say that if there’s an animal that is, on the whole, more emotional than human beings, it’s elephants.
MS. TIPPETT: Really?
MS. PAYNE: Yeah. They have fits of delight and fits of frustration, and when a group of elephants that has been separated even for a few hours comes together, we would see, you know, members of the group on different sides of the clearing and we would say, ‘Oh, they’re soon going to meet,’ so we would focus our cameras and our attention on one of them. When they met, it was the most marvelous show of total New Year’s Eve, family-reunion excitement, as if they’d been apart for years. But actually, it was only since ten o’clock in the morning. They rush together, twirl their trunks together, roar, urinate, defecate, flap their ears, and the whole thing says that each individual is overcome with excitement.
[Sounds of elephants]
MS. TIPPETT: You know, earlier on when you and I first began to speak, you talked about how we scientists, human observers, have previously thought about animal sounds as very pragmatically oriented kinds of communication, having to do with mating, for example, and you didn’t want to draw the line quite that sharply. You said that in human cultures, sound also has aesthetic value. I mean, it sounds to me like you also see different levels of meaning in sound among these elephants, too.
MS. PAYNE: We do not understand nearly enough about any animal language to be able to go into these realms at all. But when we look at — I’m going to move now to the whales. When we look at the enormous energy that goes into continuously creating new, very complex songs and learning them so that all the individuals in the singing population are moving from one to the next to the next, we have to ask ourselves, “What’s driving this?” And the only sensible answer that the biologists can come up with is, “Well, the females like originality.” Now, are we talking about whales or people?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. PAYNE: Right. You see, the biologists themselves cross the line when they talk about something they call sexual selection, which is the preference by the animals that will chose a mate for a mate that’s either original or has a longer tail …
MS. TIPPETT: Creative, right.
MS. PAYNE: … or a more beautiful plume or, you know, or a different kind of song. So I think we don’t want to cut off the possibility that other animals are, in many ways, as complex and interesting as humans.
MS. TIPPETT: And you were listening to elephants, but you’ve also referred to elephants as great listeners.
MS. PAYNE: Yeah. They do something marvelous that I wish we would do more of the time. This is something you do find in Quaker meetings, actually, and in Buddhist meetings as well. The whole herd, and that may be 50 animals, will suddenly be still, completely still. And it’s not just a stillness of voice, it’s a stillness of body. So you’ll be watching the moving herd, they’ll be all over the place, they’ll be facing all directions, doing different things. Suddenly everything freezes as if a movie was turned into a still photograph, and the freeze may last a whole minute, which is a long time. They’re listening. When they freeze, they tighten and lift and spread their ears. This tells us — this, among other things, tells us that they’re concerned with what’s going on over the horizon.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, speaking of silence, tell me that story about how you became a Quaker and how that intersects with this work you do.
MS. PAYNE: Oh.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s a big question.
MS. PAYNE: Yeah. I guess I’ve always felt that a simpler life would be a good thing for me. Quakers are wonderful practicers of simplicity. They attempt to get their worldly affairs down to a dull roar so that they can help a little bit in meeting some of the world’s needs. I like that. And I find that meditation, which sometimes I’ve done as a Quaker, sometimes in other forms — I don’t know, I shouldn’t maybe use the word “meditation.” Just being silent is a most wonderful way to open up to what is really there. I see my responsibility, if I have one, as being to listen.
My church is outdoors mostly. What’s sacred to me is this planet we live on. It’s been here for more than four billion years. Life has been on it only for three billion years. Life as we know it, you know, for a very short time. It’s the only planet where life has been found. And that, to me, I think, is ultimately, you know, what, I consider it sacred. And I must say that if I could ask these animals that I like so much if there’s anything equivalent to what we speak of as being faith, I would love to do that.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, right. Yeah.
MS. PAYNE: We just don’t know. We just don’t know.
[Sounds of elephant calls]
MS. TIPPETT: At onbeing.org, listen to Katy Payne’s recordings of the songs of humpback whales and the percussive rhythms of elephants in the wild. And you can view playful images of these elephants at the Dzanga forest clearing. We’ve also featured a 60 Minutes segment with Katy Payne on our blog; it captures elephant interactions at the Dzanga forest, including what seem to be rituals of mourning the dead. Watch that video at onbeing.org.
[music: “Lagos Calling” by Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra]
MS. TIPPETT: Coming up, why the best way to protect wildlife can actually be taking care of the places where people live.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Lagos Calling” by Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, reflections from a life of listening to the songs and sounds of elephants and whales. Katy Payne was the first scientist to discover that humpback whales compose ever-changing song to communicate. And she was first to understand that elephants communicate with one another across long distances by infrasound.
Whales and elephants also share a precarious existence. Whales are hunted by countries that claim they compete with the fishing industry. And even in places where elephants are not hunted for ivory, their populations encroach on the land and livelihood of human beings.
In her memoir Silent Thunder, Katy Payne grieved over the selective extermination of several elephants she’d studied intimately, in a policy called culling — systematically killing elephant groups in order to control overpopulation.
MS. TIPPETT: I’d like to talk a little bit about some of the moral issues that come up in the work you do, which are also complex. You know, you describe in one place that this acoustic monitoring that you do provides recordings of animal sounds in these thick forests where these things can’t be seen, but it also records human presence in the form of gunshots, chainsaws, and seismic and vehicle noise. I guess it sounds like the elephant tusks, when they’re removed, are removed by chainsaws, which is a pretty violent image. And so you’ve always, it seems to me, been rubbing up against this — what happens when animals and human beings live together and live together with some competing interests.
MS. PAYNE: This is true. If you study an endangered species, you are going to find out that the reason it’s endangered, in 99 percent of the cases, is because of human activities, human exploitation, or perhaps just because of crowding, just because humans are taking up environments or changing environments that were previously inhabited by animals.
Now, having said that, I immediately realize that of the six mass extinctions that we know about, some of them took place before humans and are explained by seismic activity of the earth and climate changes in the earth. But nowadays, when we’re finding that one out of every four mammalian species is judged to be at risk for extinction in the near future, we have a lot to worry about because unless humans control their own activities, we will lose the biodiversity, we will lose the diversity of plants and animals, that makes the earth a habitable place for them and for us.
Much more practically and, you know, on a much tinier scale, what we’re up against in the case of elephants in the forests is poaching.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. PAYNE: Poaching is done by people, some of whom are perfectly innocent of all kinds of bad intentions, who are hungry, who are brought in by lumber companies that are cutting wood, who are paid for by Asian importers of ivory or, indeed, who are getting bush meat. There are lots of people on this earth, and the people in the Central African Forest area tend to be very poor and very needy.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And, you know, I find this very striking in your stories, that clearly poaching is something you are against, and yet you’re always realizing that it’s often a correlate of poverty or of local uprisings, and so it’s not so simple to divide the world into good guys and bad guys.
MS. PAYNE: No, and I don’t want to do that at all. I think that whatever relief to the situation comes is going to come as a result of a lot of integrated effort of people who are helping in human development, helping the people, people who are interested in wildlife conservation, and people who are using law enforcement in a considered and careful way to protect a marvelous species that’s in danger of extinction. These elephants in the African rainforest are living in an amazingly diverse place. It’s one of the ironies of our situation is that the places where you find most kinds of animals and plants tend to be the places where people are poorest.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. PAYNE: And so, you know, we’ve got a lot to think about.
MS. TIPPETT: Now, that’s an interesting link you’re drawing between wildlife conservation and taking care of human beings.
MS. PAYNE: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. PAYNE: Well, look, there’s a lot that we who have too much can do about this, because one of the very big driving forces that leads to the exploitation of the forests and of the minerals that are in the forests could be called greed on the part of people in the developed countries. If each of us restricts our own lives to what we really need, there’ll be more for everyone.
MS. TIPPETT: But, you know, I think that’s a hard equation for people to feel. Do you know what I mean? I mean, on the one hand when you talk about the places you’ve seen and the crises you know, it’s so far away. It’s so hard for people just to connect that with the car they drive, you know, even if they do it intellectually.
MS. PAYNE: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And so that’s our task, you see. Here you are on the radio, here we are on the radio; our task is to make this real. This planet, this planet is the only place where we have this kind of life. Let’s not blow it.
[Sounds of elephant calls]
MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, there’s another — what do you want to call it — a policy that has been morally perplexing and, I think, very distressing for you. That’s not poaching, but it’s what they call culling elephants in areas where it seems the elephant population has grown to a level that is uncomfortable for the human population, where it feels crowded for everyone, and this is a policy of systematically killing elephant groups in order to make room.
MS. PAYNE: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And is there a competition simply for food? For land? What is the competing interest that takes place?
MS. PAYNE: Well, it’s really for land and the — but it’s for food as well. When they’re struck by a drought, both elephants and people will be hungry and thirsty. Their crops will fail and both of them will use the human crops. And then there will be conflict. There was a very disturbing, and I think very appropriate, article in The New York Times Magazine…
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MS. PAYNE: …which I think was called, “Are We Driving Them Crazy?” And it was a report on the fact that in many, particularly southern African, regions where we get this conflict, the elephants are becoming belligerent, so that they are actually killing people and destroying villages, as it were, unnecessarily, not in the midst of a contest for crop food, but just …
MS. TIPPETT: And the implication was belligerent and depressed, I mean, kind of mentally damaged, right?
MS. PAYNE: Yeah. Sure. Well, it’s all very understandable, and it’s terribly disturbing. And I have to say that I don’t have an answer for this at the moment. I don’t know. I’m just disturbed about it, too.
Culling I think is a terrible thing to do. What you have in the aftermath of a cull is a displaced, disrupted, dismembered population with all the same sorts of problems that you get when that happens in a war zone.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You know, you use a lot of war analogies, war poetry, in your writing. I noticed that and I didn’t feel like it was intentionally making that comparison but it did seem to be somehow a relevant kind of analogy to make.
MS. PAYNE: Well, thank you. I suppose it was subconscious. This is a piece of what I know that I don’t know how to deal with.
MS. TIPPETT: Uh-huh.
MS. PAYNE: I’m a pacifist.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, and yet you’re as aware of the complexity of these clashes as anyone could be and the real needs that are on each side.
MS. PAYNE: Yes, I just am…yes. [laughs] Sorry, I can’t give you an answer.
MS. TIPPETT: No, I think just naming things is really important. I’m curious about — The New York Times article suggested that elephants are really — again, kind of being mentally damaged, that kind of analysis is made possible by some of the work you’ve done, which does show that these creatures have memories also of relationships.
MS. PAYNE: Well, yes. Let me tell you an interesting thing. Once, in the very beginning, out in the Portland Oregon zoo, we recorded the voice of an old matriarch named Rosie, who happened to have a grandaughter also in the herd. Some ten years later, eight or ten years later, I was invited back to the zoo to participate in a television documentary, and I said I would do it if we could do a little experiment. I would just like to play those sounds that we recorded from Rosie to the group. And Rosie had been dead for several years, but her granddaughter, Sunshine, was still alive and there. And when we played these calls, the elephants went into paroxysms of groaning and roaring. Well, I do expect that they were recognizing that voice. You know, there’s a real memory, and voice is part of it.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. PAYNE: There’s something very physical about this kind of memory and this kind of emotion.
[Sounds of elephant calls]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, reflections from acoustic biologist Katy Payne’s life of listening to the songs and sounds of elephants and whales.
[music: “Nehamusasa: Instrumental Excerpt I” by Shona Mbira Music]
MS. TIPPETT: I also, as I read what you’ve written, see you learning, enriching in contradictory things from the Africans who live in proximity to elephants all of their lives, who you came to work with and know as friends.
MS. PAYNE: Yes, I was immensely lucky for two years to work among Ndebele and Shona people out in the bush in Zimbabwe. I had actually lived very close to them, up on top of a high escarpment in tents for one field season. There’s a rich dream life; there’s also a rich dance life. The children in these communities did not have toys, they didn’t have many clothes, but they had their bodies. And you should see them dance. They could dance for hours and hours and hours, always with new compositions. They were like the whales with their music. It was always something new, always something you could imitate. It was intense expression of emotion, of fun, a form of play. [laughs] Well…
MS. TIPPETT: Did — yeah, go on.
MS. PAYNE: Yeah. No, I’m going to think about whether I should tell you about a dream. But go ahead.
MS. TIPPETT: I’d like — no, I’d really like to hear about a dream. Please, tell me.
MS. PAYNE: [laughs] OK. I don’t know where dreams come from, but on the night of the day that I realized we had discovered this immense amount of communication that no one had known about in elephants, I fell asleep and dreamed. And I dreamed that I was surrounded by elephants. Now, at that time, I had only seen Asian elephants in a zoo. In my dream, I was surrounded by African elephants on a flat piece of savannah. And they were reaching out to me with their trunks, sniffing me the way elephants do.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. PAYNE: And then the matriarch of the group spoke. Well, you know, I didn’t hear her voice, but I heard the words and they were in English because that’s what I understand. And she said, “We did not reveal this to you so that you would tell other people.” So I woke knowing that the elephants had revealed it to me, not that I had discovered something. See, that was the message.
MS. TIPPETT: But did that mean that they didn’t want you to share this knowledge?
MS. PAYNE: Beats me.
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]
MS. PAYNE: I’m still trying to figure it out.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, you write in your book, which is part memoir, Silent Thunder, about going home and the conflicting feelings you had. And, you know, after speaking with you here for a little while, I can really imagine those and just the contrast between the world you’d been living in and the world you are in now, in the United States. And you also wrote — and I thought this was very ironic and quite brave and honest of you to write down, you know, “Here I would be posting signs around my 14 acres (once held communally by the Cayuga Indians): ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY: TRESPASSING FOR ANY PURPOSE IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.'” [laughs]
How do you live differently, coming back here? How do you struggle, perhaps, differently with things that are taken for granted, that you do anyway, because you’re here?
MS. PAYNE: [laughs] Yeah, I’m aware of how lucky I’ve been to have these experiences. What can you do?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MS. PAYNE: You know, I mean, I love my land and I don’t really want it to be overrun with people. I love the fact that there are beavers on it, and deer and herons and, you know. It’s wonderful to me as a wild place and so I suppose what I do is to take the overarching feeling of love for nature as my excuse to live on the edge of a lovely natural place, which I protect as part of the Finger Lakes Land Trust.
MS. TIPPETT: I see.
MS. PAYNE: It’s a different standard. But it’s the same standard.
MS. TIPPETT: You also learned, when you came back, for example, that a friend of yours — that his wife had been killed by an elephant, someone you’d worked with, with the elephants.
MS. PAYNE: Right, right.
MS. TIPPETT: You learned that some of the elephants you’d followed and known intimately as personalities — with names like Miss Piggy and Friday — that they had been culled.
MS. PAYNE: Right. Then I went into a depression for a year or so and decided not to do any more elephant studies for a while but to try to write about that experience really for the purpose of coming to terms with it. It was a very interesting thing to do. One of the things that I found when I looked at the park’s records on these animals was that they were valued for the weight of their tusks.
MS. TIPPETT: The animals who’d been culled.
MS. PAYNE: Yeah. And they were animals we had just begun to know as individuals. I guess one of the points I should make is that a remarkable thing about elephants is the individuality of each one, again a very human-like quality. Although it’s very tempting when you’re doing the first studies of the social behavior of an animal to lump them and say, “Elephants are like this,” the fact is that one from the next, they’re tremendously different and individualistic and we saw this in their movement patterns, we saw this in their family groupings. Miss Friday was an animal who didn’t have a family, and we suspected that she was the victim of a previous cull. Crooked Tusk was a tremendously powerful matriarch who had an ally in another matriarch, and they monopolized the best resources and had the largest families, and always hung out together in large groups. So you could see these very interesting differences from individual to individual and family to family.
MS. TIPPETT: How do you think working and intimately knowing elephants and their social lives and whales and the songs of whales, this work you do, this passion you have, how does that make you think differently about what it means to be human?
MS. PAYNE: Well, the ocean is really huge. When you get out on a little boat, you know it. You’re clinging to a cork. It’s huge and it’s capable of immense hugeness. And out there, you know, rolling around and swimming through and perfectly at home in the waves, are these enormous animals. And by golly, they’re singing, of all things. They’re doing something that we recognize as singing. And so what that has done for me is to make me feel that what lies ahead to be discovered is absolutely limitless. We are not at the pinnacle of human knowledge. We are just beginning.
[Sounds of whales singing]
MS. TIPPETT: Katy Payne is a visiting fellow with the Bioacoustics Research Program of Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology. She was part of the research team that produced the original recording Songs of the Humpback Whale. Her book is Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants.
[music: “Freetown” by Future Loop Foundation]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this show at onbeing.org. There you can also listen to recordings and see photographs of these humpback whales and African elephants. And hear more of the background stories Katy Payne tells about her travels and work in the wild. You can do that by downloading my unedited interview with her on iTunes or on our website, onbeing.org.
[music: “Walk In The Sky” by Bonobo]
MS. TIPPETT: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Nicki Oster, Michelle Keeley, Maia Tarrell, Annie Parsons, Tony Birleffi, and Haleema Shah.
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