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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Muddy Depictions Create New Ways of Seeing

by Krista Tippett, host

Katy Payne is the kind of person I love to interview. For starters, she is warm and delightful, wise and instructive, about things I had never pondered before. And though eminent in her field of “acoustic biology,” she is not a famous name.

She is a practicing Quaker and a student of the spiritual philosophy of the 20th-century, Greek-Armenian philosopher Gurdjieff, who taught self-awareness and openness to reality. The spirituality she reveals during our conversation derives its passion directly from life — and from her rare, intimate experience of usually hidden slices of the natural world.

Katy Payne is a beautiful example of a line that I love from the writer Annie Dillard — words that I take as a definition of vocation: “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your astonishment.”

Payne has spent a life following her astonishment at the lives and language of whales and elephants. Along the way, her reverent attention has led to a few breakthrough scientific discoveries.

Humpback whaleKaty Payne was a listener long before she became a self-trained acoustic biologist. She loved music before she loved biology, and as an undergraduate at Cornell she studied both. From there, in the 1960s, she became part of the first team of scientists to understand that humpback whales communicate by song. She later discovered that their songs are not inborn and fixed, but constantly evolving. Whales, like people, she says, are composers.

That is just one of the things I know about the planet I inhabit, from this conversation with Katy Payne, that I might not have learned otherwise. She also teaches me that elephants are emotional, passionate, intensely social creatures. And people who live close to them have always expressed both fear and fascination at their evident intelligence and memory and a mysterious ability to coordinate family movements across long distances.

Somewhat by chance, in the wake of her discoveries about whales, Katy Payne had an opportunity to observe elephants in a zoo in Portland, Oregon — and there she “felt” sounds that she was later able to identify as infrasonic. She later spent 15 years monitoring and decoding the basic vocabulary of elephants, and, in 1999, she founded the Elephant Listening Project in the equatorial rainforests of central Africa. This project has become a resource for thinking deeply and creatively about protecting these large and exotic creatures who increasingly compete with human beings for land and food as their habitats shrink.

I like people who muddy depictions of good and bad, right and wrong. That pit people and causes irrevocably against one another. Such voices do not simplify; they often make an “issue” feel even more complicated than before. And yet they also open our eyes to new ways of seeing, and new possibilities forward. Katy Payne offers unusual insight into the moral irony even of the noblest conservation efforts.

Dzanga elephantsOver the years she has bitterly grieved the death of elephants she has studied — killed either by poachers or by culling, an official practice in some African countries of selective reduction of elephant populations that encroach on human land and livelihood. She knows that poaching is often a corollary of poverty, political instability, and hunger. She suggests that the best we can do to preserve some forms of wildlife is to support the health and vitality of the human populations with whom they coexist.

Katy Payne also experiences irony in the “No Trespassing” sign she posts on her 14 acres in upstate New York, after her years in the wildness and unbounded geography of Africa. And yet, in conversation, she makes that far-away wildness real in a way that facts and news reports and policy debates never can.

I know something about forest elephants now that makes me feel invested in their fate, as well as that of the people with whom they more closely share life. I feel myself blessed very directly by the songs of the humpback whales as Katy Payne describes the largest lessons they leave with her:

"The ocean is really huge. When you get out on a little boat, you know it. You’re clinging to a cork … And out there, rolling around and swimming through and perfectly at home in the waves are these enormous animals. And by golly, they’re singing … And so what that has done for me is to make me feel that what lies ahead is absolutely limitless. We are not at the pinnacle of human knowledge. We are just beginning."

Creating this show is a gift. I hope you experience it that way too.

About the images above: Photo of Humpback whale in Hervey Bay, Australia by Michael Dawes. Photo of forest elephants in Dzanga-Sangha National Park, Central African Republic by Nicholas Rost.

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How Does Katy Payne Record Elephant Infrasound?

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Acoustic biologist Katy Payne has studied whale songs and elephant communications for decades, and she’s our featured guest on this week’s show. She works in the realm of infrasound. That is, sound which is lower in frequency than what the human ear can normally comprehend.

While spending time at a zoo, she sensed a “throbbing” in the air near the elephants and wondered if it was possible that they were creating infrasound. She soon discovered that elephants do make such sounds to communicate meaning to one another, and even identified patterns to their language. Bayanga 2

In her 2009 PopTech presentation, she explains how she makes elephant sounds audible to the human ear by speeding up a recording by 10 times (which raises their sounds by 2.5 octaves). She hung audio/video recording devices from trees among an elephant population in Africa and retrieved enough data to link an elephant’s behavior to consequent sounds.

Even after a decade of working in radio, I still feel a child-like wonder at the kinds of unknowns that an audio recorder can capture about the world. Especially when it’s something that human ears or human attention would otherwise overlook.

(photo: Nicolas Rost/Flickr)

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The Elusive Footage of Elephants Mourning
Colleen Scheck, senior producer

This week’s guest, Katy Payne, was one of the scientists interviewed in a recent 60 Minutes feature about the ongoing study of elephant behavior in the Dzanga forest clearing in the Central African Republic. This is worth watching because it contains beautiful and moving footage of elephant interaction, including how elephants behave after the death of a young calf in 2000. I believe, though have yet to confirm, that this is the footage Katy Payne describes in our program:

"…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."

The feature focuses primarily on efforts to create an “elephant dictionary” from studying vocalizations, including infrasonic sounds. Katy Payne is as warm and passionate as she was with us, giving some impressive imitations of elephant vocalizations herself.

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Reflection on the Human/Animal Bond

by Colleen Scheck, producer

Oban in Como ParkI’ve just returned from one of my favorite weekend routines: an early morning walk through the park with my happy, bounding yellow lab, Oban. I live near one of the busiest parks in the state of Minnesota, but at 6:30 on a winter Sunday morning, it’s just the two of us, and, if we’re lucky, a few early-rising creatures. Today a chorus of woodpeckers guided us through a timbered path on the public golf course – the same path where last fall a large grey owl monitored our steps from atop a broken tree limb.

I treasure these walks with Oban for the opposing sense of solitude and companionship I feel with him. In simple ways, he reminds me about commitment and the reciprocity of relationship. I’ll walk along at a steady pace; if he runs ahead too far, he’ll turn around and wait for me to catch up, or if he lags behind, I’ll look back and find him running at me full speed to stay close.

“There is little that separates humans from other sentient beings – we all feel pain, we all feel joy, we all deeply crave to be alive and live freely, and we all share this planet together” - a quote attributed to Gandhi, and one I thought of when I saw a recent New York Times story on the rehabilitation of the dogs abused by former NFL quarterback Michael Vick in his illegal dogfighting ring. The Best Friends Animal Society sanctuary in Utah houses 22 of Vick’s seized pit bulls who, despite suffering horrible abuse at the hands of humans, still seek human contact and affection (watch the accompanying audio slideshow on this).

We’ve talked about doing a program on the human/animal bond and its spiritual resonance (a topic of greater interest to the pet owners on our staff). Our recent re-broadcast of our program with Katy Payne reminded me of this. Since whales and elephants are not our domestic companions, I hope we can address similar themes of intuitive connection and belonging through the animals closer to our daily lives. I have yet to find a guest who would be a good fit for this topic. Any suggestions?

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Calling Up the Elephant Lady

Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer

As the newest member of the Speaking of Faith staff (I’ve been working for the show for almost 3 months now), I’m still navigating the somewhat awkward transition from fan to employee. This week’s upcoming show really brought that into relief.

Before I got this job, Whale Songs and Elephant Loves was perhaps my favorite show in the history of SOF. I remember listening to it more than a year ago, in my car, and there was that amazing moment when Krista points out how hard it is for people to really understand that their lives affect the survival of animals half-way around the globe. And Katy Payne gets very quiet and almost whispers, “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.” That just knocked me out. It seems so obvious, but when she states it that way I can’t help but marvel at the idea. This planet is the only place where we have this kind of life.

Flash forward about a year, and it’s now my job to get in contact with Katy Payne to find out if we need to update anything for the rebroadcast of the show. I dial her number, listen to it ring, and then suddenly that distinctive voice, somehow fragile and strong at the same time, is coming through my telephone. I tell her who I am and why I’m calling and she answers my questions, and I’m aware the whole time of how strangely small the world is, that a year ago I was marveling at the words over the radio of this woman who’s spent her life listening to whales and elephants, and now I’ve called her up and she’s listening to me. I’m almost surprised to find out she’s real. I thank her and say goodbye and she says, “Well, thank you. I loved that show. I think I’ll celebrate by listening to it again myself.”

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