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“We are not at the pinnacle of human knowledge. We are just beginning.” ~ Katy Payne
In a recent “On Being” podcast, acoustic biologist Katy Payne shared how her research into how whales and elephants communicate required her to examine sounds inaudible to the human ear.
Thirty years of studying the sophisticated communication of humpback whales off the coast of Argentina taught her that they not only communicate in relation to food and protection, but often what they share are ever-evolving songs. Songs that are complex, theme-based, and melodic.
Until Payne took the time to listen to and study the sound frequencies of these social creatures, the world knew nothing of whale song. Nor did we know of the “cultural evolution” underpinning the creation of their songs. Their ability to compose and sing songs was not inborn; they learned this musical gift from listening to each other.
From Zoo to Savannah:
Some time after her work with humpback whales, Payne, on a chance visit to Portland Zoo in Oregon, and in a fit of “childish wonderment,” decided to listen to the communication between elephants.
She describes what she calls a “throbbing” or “shuddering” in the air when she stood close to the elephants, but this vibrational frequency could not be heard at a distance from the animals.
She had stumbled upon the infrasonic communication system of elephants; and so another research adventure began, taking her to Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Namibia.
As with her studies of humpback whale communication, she learned an immense amount about the type and patterns of communication between elephants. She learned to “feel” the sounds they were making and to understand their concomitant circumstances—whether fear, grief, or jubilant excitement.
Shortly after her visit to Portland Zoo, and before deciding where in the world to begin her in-depth research on elephant communication, Payne describes a dream she had. In the dream, she is surrounded by African elephants on a flat savannah. When reaching out to her with their trunks, the matriarch of the group “spoke” to her: “We did not reveal this to you so that you would tell other people.”
Payne’s interpretation of this dream was that the elephants had revealed what she learned—not that she had discovered it.
It was a lesson in humility.
We are not listening:
Our current human-induced climate crisis, and the abominable disregard many corporations and governments have for the environment, exemplified most recently in the Brazilian government’s collusion in the raging Amazon fires, spells out one very clear message to me: we, as a human community, are not listening to the heartbeat of creation.
As I put it in my debut book, Do It Anyway: Deep Spirituality Meets Real Life:
“It seems to me that we have weakened our capacity to commune in a salubrious and symbiotic manner with the planet that has birthed us. We daily pollute the living organism that breathes for us. And our relationship with the earth seems to be primarily mechanistic, not organic…
We are so deeply disconnected from the anima mundi of our planetary home, as to be virtual exiles on the very soil and oceans that birthed us.
Our only hope is reconnection, an exponential raising of human consciousness—especially that of government leaders—from our heart (not head) chakra. What we need is Metanoia—a fundamental and profound conversion of the human heart; a humble and contrite admission of what has failed, coupled with a wholehearted consideration of what now needs to unfold.”
Our hearts, in essence, need to be ravished with love for our earthly home and with a deep compassion and reverence for all life—human, animal, and plant. We need to restore our sense of communion and inter-dependence. We belong to the heartbeat of creation; we are the natural rhythm of life itself, its evolutionary impulse. Failure to restore this primeval kinship with the earth—or to inspire it in the hearts of our elected leadership—could, in the end, be cataclysmic.
The earth is a living, breathing, conscious organism. I’m not concerned about its survival. It has cleansed and restored itself before and will do so again, if necessary.
But this time around, we may have gone too far. Such a deep planetary ablution may necessarily herald our demise.
As I write this, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg is crossing the Atlantic on a zero-emissions sail boat on her way to speak at the UN Climate Action Summit on September 23. Let’s welcome this young eco-warrior with open minds, hearts, and arms!
She’s a testament to the wisdom and passion of youth, in an age of untold alienation from the natural environment that literally holds our fate in its hands.
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