On NPR this past week I heard a story about what plants sound like when they grow. That alone is a visceral reminder about how so much around us is alive, even humble corn stalks, which tend to blend into the landscape and are typically only of interest when we see a mound of fresh ears of corn at the grocery store or farmer’s market. But over the months they were growing, those corn stalks were literally humming with life, which I must say is quite humbling.
Then I heard something even more striking—a long interview of Katy Payne on On Being. Payne is a self-trained acoustic biologist who studied the songs of whales for fifteen years and then the way elephants communicate for at least a dozen more, including discovering and studying the deep sounds beyond human hearing that elephants make.
What was most awe-inspiring was that the songs whales were composing were spreading and evolving across the entire singing population. As Payne explained, “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.”
Is this a way the whales create community? A shared song—literally? Is the evolution organic—like singing along with this year’s top hits and adding one’s own variation (a bit of Old Town Road and all its remixes)? Or is this song part of what makes these animals who they are—much of humans’ talking, after all, is self-expression or connecting socially, not communication of tangible physical needs.
The interview continued Payne’s later work with elephants, particularly her witnessing of elephants’ complex social relationships. In these groups, which are organized around a matriarch and multiple generations of females, there is significant communication occurring (Payne mentions she identified 70 calls used in different circumstances). But most remarkable was Payne’s description of how elephants reacted to a dead young elephant—where even unrelated elephants were moved to try to help or mourn this prone calf—revealing a deeper altruism and concern thought only to be in humans. And when Payne described the distress of elephants listening to the recorded voice of the former matriarch (dead several years) that further demonstrated the ‘humanity’ of these beings.
“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. There’s something very physical about this kind of memory and this kind of emotion.”
It’s like me hearing my dad’s voice—fourteen years after his death. It still brings up a longing and deep ache for time lost with him.
To listen to Payne, to understand that whales and elephants have shared cultures, changing their songs yearly, paying their respects to the fallen, building complex social ties that last even beyond death, it reminds us that humans aren’t all that special—or that other animals are just as special as us (depending if you’re a half-empty or half-full kind of person). We’re not separate from nature, but just happen to have opposable thumbs and a language ability that enabled us to more effectively and more fully exploit our environments. We build cities like termites, dams like beavers, we control territory like lions, we communicate like whales, strategize like dolphins, and organize like elephants. Who would’ve thought that in the combination of natural traits we acquired, we’d be so deadly?
But we don’t have to be. We can self-correct—probably no longer painlessly as too much damage has been done to Earth’s systems—but with the right evolution in our song, the right repatterning of our cultural norms and underlying beliefs, we can redirect ourselves, away from growth and domination to living in balance with and in service to Gaia. This starts by us singing a new song—spreading the new themes to others and getting them singing along with us.
The only way an ecocentric (or any) belief system spreads is from person to person, as all missionaries have understood from the days that Buddha’s disciples walked from India to China or sailed to Sri Lanka or Japan. We are blessed, at least for now, with a host of virtual tools that may serve in accelerating the spread of this new song (though, as with sonar and engine roars in the seas, there is far more noise in the global marketplace of ideas, potentially drowning out this song). But regardless of whether it’ll be easy or hard, singing our song and sharing it with others is essential.