Tag Archives: nature sounds

Maps of Africa

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

Morula slaps her ears flatly against her shoulders.

Whoooosh, thwack . . . Whoooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .

Elephant air-conditioning, for a creature that produces enough heat to warm a small house. Elephants are pachy-dermed, thick-skinned. Some of Morula’s blood vessels are buried as deep as one-and-a-half inches under her skin. Since she doesn’t have sweat glands, her ears act like giant heat exchangers, regulating her body temperature. As her ears open, her body size increases by roughly one-fifth and her ears provide a huge area for thermoregulation. The air moving over swollen arteries on the surface of each ear cools her blood as much as nine degrees before it returns to her body.
I take a photograph of her ear in mid-flap. Where Morula’s ear attaches to her shoulder, wrinkles give way to rising rivers of blood, pumping five gallons per minute across the surface of her ears. The pattern of arteries on an elephant’s ear is as unique as a fingerprint, and often used for identification.

Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .

The breeze she creates dies before it reaches me. I take off my cap and fan my own neck.

My teeny, itsy ears are built somewhat the same as hers are, with an upper rim of cartilage and a fleshy, lower lobe. But I don’t have an auriculo-occipitalis, an ear muscle the size of a weightlifter’s bicep. I can’t flap my ears. I can’t even wiggle them.

Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .

In the late morning heat Morula’s ears are in constant motion.

Ears of African elephants resemble huge maps of Africa. Ears of Asian elephants flop forward at the top and hang like small, wrinkled outlines of India. Morula’s ears fold backward, giving them a smooth, tidy appearance, a map pressed flat. Although the ears of all elephants have a similar construction – cartilage covered by a thin layer of skin – Morula’s ears are roughly three times larger than those of her Asian kin. African elephants have the biggest external ears of all mammals, perhaps the biggest of all time. Each one weighs approximately one hundred pounds.

And no two elephant ears are the same. As pliable and soft as worn canvas, the leading edge of an elephant’s ear is often caught and torn on branches or by the tusks of other elephants. In Kenya I watched an adolescent flare her ear and trace its outline with her trunk like a matador holding out her cape. Backlit by sunlight, three perfectly round holes on its border reminded me of diamond studs. Nearby, a huge bull posed for my gulping camera as I shot an entire roll of film in less than two minutes. Only later, with the film developed and the prints in my hands, did I notice the edges of his ears were as scalloped as an old lace tablecloth.

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

Nightfall

 

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

Melting from yellow to orange the swirled, stained-glass sun hangs round and unfastened, rolling down a line of bush. The last hot breath of the day exhales and in a single moment the sun drops and is gone.

A lemon sky turns violet. Moisture thickens as plants exhale and shadows deepen. As light fades, smells condense – the cold iron of stars, the ancient, clean smell of cold sand under my feet, sage on my fingertips, smoke in my hair.

Palm trees fan black silhouettes against the stars.

I look up at a sky filled with diamonds where the giant, gem-studded belt of the Milky Way girdles the full belly of the night. By its light alone I pick my way to my tent.

The moon sails west, round and immense, shining a clean, pure light that has a whiff of blue about it. The brush is full of crickets, each one singing in a different rhythm. I hear a few individuals among the many – soloists. I hear collective phrasing – the choir. And right before I sleep I hear them singing even more loudly to the sizzling stars.

 

 

Solstice: The Longest Night

Edge of Darkness

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

(From an older post, revised for the Winter Solstice.)

I sit on my heels, rock back and forth, toward the fire and away from it. Behind my back giant looming shadows shift and dance in firelight. Palm trees fan dark silhouettes against the stars.

The fire spits a small ember beyond the stone ring; it lands near the toes of my boots and dies. My eyes follow as another ember is tossed into the shadows where it also flares and dies.

Leaning in, I show the palms of my hands to the eyes of the fire. Tongues of flame lick blackened lips of wood as if the fire wants to open its mouth and tell my fortune with hot, strange words. Above my head the stars wheel toward dawn, the second hand on a clock face, the only clock that measures eons of time.

Most of our Old Stories must have begun like this, at night, around a hand-warming fire.

Arching from one edge of the horizon to the other, a brilliant swath of the Milky Way spans a vault of sky already thick with white-hot stars. The people of the Kalahari call the Milky Way “The Backbone of the Night.” They believe it keeps the sky from crashing down on their heads.

The fire burns down to single chips of orange.   My hands make a small lid over the last of its heat.

I walk out to my tent and then switch off the bubble of light from my flashlight. Next to my tent a single leaf dangles from the bare branches of a thornbush. Held by an spider’s thread, basted silver by starlight, it spins a slow half-circle, then spins back. The panicked hawing of a lone zebra cuts through the silence. The Invisibles –hyenas, leopards, lions – are beginning their nightly rounds.

I trace the outlines of old gods in the night sky, see Orion doing a slow cartwheel, his left hand already touching the horizon. Leo naps on his back, the way most lions bitsleep. Buried deep in the Milky Way, a jewel box of stars contains the tiny, tilted Southern Cross. Scorpio is just rising, thrusting one claw into the leaves of a fan palm.

If I squint hard enough, long enough, the Milky Way knits itself into what might look like pieces of solid bone.  Along its spine and under its ribs stars coalesce into galaxies whirling towards dawn. They rain light into my uplifted arms.

The beginning and the end are up there, somewhere.

Elephant Infrasound, Part Two

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

I almost know infrasound.

No more than a mile from my home huge freighters push through the deep, cold waters of Puget Sound. On flat black nights the thump-thump of their propellers travels through water, through air, churns into my bed, my bones, and the lowest threshold of my hearing. Born in the bellies and boilers of machines, the mechanical throb carries along rotating shafts that turn the metal blades of propellers, which slice through water like a dull knife hacking flesh: whummmp. ..whummmp…..whummmp.

Everything makes a sound when vibrations travel through a conducting medium, although we may not be able to hear it.

As Morula scuffs dirt, waves of air particles wash out in all directions. They reach my ear and vibrate my eardrum, which excites the three small bones of my middle ear: the hammer, anvil and stirrup. When the last little bone, the stirrup, takes up the vibration, it presses against fluid in my inner ear and creates a tiny sea of waves that tickle the hairs inside the spiral of my cochlea. The tickled hairs trigger auditory nerve cells that shoot electric signals to my brain.

Air, water and electricity in such a small space.

Large without, Morula’s ears are also large within. The bones of her inner ear are massive compared to mine. The combined weight of her hammer, anvil and stirrup totals just over a pound, compared to mine at two ounces. Her ear canal is eight inches long and her eardrum is about one and a half square inches. Maybe this doesn’t seem very big, but my eardrum is thinner than this paper and only one third of an inch square. You would need two hundred and fifty of my eardrums to create a stack an inch high.

Hum with your mouth closed. Now place your hands over your ears and hum again. The vibrations bypass your eardrums and are transmitted through your skull. Wavelengths tingle along your jaw line. Your bones are rattling.

Sounds are louder with a bigger collecting surface. Cup your hands behind your ears and listen as if you were an elephant.

Elephant Infrasound, Part One

Etosha Male photograph by Cheryl Merrill

Etosha Male
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

An excerpt from my book:

In 1984 whale researcher Katy Payne spent a week with eleven elephants at the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon, 170 miles south from my Pacific Northwest home. An acoustic biologist with fifteen years of experience studying the long and complex calls of whales, she was curious as to the kinds of sounds elephants make. Every waking hour of that week she listened and watched the elephants’ behavior at the zoo. She noticed that certain keepers elicited a positive response from the elephants, an intangible “thrill” in the air, like the rolling vibrations of thunder right before you hear them.

On her way back to Cornell University, while she thought about her observations, the throbbing of the airplane reminded her of a pipe organ she once heard. During a performance of Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew, a shuddering filled the air as bass notes from the great pipes descended in a deep scale until sound disappeared – but the air still throbbed. Those same, strong, vibrations-without-sound had filled the air around the elephants in Oregon. Could they be communicating with infrasound, like whales?

Four months later, back at the zoo, Payne and fellow researcher Bill Langbauer set their recording equipment to its slowest speed. They mapped the elephants’ movements and timed changes in their behavior with the recordings. Working around the clock for an entire month, they recorded what sounded like snores, chirps, barks, rumbles and even moments of absolute silence.

Back at Cornell, the first tape Payne selected to review was during a time of silence, when there was a “thrill” in the air as a female elephant faced a concrete wall and a male elephant faced the same wall in an adjoining enclosure. The elephants were just three feet apart, but completely separated. Running the tape at ten times its normal speed, the researchers heard sounds emerge from silence – elephants carrying on an extensive conversation in infrasound, even when they couldn’t see each other.

To test this new theory of elephant communication, The Cornell research team rigged a double-blind experiment in Africa. An observation tower near a waterhole at Etosha National Park in Namibia was outfitted with video cameras and microphones. Miles from the waterhole, a mobile van roamed through the bush outfitted with broadcast speakers and tape recordings. The timing, location and content of the broadcasts were unknown to the observers at the tower.

One hot, dry afternoon, two male elephants, Mohammed and Hannibal, picked their way through the white calcareous rocks around the waterhole and paused for a drink. As soon as the two bulls arrived, the tower radioed the van. Selected at random, infrasonic estrous calls of a female elephant from Kenya were broadcast to the two bachelors in Namibia.

A female elephant needs to advertise as far and as wide as she can, since she is receptive to males for just a few days every estrus cycle. She repeats her calls over and over for up to forty-five minutes at a time. The calls can be heard for nineteen square miles – but only by other elephants.

Just seconds after the sound was sent, Mohammed and Hannibal froze, spread their ears and lifted their heads – twisting them side-to-side like scanning radar. Within two minutes the bulls set off. Half an hour later the pair strode past the van, looking for love in all the wrong places.

Whoooosh-Thwack! Whooooosh-Thwack!

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

A selection from my book in progress:

As she walks, Morula’s ears slap flatly against her shoulders, Whoooosh, thwack . . . Whoooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Elephant air-conditioning.

Morula produces enough heat to warm a small house. She is also pachy-dermed, thick-skinned. Some of her blood vessels are as deep as one-and-a-half inches under her skin’s surface. Since she doesn’t have sweat glands, her ears act like giant heat exchangers, regulating her body temperature. As air moves over the huge network of swollen arteries covering each ear, Morula’s blood cools as much as nine degrees before it returns to her body. When spread open, her ears increase her body size by roughly twenty square feet, a huge area for the process of thermoregulation.

Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .

I take a photograph of her ear in mid-flap. Where Morula’s ear attaches to her shoulder, wrinkles give way to swollen arteries pumping five gallons of blood per minute across the surface of her ears. The pattern of those arteries is as unique as a fingerprint and often used to identify individual elephants.

Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .

The breeze she creates dies before it reaches me. I take off my cap and fan my own neck.

My teeny, itsy ears are built somewhat the same as hers are, with an upper rim of cartilage and a fleshy, lower lobe. But I don’t have an auriculo-occipitalis, an ear muscle the size of a weightlifter’s bicep. I can’t flap my ears. I can’t even wiggle them.

Trunk

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

Funky jazzy trombone trunk.       Snaking snorkeling vacuuming trunk.       Showerhead.       Backhoe.       Slinky.       Shimmying sucking swigging trunk.       Empty pipe.       Water gun.       Periscope.       Plucking siphoning tenacious trunk.       Kazoo.       Tweezers.       Tentacle.       Affectionate handshaking pickpocket trunk.       Python.       Air hose.       Question mark.       Whistling snorting sneezing trunk.

 

Breathtaking trunk.

 

A Thunder of Hippos

An excerpt from my book-in-progress:

Whenever I leave for Africa I’m always, invariably asked, “Aren’t you afraid?”

“Of what?”

“Snakes. Alligators. Lions.”

“Well,” I usually reply, “there are no alligators in Africa. Only crocodiles.”

“So crocodiles, whatever.”

Once, in Tanzania, I saw a submerged crocodile lunge up amid four wildebeest faster than they, or I, could blink. I don’t know how, but he missed all of them as they leapt in four different directions. I’ve never taken a bathing suit to Africa. Didn’t seem like a great idea on my first trip and less so on subsequent ones.

Lions? Well, lions will consider me prey if I act like prey. Look! Breakfast! And it’s fat and slow!

The possibility of actually encountering a lion is pretty rare. There are only about 20,000 lions left in Africa, down from 200,000 in 1975. Until 2007 Botswana allowed 50 lions to be hunted per year. By the time a hunting ban was enacted many of the male trophies were just two or three years old – requiring hair extensions woven into their manes before they were mounted on a hunter’s wall.

B&W male lion

Snakes? There are a lot of snakes in Africa. Black mambas. Vipers. Cobras. Pythons. Boomslangs. Puff adders.   In the Okavango Delta I could encounter Egyptian cobras or a puff adder or an African rock python or a black mamba or perhaps even a shy boomslang. I could, but I haven’t. In all the times I’ve been to Africa, I’ve never seen a snake. Bad luck, I guess, because each of these snakes, in their own way, is fascinating, and I really wouldn’t mind seeing one of them.

The deadliest animal in Africa is not a snake nor a crocodile nor a lion – it’s the hippo, those oddly comic, rotund herbivores that Walt Disney put in tutus. Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal: several hundred per year. In contrast, sharks kill only around ten people per year, worldwide.

Hippos don’t even eat the people they kill. They emerge at night from ponds and rivers to spend all night eating grass. Their beady, sherry-colored eyes don’t see well, but their sense of smell is acute. Males defend territory, females their calves. They can outrun you, and you never know what might set them off.

In 2002, I was on a game drive with six people in an open-sided Landcruiser. Laid-back hippo blimps floated in a nearby pond. One of the hippos grunted, burbling like a submerged tuba.

A herd of hippos is known as a “thunder” – possibly a reference to their size, but more likely because of the noises they make. When a group of hippos get going, their combined grunts sound like rolling thunder. But these hippos were relatively quiet. They rose and sank, twirled their ears, exhaled wetly through their nostrils.

It was that magic half-hour before sunset when the light is golden and incredible – perfect for photographs. A short distance away a male grazed on flowers. I raised my camera.

Without warning, the hippo opened his mouth in a threat gesture, displaying his long, razor-sharp canines. A second later, he charged, head swinging side to side like a giant sledgehammer, running directly for us at a surprisingly clip, intent on slamming into our vehicle. Since a hippo’s top speed is around twenty miles per hour, he was closing fast. All I could see through my camera lens were those massive incisors, as the autofocus kept singing out zzzzt zzzt, zzzzzt zzzt.

Charging hippo b&w

Luckily, the engine of our vehicle started without a cough and the hippo just missed the back bumper. He continued on into the bush for thirty yards before stopping to wonder where we had gone.

Extreme Happiness

In the spring of 1996, right before my first trip to Africa, I participated in a “behind-the-scenes” tour at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington.  During the tour, we were allowed into the close contact area of the elephant barn, an area separated from the zoo’s three elephants by strong metal bars.  One by one, they were brought forward by their handler, and we fed them carrots from a 50-pound bag.

One of the elephants, Chai, was extremely interested in my sister’s leather coat, gently squeezing it at the shoulder, inhaling each square inch down to my sister’s elbow, as if asking, What animal is this?  My brother-in-law, who is huge by human standards, was especially fascinating in his leather coat.  Sniff.  Squeeze.  And who are you?

Trunk length from an elephant for the very first time, I was mesmerized by the meditative intelligence in her eyes.

Chai rumbled, the sound reverberating throughout the barn.

We hummed back at her, sang a low, wordless song, my brother-in-law’s voice especially deep and loud.  She turned her head from side to side, as if trying to understand our oscillating meaning.  Then the air around us condensed, washed over us in waves, pulsated just below our range of hearing.  It was my first experience with infrasound, vibrations I could feel in my chest, vibrations my ears would never hear.

Chai slowly stretched out her trunk to accept a carrot from my sister, stuffed it into her cheeks and then slowly reached out for another.  When her cheeks were as stuffed as a chipmunk’s, her handler said, “Okay, that’s enough,” and tapped her alternately above each knee with an ankus, an elephant hook.  She backed up, swinging her head from side to side.

In 1980, when Chai was only a year old, she was separated from her mother and flown to Seattle by Thai Airways to commemorate the delivery of the first Boeing 747 to Thailand.  She was only sixteen when I met her.  Two years after our behind-the-scenes tour, Chai was shipped to Missouri to be bred to a bull named Onyx.  By then several artificial insemination attempts had already failed to impregnate her.

Photo by Brian Hawk. Woodland Park Zoo

Photo by Brian Hawk. Woodland Park Zoo

After three days and 2,100 miles in a truck, she arrived at the Dickerson Park Zoo.  On the third day after her arrival, the Dickerson Zoo’s staff beat her for two-and-a-half hours because she would not respond to their commands.  (The zoo was later fined $5000.)  Chai lost 1,000 pounds in the twelve months she was in Missouri.

Finally pregnant, she was trucked back to Seattle.  Twenty-two months later, in 2000, she gave birth to a female calf.  The naming contest for the new zoo resident gathered 16,000 entries.  The Thai name selected, Hansa (pronounced HUN-suh), means “Extreme Happiness.”  Once the calf was on view attendance at the zoo doubled and Chai proved to be a very capable mother.

photo by Benjamin Benschnieder, Seattle Times

photo by Benjamin Benschnieder, Seattle Times

But in June of 2007, Hansa died, infected with a new strain of elephant herpes – a highly communicable virus that had already claimed the lives of forty percent of young Asian calves in zoos.  Hansa made a lot of money for Woodland Park, so Chai has been artificially inseminated again and again – a total of 112 times – resulting in just one other pregnancy and the miscarriage of that calf.

Day after day, Chai listens to hordes and choruses of unfamiliar human noises.  She listens and moves slowly back and forth in her cage.  Perhaps she mourns the loss of her Extreme Happiness.  Perhaps after awhile it all blurs, like the background hum of an engine in flight.

The Light from Saxophones

Tsessebes afternoon sunThree tsessebees saunter up to their bellies in strong vertical spikes of custard-colored grass.  Their shoulder humps, sea-horse faces and gleaming russet coats rise and fall, rise and fall, from left to right, like a musical score on parchment.

The light in this photograph belongs to lingering saxophones.  Long, rich, golden notes catch and roll on the backs of impalas, snag in the teeth of lions and smolder in the burnt umber eyes of eagles.  The grasses, the trees, the tsessebees, all are coated in honey as the sun bends at the waist and pours out the last light of day in a long slow moan, a sweet trickle down the throat of night.

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