Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel

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

 

Posted in Africa, Air, Atmosphere, earth at night, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel, Writing

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.

 

 

Posted in Africa, Nature, Photography

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.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Photography

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.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Photography

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.

Posted in Africa, Nature, Photography, Travel

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.

Posted in Elephants, Nature, Photography, Travel

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.