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  • Stacy Boyd

Pay attention as if you never grew up

I was struck by a story recently from Katy Payne, an acoustic biologist who studies whale song and who discovered elephant sub-sonic communication. Leading up to that discovery, she just thought it would be fun to sit with the animals. By giving herself that "playful, childish thing" and paying attention to the possibilities around her, she discovered an *entirely new aspect to a species.*

Playfulness doesn't have to end in childhood, and it can lead to powerful things.

I've excerpted her conversation around this experience below--the bold highlights are mine--and if you're interested in hearing her stories of whales and how she became a self-taught acoustic biologist, the entire podcast is here.

From Katy Payne and On Being:

"While I was there, just by chance, I learned that in the Portland Oregon zoo a baby elephant had been born. In fact, there were three of them, and they were being kept together with their mothers who came from different continents, as if they were one family. So elephants are another very social — as you say, very intelligent, long-lived, huge animal, and I thought it would just be fun to sit in the zoo for a week and see what elephants are like. It was a very innocent, playful, childish thing... And I noticed, little by little through that week, that I was feeling over and over again a throbbing in the air, change of pressure in my ears, that would occur when I was near the elephant cages, but not when I was in other parts of the zoo. And I knew just enough — perhaps because of the whale studies — to know that there is sound below the pitches of the sound that human beings can hear. And lo and behold, we discovered there was a whole other communication system there that no one had known about. It was just below the frequencies our ears could hear....

Ms. Tippett: You know what, what really strikes me though, also in you, I mean, I think that must be a certain kind of skill or gift, to feel a sound that is beyond the level of human hearing. In your book, Silent Thunder, you tell a story about how when you were young you read The Jungle Book, and you were riveted by this password that Mowgli had that allowed him to communicate with the animals. And I have this feeling as I read about you that it was this ability you had to hear or to feel sound beyond what everybody else standing around you might have heard or felt that kind of unlocked that communication for you.

Ms. Payne: Well, thank you. You give me credit for something very pleasant. I think there’s a humbler way to express it, which was that I never really grew up. I think that children are aware of all kinds of things that they close themselves off for when they grow up. In that week when I was sitting in the zoo, I was just a child again, and all possibilities were open to me, and this one just — there it was.

Ms. Tippett: Right. I mean you use words — I wrote down some of the words you used to describe. You described that “the air was thrilling or shuddering or throbbing,” and perhaps that’s true that the rest of us could experience that but we’re not paying attention on that level somehow.

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