Katy Payne is the kind of person I love to interview. For starters, she is warm and delightful, wise and instructive, about things I had never pondered before. And though eminent in her field of “acoustic biology,” she is not a famous name.
She is a practicing Quaker and a student of the spiritual philosophy of the 20th-century, Greek-Armenian philosopher Gurdjieff, who taught self-awareness and openness to reality. The spirituality she reveals during our conversation derives its passion directly from life — and from her rare, intimate experience of usually hidden slices of the natural world.
Katy Payne is a beautiful example of a line that I love from the writer Annie Dillard — words that I take as a definition of vocation: “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your astonishment.”
Payne has spent a life following her astonishment at the lives and language of whales and elephants. Along the way, her reverent attention has led to a few breakthrough scientific discoveries.
Katy Payne was a listener long before she became a self-trained acoustic biologist. She loved music before she loved biology, and as an undergraduate at Cornell she studied both. From there, in the 1960s, she became part of the first team of scientists to understand that humpback whales communicate by song. She later discovered that their songs are not inborn and fixed, but constantly evolving. Whales, like people, she says, are composers.
That is just one of the things I know about the planet I inhabit, from this conversation with Katy Payne, that I might not have learned otherwise. She also teaches me that elephants are emotional, passionate, intensely social creatures. And people who live close to them have always expressed both fear and fascination at their evident intelligence and memory and a mysterious ability to coordinate family movements across long distances.
Somewhat by chance, in the wake of her discoveries about whales, Katy Payne had an opportunity to observe elephants in a zoo in Portland, Oregon — and there she “felt” sounds that she was later able to identify as infrasonic. She later spent 15 years monitoring and decoding the basic vocabulary of elephants, and, in 1999, she founded the Elephant Listening Project in the equatorial rainforests of central Africa. This project has become a resource for thinking deeply and creatively about protecting these large and exotic creatures who increasingly compete with human beings for land and food as their habitats shrink.
I like people who muddy depictions of good and bad, right and wrong. That pit people and causes irrevocably against one another. Such voices do not simplify; they often make an “issue” feel even more complicated than before. And yet they also open our eyes to new ways of seeing, and new possibilities forward. Katy Payne offers unusual insight into the moral irony even of the noblest conservation efforts.
Over the years she has bitterly grieved the death of elephants she has studied — killed either by poachers or by culling, an official practice in some African countries of selective reduction of elephant populations that encroach on human land and livelihood. She knows that poaching is often a corollary of poverty, political instability, and hunger. She suggests that the best we can do to preserve some forms of wildlife is to support the health and vitality of the human populations with whom they coexist.
Katy Payne also experiences irony in the “No Trespassing” sign she posts on her 14 acres in upstate New York, after her years in the wildness and unbounded geography of Africa. And yet, in conversation, she makes that far-away wildness real in a way that facts and news reports and policy debates never can.
I know something about forest elephants now that makes me feel invested in their fate, as well as that of the people with whom they more closely share life. I feel myself blessed very directly by the songs of the humpback whales as Katy Payne describes the largest lessons they leave with her:
“The ocean is really huge. When you get out on a little boat, you know it. You’re clinging to a cork … And out there, rolling around and swimming through and perfectly at home in the waves are these enormous animals. And by golly, they’re singing … And so what that has done for me is to make me feel that what lies ahead is absolutely limitless. We are not at the pinnacle of human knowledge. We are just beginning.”
Creating this show is a gift. I hope you experience it that way too.