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Visiting Dr. Payne

Monday, May 5, 2008

The finale of my trip to Ithaca, the plump maraschino atop the sundae, was a breakfast invitation by bioacoustician and writer Katy Payne. In the 1970's, Katy and her husband Roger blew the world of cetacean biology wide open with their work on the songs of humpback whales. They were the first to record, study, and try to decipher the astounding underwater songs of what whalers used to call "sea canaries." What a wonderful name for a multi-ton animal.

More recently, Dr. Payne has worked with elephants in Africa. It started simply enough, with a visit to an elephant house at a zoo. She felt, rather than heard, a rumble in her breastbone, the same kind of thrumming you get when you feel, rather than hear, a ruffed grouse. It was more like a thrill than a sound. She turned to her friends and said, "There's something going on in here." That moment of enlightenment led her to her discovery that elephants communicate in ultra low-frequency infrasound, and that communication may travel over hundreds of miles. Yes. What are they saying? I'm reading her book, Silent Thunder, and it is setting me afire.

Katy Payne's grandfather was Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

She never knew him, since he died so young, but I have studied pictures of him and I can tell you that he is there in her eyes, in her warmth and kindness, in her sensitivity to animals, her inquisitiveness, her deeply artistic way of thinking, and in her writing. I was almost overwhelmed on meeting her; I had a jolt of recognition that came from somewhere other than mere physical resemblance. I felt as if I were meeting Louis himself.

There are some L.A.F. paintings in Katy's homey, naturalist's living room. One is this little crow study.
"Remember," Katy said, "that he had no photographs to work from. He had to figure out the wing positions on his own."
What a gorgeous wing, what a gorgeous little painting, so full of crow lore and winterchill. Look how the shading on the distal half of the crow's raised wing makes it bend out toward you. Ahhhh.

I was utterly arrested by this Fuertes life sketch of a ferret, perhaps a black-footed ferret. How perfectly he understood how its weight is distributed, how its fur flows and reverses; the sacklike bunching up of the abdominal skin. You can see how it could turn inside that loose skin, as weasels are said to do. And there's something birdlike about the neck and head. It could only have been done from life.

As Katy and I talked and looked through photographic scrapbooks of the Merriman Arctic Expedition, of which Louis was a vital part, I felt as if I'd known her all my life. And especially so as she dithered about the soy-milk waffles she made for us, which were quite delicious, but which she felt weren't quite up to snuff. Sounded just like something I'd try, just like the things I'd say. Chet Baker could see he was in for a long haul as we talked, so after casing the entire house and watching squirrels outside for awhile, he jumped up in a comfy chair and pawed up a hand-loomed throw just so, flopping down and curling up with a piglike grunt. "Make yourself at home, Bacon!" I said, and we laughed. Sometimes you meet someone like Katy and you wonder why you haven't been friends forever, but you feel like you ought to get it started already. Even our cowlicks are mirror-image. Pfffft.
photo by Alan Poole. Thank you a million, AP.

What a gift to the world is this scientist, this writer. Read Silent Thunder. Louis would be so proud.


You two do look a bit alike.

It's always wonderful to find somebody we share so much in common with.
I enjoy your blog very much. And what a fascinating story about Dr. Payne understanding the elephants frequency. That's incredible.

Oh, Oh, Oh!!! Silent Thunder! I read it when it first came out, I believe in the late 90s? I'm so jealous you got to spend some time with her. Then again, I'm jealous she got to spend time with you! Her book is on my shelf with my other on African wildlife, specifically Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole's books on elephants.

Yes, you will never look at elephants the same way after reading her book. Then go to the Elephant Sanctuary's website at to read about the wonderful work they do with rescued and retired circus and zoo elephants. (Sorry, can't miss an opportunity to put in a plug for them) :0)

What a marvelous, magical encounter, of the sort we all wish for once or twice in our lives. Even without the connection back to Fuertes it would've been exceptional, but with that added in, it's almost mystical.

Outstanding, Julie. I found your blog via a search engine (which brought me to a 2006 entry. I thought the worst: I assume you had stopped blogging then.)

Wonderful work. I'm so happy to have stumbled upon this treasure.

Hi Autrice, and welcome to the community! When I saw your plea for an update on the post,"Forcing Avis," I thought, well, I've updated several hundred times since must be burning through the archives. Nice to know someone reads them.

Christine, never apologize for your impassioned conservation advocacy. I love how much you care for elephants.

Cyberthrush, it was magic.

I'm in awe of you and the people you know. It must have been difficult to leave.

You do know some wonderful people. And, you do resemble each other a bit! When I read the subject of this post I couldn't stop thinking of my anesthesiologist during childbirth, Dr. Payne (sorry...)

Julie, these posts have been magical. And you and Katy look like long-lost sisters together.

What a special lady. It's so cool to meet someone and feel that instant feeling of knowing them. Happens so infrequently, you have to just soak it up.

I love that crow study! Living in western Oregon, I never tire of black birds and gray backgrounds.

Oh, you are writing about someone I heard speak many years ago. One of our friends was one of the producers in the early days on our local public tv station. They put together a seminar, broadcast it, all about various environmental issues. Dr. Roger Payne was one of the speakers. It was my favorite presentation--I just loved listening to him talk about whales communicating. I am always humbled when I hear someone describe the great mysteries of life all around us. It is nice to read his name again, and know he is still working on interesting issues.

Wow, it's neat reading about my birding hero's hero! and you do look a lot alike.

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