July 2007

Barbara J. King


Elephant Secrets, or, a Fever-Powered Trip from Virginia to Namibia

Anyone who has inhaled university air knows a professor or two who graces the campus with that goth or emo flair, who matches his office hour with his happy hour availability, who arrives early to class, eases out of his earbuds, boots up his laptop, and hangs with the aloof crowd in the back rows.

Anyone who teaches in university air (okay, anyone minus a professor or two) thrives on sharing a classroom with smart kids who arouse our brains just as much as we do theirs; on the surround of colleagues who double as world-class thinkers on issues of fruitfly evolution, Turkish archaeology, or German cinema; on the very notion of being paid, in part, for reading and writing books.

This year, grades turned in and a long commencement enjoyed or endured (I’ll never tell), I said my seasonal ciao to campus, secure in the knowledge that professoring keeps me young of mind. I didn’t know then that I was harboring a strong and swarthy set of germs that would blossom into acute mononucleosis. Soon my throat parched, my fever spiked, my liver swelled. There I was, a midlifer with a college-age disease, an epidemiological plot point 30 years past the norm.

Usually she of the high energy, I lay about and moaned. No post-semester cheap celebratory thrills this year: I cared nothing for bad daytime TV and was repulsed by my usual savior, chocolate. Here was a fresh hell.

Mono or not, always, I can read. Always! I admire Michael Chabon’s talent for transporting me to the coolest noir Alaska even when my fever was the spikiest. Still, my concentration was fitful, leaving hours and hours of mind-drift: I stared, daydreamed, traveled in time.

Wanting to reread parts of my own life, I settled in with a thick packet of letters I’d written home, two decades before, from Kenya (archived by my mother). In Kenya, I lived in Amboseli National Park, where I studied baboon behavior for my anthropology degree. Reading the letters, details resurfaced that had sunk to my underground brain: monkey-fueled sorrows and triumphs, heedless loping runs of escape from Cape buffalos and black mambas, the wonders of wildebeest, zebras, and elephants in my backyard, itself located in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Mine was the best bedroom in Amboseli. The upper half of the wall against which my bed rested was of mesh screen; through it flowed the sounds and smells of Africa. At night, I heard distant lions roaring and hyenas laughing. Sometimes, the action was closer. As I wrote to my mother: "The other night I had an elephant JUST at my bedroom window. He was eating so noisily, I woke up from a sound sleep. His trunk was banging into my screen!"

During the long days in the bush with baboons, I observed elephants traveling or feeding nearby. The ongoing research of Amboseli elephantologist Cynthia Moss kindled interest in every scientist lucky enough to be on site.

Fast forward to June 2007: five books beyond Chabon’s, I found my way back to elephants. In Caitlin O’Connell’s The Elephant’s Secret Sense, I fell into the beauty of a natural Africa that felt at once strange and familiar, and learned new science about elephants in a way that maintained the groove of a good semester.

Passages in O’Connell’s book brought back the slow burning joy of coming to understand something of another creature’s behavior: “Eventually, once I learned to slow my own sense of time, adapting it to the deliberate, meditative pace of an elephant, I started to understand the patterns I had been observing.”

O’Connell’s life in Africa, though, was far rougher than mine. She arrived in-country shortly after Namibian independence, which itself followed a prolonged war. With her partner, Tim, she split her time between two regions. In the Caprivi area, she joined with the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism to study elephant-human interactions, and tried to ameliorate cross-species tensions. No picnic, that job. The local farmers regarded the elephants, consummate crop-raiders, as pests. And there was human baggage too: “[The farmers] were a tough crowd, jaded by an ill-equipped ministry and a resignation to powerlessness. There were many arguments... An angry farmer even tried to light my truck on fire while I was installing an alarm in his field along the eastern floodplain."

Life was far tougher for the locals: “In the Caprivi, violent death is as much a part of the landscape as the capricious nature of rain... Death can snatch people away without warning -- for example, a leopard stealing into a hut leaving a faceless victim, a croc seizing a laundress off the riverback... And a neighbor may disappear simply for being from the wrong tribe, or from the cold sweat of the ever-present malarial fever, or even from an unexpected twist in the night, silencing the cries of an infant.” Road accidents were frequent. And deadly, as O’Connell’s own accident turned out to be for one boy, an event told in terms both harrowing and sad.

Etosha was, often, a glorious escape -- to elephants remote from people, and to research projects of O’Connell’s own devising. I found arresting the photograph included by O’Connell of a subterranean bunker in the midst of an open plain. Made of cement, the bunker was 7/10s buried, and through the remaining slit, O’Connell observed and recorded aspects of elephant behavior. “[I]t allowed me to be closer to the action, and it was safe from lions or even a curious bull wanting to investigate the back of the truck. Once inside, however, I was committed for the night. It was me and my empty peanut butter jar, a makeshift but highly valued chamber pot in the bush. I stayed in the dank bunker for as long as physically possible, usually about a week at a time.” (In later years, O’Connell elephant-watched from an observational tower.)

O’Connell writes back and forth between the action in Caprivi and that in Etosha. She achieves a lovely balance, half paen to the wondrous universe of African ecosystems, half an accounting of new discoveries in elephant communication.

O’Connell’s feelings for the rhythms of the natural Namibian world spill over into the rhythms of her prose: “It was after twilight on a new moon night when I saw three bulls on the northern horizon just before closing into the bunker for the night... In the near darkness, I felt like I was suddenly in the depths of an open ocean... Their gait was so soft and fluid that they seemed to float in the luminescent sea like blue whales in a bottomless expanse, the major and minor Magellanic clouds in the Milky Way looking like the spouting of water through elephantine blowholes in the deep.”

That the research is described in steadier-on sentences is appropriate, and, happily, the low throb of excitement brought by doing science shines through. We meet elephants named Kevin, Slit Ear, Margaret Thatcher, and Willie Nelson; elephants who ecstatically greet each other after a separation; elephants who mourn deaths of their companions. O’Connell’s strongest interest, though, lay in seismic communication.

Early on, O’Connell suspected that elephants could, of all things, hear through their feet. Certain behaviors led her to think elephants were detecting vocalizations through ground as well as air vibrations. With the help of colleagues, she turned her early suspicions into hypotheses, then experiments, and eventually, publishable results. No scientist had thought to play back experimentally to elephants examples of their vocalizations (recorded on tape) through the ground -- that is, seismically. To figure out the right equipment and procedures to make this experiment go smoothly took years, but finally, O’Connell played back seismically an alarm call that, in its original context, had warned of danger: “[W]hole herds would freeze in unison... Each family bunched up into their individual groups, a defensive posture, the little ones tucked safely in the center of the cluster... [T]hey all pulled together, as if they were all connected, like one giant marionette controlled by strings from above. I was astounded and thrilled to see this coordinated behavior.”

With O’Connell, there’s no mistaking science for a dry enterprise: “My heart pounded. All these years of planning, hoping, and dreaming of this moment. We were finally showing that my original hunch so long ago was true. Elephants were detecting and responding to our seismic cues.” Helpfully, O’Connell includes a good dose of elephant anatomy as explanation for how these animals can detect and use the seismic cues.

Once in a while, as I read, I jolted back to my teacherly self and grabbed for the red pen. The chronology of events laid out was presented in too nonlinear a fashion for complete clarity. An occasional paragraph had seemingly escaped the revising process. For instance: “[The elephant] was just outside my bedroom window in the dropping early morning of the wet season a couple years before, after spending a tumultuous night suffering through a series of nightmares brought on by mefloquine.” Unless it’s the elephant who was nightmaring, that’s a sentence in need of a grammarian’s touch.

And what’s up with page 145? There, a news account from Namibia is copied out. Yet “Man charged for ‘raping’ corpse” has no relevance (that I could find) to the material before or after (or anywhere) in the book.

My quibbles are minor. The Elephant’s Secret Sense is good science wrapped up in an engaging story. Readable at a fevered pace (literally! take it from me), it makes a great choice for students and professors tethered this summer to a science lab or a philosophy seminar. O’Connell ignites the youthful curiosity of us all for this amazingly intelligent and emotional creature with whom we share the Earth.

-- Barbara J. King thanks everyone who brought books and brownies to her bedside.