American Culture

Learning from the silence of elephants

by Tamara Enz

africa-5016

Our lives are full of noise. Endless beeps, twitters, and rings. Traffic, jets, refrigerators, air conditioners. Ubiquitous cell phones, microwaves, TVs, and tablets. Each pinging, humming, and demanding attention. Gratuitous noise, the TV or radio turned on and then ignored, or worse, talked over loudly, has long been a pet peeve. Car keys left in the ignition, leaf blowers (^%*^%$#$ leaf blowers), car alarms (see leaf blowers), and every cell phone/ATM/POS card reader with keyboards that indicate, by sound, every letter entered.

Every. Letter. Entered.

For some, like me, it’s exhausting. Our brains process all that noise, whether we actively recognize and acknowledge it. We filter out the unimportant sounds, we acknowledge those that have an impact on us, we scan for those we are expecting, and more importantly, for those that threaten us. This is the natural process of evolution. Hearing allows us to tune into the world, to alert us to danger and opportunity alike. Modern humans have piled on so many extra layers of noise we barely hear what is necessary anymore.

Enter the elephants. Elephants are bigger than imagination can conjure. They eat plants, roots, branches, leaves, and stems. Their dexterity, for not having an opposable thumb, is remarkable, but still, tearing limbs off trees and roots out of the ground is not a quiet pursuit. Elephants, like humans, leave an impressive imprint wherever they go. And yet, if they were not pulling branches from a tree, you might not know they were there.

Stealthy elephants. Note elephant number five cleverly disguised as a tree. Moremi National Park, Botswana.

They are silent. They walk without noise. They move through thick brush and low trees silently. An entire herd of elephants can sneak up on you. They materialize out of the shrubs one by one as if they are vapor suddenly swirling together to create a house-sized, gray phantom. And then they swirl away again back into the trees, one by one out of sight.

Scanning either side of a road, while politely waiting as an elephant crosses, there are no more to be seen in the brush. Searching low for legs and trunks and high for ears and backs, there is nothing but brush. Before the first one is across, though, there is another, fresh out of the shrubs. You look again. Nope, definitely no more hiding in there. A big female with a calf comes strolling through; a couple of teenagers horsing around follow her. Now you’re sure that’s the last of them …

What at first appears to be a lone animal turns into an entire family group taking shape out of the bush and dissolving back into it.

They rumble. You have to be close to hear the bass, almost cat-like purr, more felt deep in your chest than heard; it does not travel far. Elephants also use infrasound, below our audible hearing range, to communicate across long distances.

I wonder: Is their world as noisy as ours?

Do they say, among themselves, “The impalas are sooooo loud!” Or “I hope the hippos keep it down tonight.” Or “There go the hyenas again. They always go blaring off when someone walks by.”

Are there teenage elephant infrasound parties that keep the whole neighborhood awake? Do they make infrasound noise just because it brings them joy? Or do they remain silent in their elephant way, only rumbling and speaking when necessary? Is the baseline noise of the savannah exhausting enough that they choose silence?

In what is perhaps a romantic view, I see elephants as intelligent and humble, rumbling when content, and otherwise staying quiet simply because they are listening. Because adding their voices to the cacophony isn’t necessary, because there is more to learn from mostly remaining silent. I could learn a lot from elephants.

Rumble more.

Formally trained in Japanese, biology, and culinary arts, Tamara Enz has been better schooled by life. Photograph by the author.

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