Beyond Words

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By Carl Safina

The Big Question

"It was the worst year of my life," Cynthia Moss is saying over breakfast. "All the elephants over fifty years old died, except Barbara and Deborah. Most over forty died. So it's particularly amazing that Alison, Agatha, and Amelia have survived."

Alison, now fifty-one years old, is right there, in that clump of palms—see? Forty years ago, Cynthia Moss arrived in Kenya determined to learn the lives of elephants. The first elephant family she saw she named the "AA" family, and she named one of those elephants Alison. And there she is. Right there, vacuuming up fallen palm fruits. Astonishing.

With much luck and decent rainfall, Alison might survive another decade. And there is Agatha, forty-four years old. And this one coming closer now is Amelia, also forty-four.

Amelia continues approaching, until, rather alarmingly, she is looming so hugely in front of our vehicle that I reflexively lean inward. Cynthia leans out and talks to her in soothing tones. Amelia, practically alongside now, simply towers as she grinds palm fronds, rumbles softly, and blinks.

In the light of this egg-yolk dawn, the landscape seems an eternal ocean of grass rolling toward the base of Africa's greatest mountain, whose blue head is crowned by snow and wreathed in clouds. Through gravity-fed springs, Kilimanjaro acts like a giant water cooler, creating two miles-long marshes that make this place magnetic for wildlife and for pastoralist herders. Amboseli National Park got its name from a Maa word that refers to the ancient shallow lake bed—half the park—that seasonally glitters with the sparkle of wetness. The marshes expand and contract depending on the rains. But if the rains fail, panes of water dry to pans of dust. And then all bets are off. Just four years ago, a drought of extremes shook this place to its core.

Through times lush and calamitous, through these decades, Cynthia and these three elephants have maintained their presence, urging themselves across this landscape. Cynthia helped pioneer the deceptively complex task of simply seeing elephants doing elephant things. Longer than any other human being ever has, Cynthia has watched some of the same individual elephants living their lives.

I was expecting that, after four decades, the famous researcher might be a bit field-weary. But I found in Cynthia Moss a young woman in her early seventies, of bright blue eyes and startling bubbliness. A bit pixieish, actually. A Newsweek magazine writer during the 1960s, Cynthia decided, after her first visit to Africa, to chuck New York and all things familiar. She'd fallen in love with Amboseli. It's easy to see why.

Perhaps too easy. The great plain of mirages and heat waves conveys the illusion that Amboseli National Park is big. It is too small. You can easily drive across it in well under an hour. Amboseli is a postcard that Africa once mailed to itself and now keeps in a drawer marked "Parks and Reserves." Kilimanjaro, not even in the same nation, stands across an imaginary line in a place called Tanzania. The mountain and the elephants know that it is one true country. But the 150-square-mile park serves as a central watering hole for the surrounding three thousand square miles. Amboseli elephants use an area roughly twenty times larger than the park itself. As do cattle- and goat-grazing Maasai people. The only year-round water is here. The outer lands are too dry to water them. The park is too small to feed them.

* * *

"To survive the drought," Cynthia is explaining, "different families tried different strategies. Some tried to stay close to the swamp. But they did very badly as it dried. Some went far north, many for the first time in their lives. They did better. Out of fifty-eight families, only one family did not lose anybody." One family lost seven adult females and thirteen youngsters. "Usually if an elephant goes down, the family gathers around and tries to lift it. In the drought, they had no energy. Watching them dying, seeing them on the ground in agony—"

One in four of Amboseli's elephants-four hundred out of a population of sixteen hundred-perished. Nearly every nursing baby died. About 80 percent of the zebras and wildebeests died, nearly all of the Maasai's cattle; even people died.

So when the rain returned, the surviving female elephants bereft of babies all cycled into estrus at about the same time. Result: the biggest baby boom in Cynthia's forty-year history here, about 250 little elephants born in the last two years. This is a sweet spot in time to be born an elephant in Amboseli. Lush vegetation, plenty of grass-and little competition. Water makes elephants. And water makes elephants happy.

* * *

Several happy elephants are sloshing through an emerald spring under ample palm shade. It's a little patch of paradise. With their bouncy, rubbery little trunks, the babies seem to transit the outer orbits of innocence.

"Look how fat that baby is," I say. The fifteen-month-old looks like a ball of butter. Four adults and three little babies are wallowing in one muddy pool, spraying water over their backs with their trunks, then sprawling on the bank. As a little one melts in pleasure, I notice the muscles around the trunk relaxing, eyes half-closing. An adolescent named Alfre lies down to rest. But three youngsters pile on, stepping on Alfre's ear. Oomph. The fun softens to a snooze, with babies lying asleep on their sides, adults standing protectively over them, the adults' bodies touching one another's as they doze. Feel how calm they are, knowing their family is safe here now. It's soothing just to watch.

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Many people fantasize that if they won the lottery, they would quit their job and immerse themselves in leisure, play, family, parenthood, occasional thrilling sex; they'd eat when they were hungry and sleep whenever they felt sleepy. Many people, if they won the lottery and got rich quick, would want to live like elephants.

* * *

The elephants seem happy. But when elephants seem happy to us, do they really feel happy? My inner scientist wants proof.

"Elephants experience joy," Cynthia says. "It may not be human joy. But it is joy."

Elephants act joyful in the same situations that make us joyful: familiar "friends" and family, lush food and drink. So we assume they feel the way we feel. But beware of assumptions! For centuries, people's assumptions about other animals have ranged from believing that animals cast spells on people to believing that they are aware of nothing and can't even feel pain. Observe what an animal does, scientists advise, but speculation about mental experiences is meaningless, a waste of time.

Speculation about animals' mental experiences happens to be the main quest of this book. The tricky task ahead: to go only where evidence, logic, and science lead. And, to get it right.

* * *
Cynthia's free-living colleagues seem wise. They seem youthful, playful. Powerful, majestic. Innocent. All these things, they are. Inoffensive. But of all the animals, they are the ones who can wage sustained resistance to human persecution with deadly force. As we do, they strive to survive and to keep their children safe. I guess I am here because I am ready to learn, ready to ask, How are they like us? What do they teach us about ourselves?

What I don't see coming is: I have the question almost exactly backward.

* * *

Cynthia Moss is most at home in her Amboseli field camp. The camp, nestled cozily in a clearing ringed by palms, features a small cook shack and half a dozen large tents, each with a proper bed and a bit of furniture. On a recent morning, tea was late. The researcher who unzipped her tent flap to go and inquire about the tea's progress found a lion dozing on the cook shack's step, and a very awake cook behind the door.

Today the tea is on time, and over toast I have, finally, gotten round to asking Cynthia what I think is the Big Question. "What has a lifetime of watching elephants," I ask, "taught you about humanity?" I glance to make sure my recorder's light is on, then settle back a bit. Forty years of insight; this will be good.

Cynthia Moss, however, gently deflects my question. "I think of them as elephants," she says. "I'm interested in them as elephants. Comparing elephants to people—I don't find it helpful. I find it much more interesting trying to understand an animal as itself. How does a bird like a crow, say, with so small a brain, make the amazing decisions it makes? Comparing it to a three-year-old human child—that doesn't interest me."

Cynthia's mild objection to my question comes so unexpectedly that at first I don't fully grasp it. Then I am stunned.

* * *

As a lifelong student of animal behavior, I'd long ago concluded that many social animals—certainly birds and mammals—are fundamentally like us. I've come here to see how elephants are "like us." I am writing this book about how other animals are "like us." But I'd just gotten a major course correction. It took a few moments—in fact, it took days—but, like an intravenous drip, it seeped in.

Cynthia's enormous little comment implied that humans are not the measure of all things. Cynthia is traveling a higher road.

Cynthia's comment hit Reset, not just on my question but on my thinking. I'd somehow assumed that my quest was to let the animals show how much they are like us. My task now—a much harder task, a much deeper task—would be to endeavor to see who animals simply are—like us or not.

* * *
The elephants we're watching are nimbly pulling grass and brush with their trunks, rhythmically stuffing tufts and wads into their cheeks, their massive molars mightily mashing away. Thorns that can puncture a tire, palm fruits, bundles of grass—it all goes in. I once stroked a captive elephant's tongue. So soft. I don't understand how their tongues and stomachs can handle those thorns.

What I see: elephants, eating. But those words cast, as all words do, the loosest lasso around reality. We are watching "elephants," true, yet I realize with embarrassment that I know nothing about their lives.

But Cynthia does. "When you look at a group of anything—lions, zebras, elephants," Cynthia explains, "you're seeing just two flat dimensions. But once you know them individually, their personalities, who their mother was, who their kids are, it adds new dimensions." One elephant in a family might seem regal, dignified, gentle. Another will strike you as shy. Another as a bully who will be pushy to get food in sparse times; another as reserved; another as "flamboyantly" playful.

"The realization of how complex they are took me about twenty years," Cynthia continues. "Over the period that we were following Echo's family—she was about forty-five years old at the time—I saw that Enid was incredibly loyal to her, Eliot was the playful one, Eudora was flaky, Edwina was unpopular, and so on. And slowly I realized that I'd begun knowing what would happen next. I was taking my cues from Echo herself. I was understanding her leadership—as her family was understanding it!"

I look at the elephants.

Cynthia adds, "It made me realize how totally super aware they are of what we're doing."

Super aware? They seem oblivious.

"Elephants don't seem aware of details," Cynthia explains, "until something familiar changes." One day a cameraman working with Cynthia decided that for a different angle, he'd position himself underneath the research vehicle. The oncoming elephants, who usually just passed by the vehicle, immediately noticed, stopped, and stared. Why was a human under the car? A male named Mr. Nick snaked his slithering, sniffing trunk under there to investigate. He was not aggressive and did not try to pull the man out; he was just curious. Another day, when the vehicle appeared with a special door designed for filming, elephants came exploring, actually touching the new door with their trunks.

Trunks are strangely familiar, familiarly strange things. Extremely sensitive and unimaginably strong, they can pick up an egg without breaking it—or kill you with an easy smack. An elephant's trunk terminates in two almost fingery tips, like a hand in a mitten. The way elephants use their trunks helps make them seem familiar, like one-armed people, hiding their hideous nose in plain sight and affecting its transformation. Can we ever get over how strangely wonderful, how wonderfully beautiful? Segmented like the tree trunks of the palms under which they sometimes rest, the trunk is an elephant's Swiss Army knife. Rounded on the outer edge, flattened on the inner, a great mine-sweeping, water-hosing, mud-flinging, dust-deviling, air-testing, food-gathering, friend-greeting, infant-rescuing, baby-reassuring caterpillar of a nose. "It has double hoses for sucking in and spraying out water or dust," wrote Oria Douglas-Hamilton. Journalist Caitrin Nicol adds that a trunk does "what a person would rely on a combination of eyes, nose, hands, and machinery to do." Yoshihito Niimura of the University of Tokyo offers: "Imagine having a nose on the palm of your hand. Every time you touch something, you smell it."

* * *

They're firmly wrapping those wondrous noses around sheaves of grass, and when the soil is reluctant to surrender the clumps, they give a little kick to break them. The food is freed and lifted. Sometimes they shake soil from roots. The eating is slow, relaxed. Often they slightly swing the trunk for a little momentum in pitching the next mouthful into their triangular jaw. Sometimes they pause for a moment, seeming thoughtful. Perhaps they're just stopping to listen, monitoring indicators of their children's well-being, family safety, and possible danger.

I'd love to know how much overlap there is right now between what I am sensing and what the nearest elephant is sensing. Our input channels are similar: sight, scent, sound, touch, taste; what these senses bring to our attention must broadly overlap. We can see the same hyenas, say, as do the elephants and hear the same lions. But we, like most other primates, are very visual; elephants, like most other mammals, have an acute sense of smell. Their hearing is excellent, too.

I'm sure the elephants here are sensing much more than I; this is their home, and they have a history here. I can't tell what's going on in their heads. Nor can I tell what Cynthia's thinking as, quietly and intently, she observes.
 
 
Copyright © 2015 by Carl Safina
 
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Carl Safina's work has been recognized with MacArthur, Pew, and Guggenheim Fellowships, and his writing has won Orion, Lannan, and National Academies literary awards and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. He hosted the 10-part PBS series Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina. His writing appears in The New York Times, National Geographic, Audubon, Orion, and other periodicals and on the Web at National Geographic News and Views, Huffington Post, and CNN.com. Beyond Words is his seventh book. He lives on Long Island, New York.

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