These bonds between male elephants can be astonishingly tactile and affectionate. In Namibia a few years ago, I saw two young male desert elephants break off a bout of sparring to make a ritual greeting to a much larger and older male. They caressed his forehead, his jaw, and the top of his head with their trunks, then leaned into him to lay their trunks across his shoulders.
It was one of the most tender and devoted greetings I have ever witnessed among wild creatures. Although I heard no sounds, there were probably silent rumbles of affection passing between them as well, for elephants speak to each other in ways we humans cannot hear. They can listen, communicate, and respond to each other over great distances by using a range of frequencies below our hearing, deeper than our ability to perceive vibration as sound: ‘silent thunder,’ in the words of Katie Payne, who was the first scientist to divine the silent thrumming of elephants’ voices in the air through the resonance she felt inside her own body while standing near them in a zoo.
Only the largest of animals—blue whales and fin whales in the oceans and elephants on land—have voices that drop to the level of infrasound and travel on long-distance sound channels through air, earth, and water. The other long-distance, low-frequency sounds rise from the elemental actions of the earth, from earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, rolling thunder and great ocean storms, like the voices of the elephants and the whales, resonate with these vast earthly powers of making and renewal.
Eleanor O’Hanlon an award-winning writer and conservationist with a passion for re-connecting with the inner, spiritual dimension of our relationship with animals and the natural world, has carried out field research for international conservation groups. Her book Eyes of the Wild: Journeys of Transformation with the Animal Powers was awarded the 2015 Nautilus Gold Book Award for Nature. www.eyesofthe wild.org
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