Like Yma Sumac
By Cheryl Merrill
Standing on a termite mound, face-to-trunk with an elephant, I place
the flat of my hand against Morula’s fluttering forehead, a forehead
as cool and rough as tree bark. She’s burbling, a contented rumble that
has the sound of water gurgling in a drainpipe, but she is also making
sounds that I cannot hear, yet can feel. Right at the point where her
nasal passage enters her skull, her skin pulses beneath my hand, vibrations
that reverberate in my chest cavity, drum against my heart. Muscular
ground swells of sound roll full and luxuriously out into the bush,
bumping into hippos, giraffes, zebras, lions, hyenas, birds, snakes
and tsetse flies.
But it is only elephants that raise their heads and listen.
Most of Morula’s vocalizations are rumbles, which fall partially or
entirely in the infrasonic range of 5-30 Hz., throbbing, quaking air
for which we humans have no auditory perception. Such low-frequency
rumbles usually have harmonics and overtones, both of which can be selectively
emphasized. As in whale song, each individual elephant has a signature
sound, one like no other elephant—their voices as different from each
other as our voices are different from each other.
Are you there?
Yes, I am here, right behind you.
When we speak, our vocal cords vibrate with forced, small explosions
of air from our lungs. We shape words with our mouths and tongues. Expelled
from a chestful of wind, words float around us like little clouds, each
one a separate exhalation, creating an atmosphere of meaning, thickening
language one word after another. Sounds unfold in time, in agreeable
waves pulsing against our ears. When we are lost and listening within
a piece of pleasurable music, time even suspends itself. Songs hang
on our bones.
Standing on a termite mound, I close my eyes. A palm weevil drones by,
a miniature bomber on short stubby wings. Buried deep within a thicket,
glossy starlings cheerfully teer-teeer-teer-teer at us. The afternoon
has an eloquent cadence. Morula is immobile, as if listening, as if
deeply immersed in translation. There is music here, if only I had the
ears for it.
I open my eyes. “MO-RU-LA,” I sing.
My voice, like hers, originates in my vocal cords. But my vocal range
is barely an octave, limping through the air at 220 Hz. Morula’s range
is tremendous, more than 10 octaves, from 5 Hz. to 9,000 Hz. The most
athletic human voice in history was that of a Peruvian, Yma Sumac, who
had a self-proclaimed range of 5 octaves and a recorded range of 4 1/2,
from B below low C to A above high C, from about 123 Hz. to 1760 Hz,
as high-pitched as an elephant’s trumpet. This is a woman who could
occasionally hit a triple-trill and whose voice equaled that of an upright
Morula would find her vocalizations a lot more fascinating than mine
Like all elephants, Morula is able to produce low frequency sounds just
because she is big – the larger the resonating chamber (think cello
compared to violin), the lower the frequency of its sound. Morula also
has long and loose vocal chords and a flexible arrangement of bones
attached to her tongue and larynx. In addition to a loose voicebox she
also has another special structure at the back of her throat called
a pharyngeal pouch, which not only affects her low-frequency tones but
also holds an emergency supply of water.
Imagine a vocal instrument that is equal parts cello, double bass, violin,
tuba and trumpet, one whose entire body is an expanding and contracting
resonating chamber, one that can sing with a throat full of water and
triple-trill a rumble, a roar, and infrasound, all in one 3-second call.
Yma Sumac would be horribly jealous.
As I stand on the termite mound, a soothing mantle of high-pitched insect
noise drapes over my shoulders. I lean against the afternoon, a lizard
thawing, a gluttonous lion sleeping off a meal.
Morula slaps her canvas ears against her shoulders. Beyond that dull
sound I can almost hear leaves on trees breathe. The single piccolo
note of a bou-bou shrike rings out. A bleating warbler cries help-me,
help-me, help-me, help-me! The burbling beneath my hand goes on
and on and on. My whole body tingles; I listen as if I am a young species,
as if my life depended on it.
Merrill lives and works in Port Townsend, Washington. Her publications
include poems in Paintbrush, Northwest Review, Willow Springs
and others; poems anthologized in The
Gift of Tongues: 25 Years of Poetry from Copper Canyon Press; a
chapbook of poems, Cheat Grass from Copper Canyon Press in
1975; and more recent publications of a photo-essay series about elephants
in Iron Horse Literary Review and in The Drexel Online
Journal as well as excerpts from her book in Fourth Genre,
and Isotope. She is currently working on a book about elephants:
Shades of Gray.