The Elephant and Whale Screens Roger Payne and Daphne Sheldrick in front—Nov 24, 2010
Back in 2010 I was invited by the filmmaker Jin Tatsumura, the dearest of men, to go to Japan and give a talk along with Daphne Sheldrick, founder of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi—a haven for orphaned, east African wildlife, particularly elephants. Our talks would take place at the Miho Museum—the dream of Mihoko Koyama, after whom it is named. She and her daughter Hiroko Koyama commissioned it, and it was designed by the architect I.M. Pei who called it his Shangri La. It is an architectural tour de force built in the wild, nearly vertical, mountainous, forested terrain that is near Kyoto.
One purpose of our talks would be to discuss one of the main exhibits—the Elephant and Whale Screens (1795) attributed to the 18th century master, Ito Jakuchu. Of course, there are no elephants in Japan but in 1729 when Jakuchu was 13, one was brought from Vietnam to Kyoto and shown to the emperor. If Jakuchu saw it, many years went by before he painted an elephant, and in his two most famous pictures of elephants they are white. Real white elephants are very rare but the other errors in those two pictures suggest that he simply forgot that elephants are grey. When he painted an animal that was easily available to him, such as a rooster, his painting was both the essence of roosterness and showed the rooster’s true form.
Whales are abundant off the coast of Japan but a common error in Jakuchu’s times was to give whales fish fins. However, the fact that the fish-finned creature in the screens is spouting forces us to conclude that it’s a whale. As the old whalers said so well; “A whale is a spouting fish.”
Jakuchu painted only the whale’s back, but if we use the elephant as a yardstick we can see that it’s a big whale, so he probably meant it to be a blue whale—the apparent singleness and height of the spout supports that supposition. It seems likely that Jakuchu intended the screens to show the largest creatures of land and sea—the message being to anyone who saw the picture hanging in any space; “Strength is present; all is safe here.”
But what did he want us to believe about what these giants were doing? Both are immobile; the elephant is lying down on what seems to be the top of a bluff overlooking the sea. It is facing the whale which cannot be moving forward (if it were it would hit the underwater base of the bluff or the beach itself). Yet the whale is spouting and the elephant is raising its trunk high. Both gestures are usually accompanied by loud sounds. Is Jakuchu implying that these two giants are conversing?
Years ago, I would have said; “Nonsense; whales and elephants in their own elements can’t realistically be expected to hear each other more than a few meters away. Sounds lose too much energy as they pass from the air into the water, or from the water into the air. But then Katy Payne discovered that elephants are very talkative but speak mostly at frequencies too low for humans to hear. They are, nevertheless, very talkative and in social groups they make many sounds much of the time. They are immersed in a rumbling social world. She also showed that they speak loudly enough to hear each other for several kilometers. Her work attracted other scientists who showed that their infrasonic calls travel not just through the air but through the ground and that listening elephants also sense such vibrations through their feet.
I had calculated that before the ocean was filled with the noise humans generate, the sounds made by blue whales could have been heard across entire oceans—a theory since confirmed by others.
A corollary to this is that it is reasonable to assume blue whales must also be able to communicate through the crust of the Earth, the rock of the sea floor. That could be a big advantage for long distance communication since rock conducts sounds faster than water does and when you make sounds underwater over a continuous rock floor some of the energy of your sounds will get into the rock, whether or not you intend them to.
Elephants and whales both live very social lives. Both have large brains and as such seem to be the most likely potential communicants to have either the ability or the interest to trade news about ocean life and sea life. So I suspect that Jakuchu’s screens in the Miho museum depict more than just the planet’s biggest land and sea creatures. I suspect he may have been suggesting that life on land and life in the sea inform each other of what’s up in the other’s world.
But that seems Pretty far-fetched. After all, what information could a whale give an elephant about the sea that would concern the elephant, or vice versa? Well, how about the whale saying the equivalent of; “Where’s the food I used to find here? The water tastes awful; stop messing up the water!”
It wouldn’t be a dumb request; whales are used to rearranging seascapes—feeding grey whales root up the sea floor by making bathtub-sized holes in the mud—rather the way pigs root up soil. Was Jakuchu alluding to how land animals and sea animals might communicate so as to cooperate in keeping the earth habitable? OK, most unlikely, given that such ideas were rare in Jakuchu’s time. However, back then, although people had very incomplete ideas of what caused what, they were already learning how to use organic mixtures of microbes to restore the fertility of soils. How intriguing, given that another great interest of the Koyama family is permaculture—something they were advancing long before they acquired the Jakuchu screens.
I still suppose that one of Jakuchu’s main motives was simply to depict the biggest land and the biggest sea creatures. However, any great artist knows that everyone loves a painting that tells a good story. Maybe he intended that the elephant and the whale were having a chat, each telling the other stories… hanging out. If so, the late Lyall Watson, a friend from my days of attending International Whaling Commission meetings, claimed to have witnessed the very thing Jakuchu’s screens depict. He described it in his book, Elephantoms.
Near the end of the book, Watson goes in search of a female elephant whom he has learned is the last remaining elephant in a region of the South African, Cape coast called Knysna —a place in which Watson spent his summers as a child. By sheer luck he finds this last living elephant of the clan he had known in his youth, but he finds her in a totally uncharacteristic place. She is standing at the edge of the sea, looking towards a blue whale that has come close to shore—a totally uncharacteristic place to see a blue whale. Lyle assumes that the whale is also a female because it is so big (female baleen whales are bigger than males).
Let us suspend our disbelief for a moment—not worry whether some of Lyle Watson’s assumptions are wrong, or even whether his account is slightly manicured—he tells a compelling story with words, just as Jakuchu did with paints.
After feeling a kind of throbbing in the air, he guesses it to be the whale’s infrasound and expresses his surprise at finding the last elephant of Knysna, the matriarch, here. He writes:
“She was here because she no longer had anyone to talk to in the forest. She was standing here on the edge of the ocean because it was the next, nearest, and most powerful source of infrasound. The underrumble of the surf would have been well within her range, a soothing balm for an animal used to being surrounded, submerged, by low and comforting frequencies, by the lifesounds of a herd, and now this was the next-best thing!
“My heart went out to her. The whole idea of this grandmother of many being alone for the first time in her life was tragic, conjuring up the vision of countless other old and lonely souls. But just as I was about to be consumed by helpless sorrow, something even more extraordinary took place…
“The throbbing was back in the air. I could feel it, and I began to understand why. The blue whale was on the surface again, pointed inshore, resting, her blowhole clearly visible. The Matriarch was here for the whale! The largest animal in the ocean and the largest living land animal were no more than a hundred yards apart, and I was convinced that they were communicating! In infrasound, in concert, sharing big brains and long lives, understanding the pain of high investment in a few precious offspring, aware of the importance and the pleasure of complex sociality, these rare and lovely great ladies were commiserating over the back fence of this rocky Cape shore, woman to woman, matriarch to matriarch, almost the last of their kind.
“I turned, blinking away the tears, and left them to it. This was no place for a mere man…”