I became aware this morning of the death of Roger Payne.
For those of you who did not know him, Roger discovered that humpback whales sing long, complex songs. And along with his wife, Katy, discovered the ways in which humpback whales modify their songs in something like the folk process in human music. Roger also pioneered the study of right whales in Argentina.
I first “met” Roger through his seminal paper, “Songs of Humpback Whales,” which was published in Science in 1971, but which I did not discover until 1983 when it was required reading in a course in Animal Communication that I took my senior year in college. At that time I also started listening to humpback whale song and wondered endlessly what it all meant. Roger was also a cellist, almost certainly the first person to improvise along with whale song, before David Darling and Eugene Friesen took up that calling (pun intended). In time, and not coincidentally, I also took up the cello and started composing my own tunes based on whale songs.
Roger was a friend and a mentor and significantly influenced my work in marine conservation and contemplative ecology and music. Most of what I know about ocean acoustics, I learned from him. I worked with Roger in 1998 when he and his second wife, Lisa Harrow, had recently moved to Vermont. I helped Roger organize his voluminous files, while we talked about whales and philosophy and the state of the world. We had plans to digitize his entire humpback whale audio collection, which at that time only existed on decaying reel-to-reel magnetic tape, but that project fell through due to lack of funding. I wonder if it was ever done?
I offer here an excerpt from an essay Roger published just last week in Time Magazine. It turns out to be his final message to the world.
“The way I see it, the most consequential scientific discovery of the past 100 years isn’t E = mc2 or plate tectonics or translating the human genome. These are all quite monumental, to be sure, but there’s one discovery so consequential that unless we respond to it, it may kill us all, graveyard dead. It is this: every species, including humans, depends on a suite of other species to keep the world habitable for it, and each of those species depends in turn on an overlapping but somewhat different suite of species to keep their niche livable for them.
“But there’s a problem here. No one can even name all the essential supporting species, let alone describe their full roles. We do know that some of the most essential species are microscopic plants and animals that we kill, unintentionally, by the trillions. But we know so little about them, they don’t even have common names, just Latin names. And many are unknown, unnamed, and undescribed species.
“Faced with such capacious ignorance, our only rational course of action is to use every means possible, regardless of cost, to try to save all species of life, knowing that if we fail to save enough of the essential ones, we will have no future.
“The challenge now is figuring out how to motivate ourselves and our fellow humans to make species preservation our highest calling—something we will never cut corners on, delay, postpone, diminish, or defund.
“As my time runs out, I am possessed with the hope that humans worldwide are smart enough and adaptable enough to put the saving of other species where it belongs: at the top of the list of our most important jobs. Fifty years ago, people fell in love with the songs of humpback whales, and joined together to ignite a global conservation movement. It’s time for us to once again listen to the whales—and, this time, to do it with every bit of empathy and ingenuity we can muster so that we might possibly understand them.””
The full essay is here:
Thank you, Roger, for everything you gave to the whales, gave to all of us. I can only hope we heed your call to protect life, all of life, on this precious planet.