February 15, 2006

Peter Ladefoged and Big Fierce Animals

The best Peter Ladefoged story ever has to be the one about his days as a graduate-student guinea pig in a phonetics lab in Edinburgh, long before the days of Institutional Review Boards and their dominion over research involving human subjects, when his mentors stuck large needles into his intercostal muscles to test Stetson's (I think it was Stetson's?) chest-pulse theory of the syllable. But although I heard the story from Peter and his wife Jenny, I probably have some of the details wrong, and I'm sure others have told it elsewhere in recent days, in the outpouring of respect, affection, and reminiscences that was set off by Peter's death. So I won't try to repeat that one here. I do have a small story that no one else would know about, though, from the visit Peter and Jenny made to Montana in the early 1990s so that Peter could accompany me on a field trip to record phonetic data on Montana Salish from the elders I work with. The visit was primarily a linguistic one, but the story isn't -- although it does suggest some of the hazards Peter encountered in his fieldwork in Africa.

Peter and Jenny stayed with us at our place way back in the woods of northwestern Montana, one mountain range east of the Flathead Reservation and just west of the huge Bob Marshall wilderness. It's a remote and fairly wild location, and we are almost the only people in our part of the valley who haven't clear-cut most of our land, so our woods have become a much-traveled wildlife corridor for (among other critters) black bears, grizzlies, and mountain lions moving from the Swan Mountains on the eastern side of the valley to the Mission Mountains on the western side. When Peter and I weren't over on the reservation working with elders, he and Jenny were enthusiastic about exploring, so they came along when I went knapweeding (they laughed a lot at the idea of weeding the woods) and gathering wild raspberries, and then when I went through thick brush to a small gooseberry patch so I could get berries for muffins. As we pushed through the tangle, I remarked that the reason I was deliberately making so much noise was to alert any nearby bears or lions to our presence, so they'd get out of our way. ``Hm!'', Peter observed. ``We would never do that in Africa.'' I asked why not. ``Well,'' he said, ``There, the lions [and other dangerous animals] wouldn't get out of the way.'' A different vision of wildlife. And although there are lions and grizzlies and black bears on the Flathead Reservation too, they are mostly confined to the still-woodsy streamsides, and even the occasional story of a mountain lion that wandered into town doesn't raise the possibility of danger from wildlife as a feature of fieldwork. Peter and I stayed at the cabin to work and so missed the excitement on the day that -- if I'm remembering correctly -- Jenny went on a hike up the steep Swans with Rich and a few others; I'm not sure she even saw the two grizzly cubs that came bouncing down a slope toward the trail, but she did turn and run with the others when the person in front shouted, ``Run back! Grizzlies!'' Unlike a lone bear or mountain lion, a mama grizzly would be inclined to hang around if she discovered humans near her cubs and couldn't get the cubs away quietly (and I've noticed that bear cubs tend not to want to go anywhere quietly).

Posted by Sally Thomason at February 15, 2006 05:38 PM