A jackal sneered at an elephant for never having more than one calf. “Only one,” she agreed. “But an Elephant!” (Aesop)
In a couple of weeks it will be my seventieth birthday. It is serendipitous that I came across Lyall Watson’s book Elephantoms. Until recently, humans and elephants have lived to about the same age. Their origin about 60 million years ago was in the Cape region of Africa where I live. Humans are a mere blip on the radar compared to that. Based on their tool use, complex social behaviour and reverence for a dead family member or friend, they are our closest relatives in the animal Kingdom: Witness to a primordial consciousness embedded in life itself. At one time the African elephant was over a million in population. Recently it was expected that no elephant at all would remain in the Knysna Forest along the coast when the lone Matriarch there died.
Thinking about what I would like to do to mark my birthday more than anything else it was to be up close and personal with an Elephant in the wild. I want to look in its eyes and allow its sensitive trunk to gently feel my face, to walk with it hand in trunk which is the most sensitive hand in the world and to tell it my grief that we as humans have been unspeakably cruel to them, have almost decimated out of existence the great Elephant of Africa. I’d want to fondle one of its babies and ask its mother’s forgiveness. If it was in my power to do so I would pledge that never and never again would such great wrong be perpetrated against so magnificent a creature. And I would hope that well into my dotage I would emulate the elephant which has such a huge and evident capacity for delight.
Reading the book I am haunted by Presence: Presence of Elephantoms – those who have died and the secret ones who are finding a way to recreate themselves in a changing world: Presence of the original people of the Cape known as the Khoikhoi – ‘Men of Men’ or ‘Real Men’ – who recognised the Elephant as !Nau, the sacred: Presence of Lyall who, at the age of twelve was initiated into that reverence by one called !Kamma. They have ‘the far look’ and know why water is Holy. They know the connection of all life and purpose across time.
If elephants didn’t exist, you couldn’t invent one. They belong to a small group of living things so unlikely they challenge credulity and common sense. It is possible to argue that they represent the most highly evolved form of life on the planet. Elephants are symbols of might and memory, harmony and patience, power and compassion. In the wild they invoke awe, exercising uncanny skills, taking obvious delight in one another as they shuffle through our lives, keeping grave appointments at the other end of the world. Herds of over a hundred can materialise like magic out of nowhere. For humans silence is, more often than not, interrupted by thoughtless applause from someone who thinks the symphony is over. We do our best to abolish empty space, filling it instead with clutter, forgetting that it is precisely the nothingness between things that defines them. By accepting ‘emptiness’, like elephants, we can create new possibilities.
Elephants lead extraordinarily complex social lives. Rituals and ceremonies cement relationships for where elephants are concerned nothing less than the whole community is real. Females, in particular, are never alone. They are born into and live in bonded groups which they never leave. All elephants greet each other, but when the encounter involves members that are directly related, the reunion is effusive. They will run together, rumbling, trumpeting and screaming, raise their heads, click their tusks together, entwine their trunks, flap their ears, spin around and back into each other, urinate and defecate and generally show great excitement.
Joyce Poole writes: “I have observed a mother, her facial expression I could recognise as grief, stand beside her stillborn baby for three days, and I have been deeply moved by the eerie silence of an elephant family as, for an hour , they fondled the bones of their Matriarch. They bury their dead.” Zoologist Ivan Sanderson tells of a young elephant called Sadie one of a group being trained for a performance in a circus. Sadie the youngest tried in vain to master the complex routines until it all overwhelmed her and she fled the ring. Twice the trainers brought her back and chastised her, but on the third occasion she simply gave up, sank to her knees, and then lay down on her side, weeping. ‘She lay there,’ said one of the horrified trainers, ‘tears streaming down her face, sobs racking her huge body, like a child’**
We are involved in everything that happens. Each of us takes part in ‘weaving the illusion of reality’. Only part of what is perceived comes through the senses, the remainder comes from within. We have these haunting feelings of something that is there and not there: The sense of extinct elephants in the Knysna Forest is a shadowy haunting one. Lyall talks about Elephantom fugus – ‘fugitive phantom elephant’ – out there, doing impossible things, very, very discreetly. Elephants have big brains and are well used to close cooperation with one another, skilled in the arts of silence and synchrony. In dire straits Proboscides are endlessly inventive and surprising; trying out outrageous new ideas. In secrecy and silence the Elephant of the Knysna Forest may be producing a new kind of elephant, one that might survive even human depredations and excesses: Perhaps by losing its tusks, becoming smaller and lighter in colour so that they are less visible in the forest; adapting to smaller social groups, and using their secret weapon of infrasound and ultra sound communication. It may already be so – elusive signs attest to eight or nine elephantoms in the depths of the forest.
I am left with the haunting image of an African elephant, standing under a giant tree on the cliffs well beyond the Fastnet Light looking out over the Indian Ocean: the tip of its trunk in constant motion and waves of awareness rippling through the thick skin like wind on water as it shifts its great weight from one great shock-absorbing footpad to another. It seemed he was there for a purpose. His calm demeanour was regal and something else, a hint of reverence perhaps, as though this was something he did from time to time, a kind of ritual, a way of communing, one monarch to another, with the sea. Time stands still as he holds his imperial pose. Then backing up gently he makes a graceful three point turn and vanishes in the shadows of the forest behind him.
**For the story of Delilah see 2013 August 16 http://www.themagdalenetestament.com/blog.html