An excerpt from my book-in-progress:
The tip of Jabu’s trunk hovers in front of my eyes, wet with mucous, dotted with sand, nostril hairs visible.
He blows into my face, gently. I blow back, gently. We exchange breath, distillations of our own personal atmospheres, particle-swarms of changed, exchanged air, brewed though all the cells of our bodies.
My lungs fill with the fragrance of crushed leaves, with saproots and spearmint-scented bark, all lightly fermented. I think of the stagnant air that surrounds my daily life, air that is conditioned, filtered, deodorized, air that is bland. Elephant’s breath is said to cure headaches. And it just might, if I had one.
Jabu’s trunk tip investigates my right boot tip. The scents I’ve picked up while walking tumble up two seven-foot-long nostrils – nostrils surrounded by nerves, arteries, veins and a staggering array of longitudinal and transverse muscles, the world’s biggest, longest and certainly most flexible schnozz.
A trunk is the most useful appendage that ever evolved. Imagine having an arm in place of your nose, an arm long enough to reach to the top of a tree, and pluck a single leaf from its crown. Imagine having a nose with which you could rip, tear, excavate, whack, and blow bubbles. You could steal with your nose, suck on it, squeal, swat, poke and siphon with it. You could take a shower, or reach over your shoulder and scratch your back with it. You could even arm wrestle with your nose.
He chuffs, a hot gust of air directed at my feet. Wet mist covers one boot top momentarily, then evaporates.
Funky jazzy trombone trunk. Snaking snorkeling vacuuming trunk. Showerhead. Backhoe. Slinky. Shimmying sucking swigging trunk. Empty pipe. Water gun. Periscope. Plucking siphoning tenacious trunk. Kazoo. Tweezers. Tentacle. Affectionate handshaking pickpocket trunk. Python. Air hose. Question mark. Whistling snorting sneezing trunk.
Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, 1996
Parked at the lip of the waterhole, seven humans sit in a roof-less, side-less vehicle, eggs in a carton without a lid. Earlier, at dusk, giraffes reflected the setting sun, but now icy stars stare down at us with chilled, blue eyes. Somewhere, out there beyond this waterhole, hyenas will make short work of bones.
An elephant appears. And then another. Gray wave after gray wave surges out of the bush in small herds of twenty or less, flooding the huge hollow in front of us. Dust rises in the air, a potent blend of manure, dried grass and sand. The backwash swells in our direction. Soon a sea of elephants surrounds us.
Snorts, grumbles, trumpets, growling bellies, and gargantuan belches resound. Some of the vibrations are too low to hear, but I feel them as they pass through my body, reverberate in my chest cavity, squeeze my heart. Eye after eye inspects us as eddies of elephants swirl past.
An old world laps at the foot of our memories, extinguishes centuries of communal fires. The ropes that tether us loosen. We slip away from the familiar shore and set off. We look around with wild hearts. We have become part of the herd.
Behind us, close enough to touch with an outstretched arm, a huge female chuffs and huffs at regular intervals, locomotive-style. Hunched and folded, I turn my head slowly to look into her left eye. Her trunk periscopes into an s-shape, swivels, and tests the air in my direction. Her massive body blocks our only way out. She rocks back and forth, side to side, grows quiet. Small and cold, I drop my head, totally at her mercy, if she knows such a thing.
Suddenly, from a crush of rumbling bodies, a baby elephant squirts out and heads straight in our direction. Right behind is her mother. Even our guide quits breathing.
The baby elephant stops less than a foot from our left front wheel. Her mother looms over us, illuminated by our parking lights. With just one step she could snatch any of us right out of our seats.
A small, short elephant trunk reaches out, touches the tire and a collective inhale is heard, as if the vehicle itself is trying to shrink away. Behind us, the huge matriarch chuffs rapidly, building up steam.
Then the tiny trunk jerks back, blasts a bubbly snort of air, and the baby’s face contorts into an expression that can only be translated as Yuuuuck! The mother shifts into an I-told-you-so attitude. Her trunk relaxes, blows small puffs in the sand.
Carefully, I turn to look the matriarch in the eye. She blinks once, twice, emits a large exhalation Whooooff, and turns her back on us.
The baby charges our vehicle, flaps her ears, and trumpets like a bicycle horn, causing a gust of giggles in return. Her mother rumbles, pivots from us peons and makes a regal exit, strolling off in a stately manner no human monarch could ever attain. The baby twirls several times, then follows her mom in a quick side-to-side rocking gait reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin.
Singly, and by twos and threes and tens, massive silhouettes disappear into the darkness. A young female strolls by, scans us as if we’re department store mannequins. And then, they are all gone.
WordPress.com stats. A 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,400 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 9 years to get that many views.
I’m reposting this piece in honor of the new year. It occurred very early in my blog:
Heart shapes can be found in nature, if you’re lucky enough to spy one. There’s a heart on Jabu’s trunk, a ridge of skin that feels like fine shoe leather. One of his wrinkles pierces the lower third of this heart shape, from left to right, straight as an arrow. His real heart hangs between his breastbone and ribs, a little to the left, just like mine does. But instead of having a heart with a single point, an elephant’s heart has two points at its apex – so it’s the wrinkled outline of a human heart that Jabu carries on his trunk.
The length of Jabu’s real heart is about twenty-two inches, its width eighteen. His heart weighs around forty-four pounds, almost the same as a medium-sized dog. Still, it’s less than 1% of his body weight, a common proportion among large mammals and among humans. My heart also weighs less than 1% of my body weight: about ten ounces.
The human heart is approximately five inches long, three-and-a-half inches wide and shaped like a pulsing cone. It is the only muscle in my body that acts on its own – my heartbeat doesn’t need any messages from my brain. The cells in my heart tissue involuntarily constrict, all together, all at once, over and over, a soft perpetual-motion machine. Rip my heart from my body, chop it into pieces, immerse the pieces in a saline solution, and then give them a small jolt of electricity. The remnants of my cardiac muscle will contract . . . contract . . . contract – all on their own, sometimes for hours.
It’s designed to be strong, my heart.
In mammals, birds, and reptiles the heart has the same basic pump-like design, a design that has worked through eons – even cold-blooded dinosaurs had hearts. A day or two after fertilization, embryos develop a pinpoint that pales, then brightens, pales, then brightens, the beginnings of a tiny pump practicing emptying, filling, emptying, refilling. An old, old pattern. The master timepiece.
There are four chambers in my heart: two auricles (“little ears”) and two ventricles (“little bellies”) – named by anatomists for the external parts of the body they resemble. Spent, dark-red blood is collected in the right auricle, then dropped into the right ventricle, which constricts and pumps it out to the lungs to pick up oxygen. Bright red again, full of oxygen, blood circulates back to the left auricle and from there drops into the left ventricle. In the next twitch blood is delivered to every corner of my body.
The “little ears,” the auricles, make very little sound as they drain blood into the lower chambers of my heart, a distance of an inch or so. It’s the ventricles, the “little bellies,” that boom as each contraction forces open heart valves and blood gushes up the aorta under pressure. Lupp DUPP. Lupp DUPP. Lupp DUPP. One beat smaller, one beat larger, flush after flush.
My right ventricle has walls thin as paper – it delivers blood only as far as the lungs. If I could hold it up to the light I could see right through it. The left side of my heart is the heavyweight lifter, pumping blood all the way to my toes, moving 150,000 tons of blood in my lifetime.
Jabu’s great artery, the aorta, takes off from the left ventricle of his heart, the same as mine does. Named in the Middle Ages, aorta means, “to heave.” It’s an artery more flexible and sturdier than any manmade pipe. Jabu’s left ventricle pumps a continuous stream of blood up and out of his heart into the aorta, which then drops down into his chest and down each leg, where it branches and branches and branches all the way to his toes. Each arterial branch has less space than the artery it came from, but the sum of their volume is always greater than their mother artery. The blood moves, but more and more slowly through smaller and smaller pipes, trickling into all corners of Jabu’s body, trickling through capillaries one cell thick.
Blood’s trip back to the heart is made through veins. Millions of tiny venules drain into thousands of small veins, thousands drain to hundreds, hundreds to the one that empties back into the heart. Veins are even more elastic than arteries, can hold variable quantities of blood, and serve as a reservoir for all that moving liquid. At any one moment, 65% of my blood is contained in my veins. It’s an ancient blueprint, this branching, this heartbeat, this coming and going, a blueprint brought to life in even the tiniest of creatures.
Blood has to be literally hoisted from Jabu’s toes. Squeezed along by muscles wrapped around veins, pushed by valves in the veins, and sucked upward by the huge action of breathing, blood finally arrives in the vena cava, where it drops into the heart. Jabu has two vena cavae, possibly because of the large amounts of blood that need to be moved. The blood vessels of an African elephant reach lengths of twelve feet, a huge network of life.
Jabu’s body contains 120 gallons of blood, enough to fill an aquarium six feet long, two feet wide and two feet deep. At one-and-a-half gallons, my puny amount of blood would barely fill a birdbath.
Blood is the body’s only liquid organ, five times denser than water. It takes food and water in, removes waste and byproducts to the disposal areas of the body, the kidneys, lungs, and skin. Blood irrigates all tissue, both feeds and cleanses. It leaves the heart at one mile per hour and returns, laden with waste, at about half that speed. Construction materials move along highways of blood, demolished materials return. Blood is 20% solids and 80% water, carrying products of digestion, products made by the body, foreign intruders, the dust of stars, even cobalt from the original ocean of the earth where both of us, human and elephant, began our journeys.
We each have roughly one billion heartbeats for our lives. Mouse, hummingbird, elephant, human, all the same. Like us, elephants suffer cardiovascular disease, die of heart attacks and strokes.
Cardiac arrest: when the heart shudders and stops, when the light in the eyes flickers, fades and snuffs.
And when the heart quits beating, its resonance
Lupp DUPP Lupp DUPP Lupp DUPP
is gone. The gurgle of digestion, all the silky, sturdy, slapping noises, the blood rush, gone. The symphony of the body is finished.
For those of us left, that silence is almost too much to bear.
Only a few yards from our Land Rover, a single-cylinder water pump alternately chugs and sputters, drawing from the water table beneath the sand, and sending spurts through a pipe to a square trough. This supply of water keeps the bachelor elephants in Savuti area, as they wait for spring rains and the return of female breeding herds.
The steady sound of the pump, chug-sputter, chug-sputter, chug-sputter lulls my eyes closed. They open, close, open half-lidded, close again.
“Here he comes,” someone whispers and my eyes flick open as a huge bull strolls past. I pick up my camera.
His enormous tusk splay out almost sideways. I focus on his great head, nodding downward with each step, as he trudges past. A thirsty pilgrim in a parched land, his trek to water is nearly finished. He heads straight to the square trough. The clicking and whirring of our cameras doesn’t alter his gait.
Through the viewfinder I marvel at his tusk. It is easily four feet long, stained and chipped on its end. Because of its growth pattern – out, rather than down and up – his tusks make him a much wider elephant than he really is.
Mid-drink, he curls his trunk into his mouth; his head tilts back; his eyes close. He makes gargling sounds as he drank. Extending his trunk into the waterhole, he blows bubbles before curling his trunk again and again to hose several gallons down his throat. With each swallow goes the taste of dung, samplings from all the animals that used this waterhole – zebra, wildebeest, warthog, ostrich, hyena and the occasional furtive flavor of lion.
I try to imagine the bouquet garni of this waterhole and how its myriad fragrances might seep into the crevices of an elephant’s mind, form pools of scent elephants recognize, year after year, the liquid memory of Africa. Perhaps the old bull is memorizing the stories in this trough, paragraphs of taste and smell, twists of plot and character and fate.
He returns to where we are parked, and stops close by. His skin is the color of seasoned cast iron. The waterline on his body rises just past his belly. Spatters of mud stain his ears and back. His forehead bulges and flutters audible sounds, if I had the ears for infrasound.
After several long minutes, his eyelids droop and his mouth slackens. Under the hot sun he falls asleep, lulled perhaps by the narcotic of a long, slow drink. The tip of his trunk coils like a magic rope on the ground. He sleeps with his weight on three legs, resting a hind leg, occasionally rocking back on it as if he dreams of his trek. Drool from his trunk slowly seeps into the sand.
I match my breathing with his, and drowse, sedated by the sun.
The giant beside us rumbles soft snores in his sleep, yet he is probably aware of the humans next to him, nodding their heads, also falling asleep. Other bachelors scuff past him, on their way to and from the waterhole.
Tiny paws of wind skitter across my arms and keep me half-awake. But for a moment, I almost enter his dreams.
An Excerpt from My Book:
In the late morning, dizzy from heat, I survey the far side of a large lagoon. Bracketed with the dense foliage of knobthorns, leadwoods, rain trees and fever berries, this remnant left behind by the Okavango is ultramarine, inviting. But the color is only an illusion, a reflection of the blowsy blue sky. The water is actually steeped brown, rich with dung, dead snails, rotten vegetation, sediments, and decomposing bodies by the thousands: fish, spiders, ants, beetles – any creature unable to outrun last year’s flood.
Not far from here jungles of papyrus lean their feathery seed heads over the clear blue channels of the Okavango, tall stands that line the permanent footprint of the Delta. The river is inching southward, breaking the boundary between water and desert. Soon it will flush this lagoon, scouring out the sweet muck at its bottom to spread among grassy floodplains, and the desert will green. With the river will come crocodiles and hippos and other denizens of its deep, running water.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder on mats of trampled reeds, the elephants blow a concert of bubbles, bassoons under water. They shower their spines, poke their trunks into the back of their throats and release gallons of water at a time. As they remove their trunks some water spills from their mouths. An odd mossy smell rises.
My mind wanders, wondering what it would be like to follow quicksilver fingers of water season after season, migration bred into my bones. When the river reaches this part of the Delta, a new population of birds will arrive: Wattled cranes, Egyptian geese, Reed cormorants, Darters, Avocets, Black crakes, Red-knobbed coots, Southern pochards, Sacred ibis, Hamerkops and Saddle-billed storks.
Jabu sloshes up the embankment and heads for his ration of fresh alfalfa spread under nearby trees. His feet and ankles are covered with mud. He looks like he’s wearing socks. His trunk is relaxed and curled slightly, to keep the tip of it out of the mud. Although this is just a backwater of the Okavango, huge trees line the shore behind him. No wonder elephants grew large in Africa: there was enough room and food to do so.
I slap dust from my pants and follow, as eager as he is to tuck into lunch. I watch him stash a chunk of alfalfa between his tusk and the upper lip of his trunk, pick off mouthful after mouthful as if eating peanuts from a bag. He smacks his lips as he eats. When the grass is gone he drapes his trunk over his left tusk. His eyes close and he dozes.
In a shady grove near the lagoon a table covered with a white linen cloth dazzles the tourists. Fresh branches of mopane decorate the surface of the table; the leaves on each branch fold modestly like small olive table linens. Knives rest across linen napkins on white china bread plates. Pepper grinders, water glasses, oil & vinegar decanters and wineglasses complete the illusion that we’ve stumbled into the al fresco dining room of an elegant restaurant. Nodding at murmured compliments, the staff from Stanley’s hand out cold beer, which has been uppermost on many minds.
They’ve set up a buffet complete with chafing dishes. White lace doilies edged with heavy colored beads protect the salads from flies. It’s odd how fast we re-civilize. All morning long the tourists had been mostly silent, filled with awe at walking next to elephants. Now they sprawl in camp chairs and compare camera lenses.
A cake of soap sits in the fork of a bush next to a white basin on a folding wooden stand. I use the murky water in the basin to lather my hands. One of the camp staff holds a pitcher of clean water for rinsing. The water in the basin turns even grayer with dirt. I empty the basin and small puffs of dust rise from the force of the water hitting floury sand.
Then I too re-civilize, join the human conversation.
An excerpt from my book:
One fine Delta morning, walking along behind Morula, I stumble over a pile of dried dung. An elephant defecates fifteen to seventeen times per day, up to 250 pounds of droppings. If Morula used the same spot each time, as pigs do for their privies, the resultant tally of her daily dump would be taller and heavier than I am. Luckily, elephants leave their leavings wherever they happen to be. Luckily, this pile of dung wasn’t a fresh one. But the one next to it is.
I kneel down and take a closer look at Morula’s fragrant pile of feces. Since she’s a vegetarian, it smells more of compost than rot. Crosshatched with undigested twigs, this wet pile contains quite a few seeds. Thirty species of African trees rely on an elephant’s intestine. Passing untouched through the gut, their seeds emerge in the feces, instantly fertilized.
I bend closer. Tiny grooves in the sand mark where dung beetles have already rolled off balls of dung. Even tinier footprints dot each groove. With its hind legs, a dung beetle can propel a ball of dung 1,041 times its own body weight – equivalent to me, lying on my back, trying to push around Morula with my feet.
One study found 22,000 dung beetles on a single elephant plop. Dung beetles enrich the soil, prevent the spread of parasites and disease, and provide food for their young, night and day, day and night – finding their way around at night by polarized moonlight.
A dung beetle barrel rolls past my ear and lands on top of Morula’s output. Tightly rolled bits of it are already making off into the grass, propelled by industrious hind legs. As the male rolls his ball of dung, a female rides on top. She will lay her egg on it once the ball is buried. In less than an hour, most of this pile will be gone, entombed in tiny birthing chambers, each ball of dung containing a few seeds and a single egg. When the beetle larva hatches from the egg, it has all of the food and water it will need until it is able to function on its own.
There are 1800 species of dung beetles in southern Africa - 1800 tribes of sanitary engineers cleaning things up. Worldwide, the dung beetle family includes 5,000 species. In the United States there are 90 species. Ranchers love them – an established population of dung beetles can clear out a cow pasture in thirty-six hours. Australians import African dung beetles to augment their native population and are experimenting with them in big cities to rid sidewalks and streets of dog droppings. In East Africa, dung beetles work their way through eighty percent of the leavings left behind by the mass migrations on the Serengeti. Without dung beetles all of Africa would be covered with, well, you know.
In 1984 whale researcher Katy Payne spent a week with eleven elephants at the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon, 170 miles south from my Pacific Northwest home. An acoustic biologist with fifteen years of studying the long and complex calls of whales, she was curious as to the kinds of sounds elephants make. She spent every waking hour at the zoo listening and watching the elephants’ behavior. She noticed that certain keepers elicited a positive response from the elephants, an intangible “thrill” in the air, like the rolling vibrations of thunder right before you hear them.
On her way home to Cornell University, while she thought about her observations, the throbbing of the airplane reminded her of a pipe organ she once heard. During a performance of Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew, a shuddering filled the air as bass notes from the great pipes descended in a deep scale until sound disappeared – but the air still throbbed. Those same, strong, vibrations-without-sound had filled the air around the elephants in Oregon. Could they be communicating with infrasound, like whales?
Four months later, back at the zoo, Payne and fellow researcher Bill Langbauer set their recording equipment to its slowest speed. They mapped the elephants’ movements and timed changes in their behavior with the recordings. Working around the clock for an entire month, they recorded what sounded like snores, chirps, barks, rumbles and even moments of absolute silence.
Back at Cornell, the first tape Payne selected to review was during a time of silence, when there was a “thrill” in the air as a female elephant faced a concrete wall and a male elephant faced the same wall in an adjoining enclosure. With the wall removed, the elephants would have been within three feet of each other. Running the tape at ten times its normal speed, the researchers heard sounds emerge from silence – elephants carrying on an extensive conversation in infrasound, even when separated by concrete walls.
To test the theory, The Cornell research team rigged a double-blind experiment in Africa. An observation tower near a waterhole at Etosha National Park in Namibia was outfitted with video cameras and microphones. Miles from the waterhole, a mobile van roamed through the bush carrying broadcast speakers and tape recordings. The timing, location and content of the broadcasts were unknown to the observers at the tower.
One hot, dry afternoon, two male elephants, Mohammed and Hannibal, picked their way through the white calcareous rocks around the waterhole and paused for a drink. As soon as the two bulls arrived, the tower radioed the van. Selected at random, infrasonic estrous calls of a female elephant from Kenya were broadcast to the two bachelors in Namibia.
A female elephant needs to advertise as far and as wide as she can, since she is receptive to males for just a few days every estrus cycle. She repeats her calls over and over for up to forty-five minutes at a time. The calls can be heard as far as two and a half miles away – over a range of nineteen square miles – but only by other elephants.
Just seconds after the sound was sent, Mohammed and Hannibal froze, spread their ears and lifted their heads – twisting them side-to-side like scanning radar. Within two minutes the bulls set off. Half an hour later the pair strode past the van, looking for love in all the wrong places.
Wetlands are highly productive ecosystems – an interweaving of myriad plant and animal species that defies an easy analysis. The previous four times I came to the Okavango Delta were in “dry” years when water tables were low and the floods barely reached as far as Stanley’s Camp. I saw two, maybe three Burchell’s coucal (Centropus burchellii. ) Now they’re everywhere – rising from the grass to look for snails, frogs and toads, new opportunities for these predators with fierce red eyes. Interestingly, it is mostly the male who incubates the eggs. At dusk, as the elephants head back from their evening forage, I often hear the liquid song of a coucal: Doooo, doo-doo-doo-doo, doo – the sound of water dripping into a wooden bucket, or pan-pipes rapidly descending a scale.
Water is rare and precious in Botswana – so much so that the pula, the equivalent monetary unit as the dollar, is the same word used for rain. The lack of water leaves much of Botswana’s desert areas uninhabitable. Paradoxically, so do the floods, two months downstream from the rains in Angola. The fickle nature of the Okavango’s channels defy permanent infrastructure, such as paved roads. Often vehicles become immersed up to their floorboards.
Each time I follow the elephants to another section of flooded road I’m both delighted and chagrined. Delighted at the number of secret waterways – so numerous, so new, that no one can memorize them over the length of a year. Chagrined, because I will need to wade. My pants are already stained by decayed plant muck. All of this water, and I cannot drink a drop of it. Thankfully, the pipes at Doug and Sandi’s camp tap well water.
Some of this year’s road-channels are deep enough for mokoro, canoe highways, but not deep enough yet for crocodiles and hippos. Bits of plants tumble along in slow clear currents down previous roads; water lilies and reeds fill entire channels, remind me of paintings by Monet.
Even elephants can get lost behind huge stands of palm and grass.