An excerpt from my book in progress:
After Morula finishes browsing, I follow her down one of the unmapped, two-track, lightly traveled, nameless roads of the Okavango Delta.
Zik! Zik! Zik-zik! A masked weaver hops through the brush beside us. White clouds above our heads twirl like cotton candy across the sky. The track we’re following parts a shallow lake of grass and climbs out on an island of trees. A game trail crosses the road. Morula swivels her trunk to one side, then the other, at the intersection where the grass is beaten down.
In dun-colored sand as finely ground as cake flour, Morula’s prints barely register. I can’t see a single puff from the impact of her feet. With each step, she leaves behind outlines of small moons. We cross the recent, delicate hoof prints of impala and the moons obliterate them.
My boot prints, inside the crater of her footprints, look like exclamation points, the heel separate from the rest of my sole.
The oldest human footprints in the world are 1500 miles north of here, at Laetoli, in Tanzania. Found in 1976, the 3.5 million-year-old footprints are not far from the Olduvai Gorge, where the Leakey family discovered the first hominids. Although the Laetoli hominids are Australopithecines and not Homo sapiens, they are part of our family tree, a relationship comparable to that of mammoths and elephants.
Fossil footprints are not uncommon, especially near ancient riverbeds. But the Laetoli footprints were created when a nearby volcano erupted, covering the ground with a slurry of volcanic ash somewhat the consistency of concrete. Once excavated, the site was found to have over 9,500 impressions, mostly made by rabbits. In order of decreasing abundance, tracks were also found of guinea fowl, hyena, antelope, rhinoceros, giraffe, buffalo, elephant, horse, small carnivores, monkeys, pigs and ostriches. Just one short, 80-foot section was made by hominids.
Their footprints – that of a man, a woman and a small child – tell us much about our ancestry. For in that trackway is a hesitation, as if one of the hominids thought about turning left. Perhaps it was the moment before an earthquake, when the ground was no longer solid beneath their feet. Or perhaps one of them considered turning around, going back.
I stop and look over my shoulder, in the same way my human ancestor did. All of Africa stretches out behind me – overlapped boot prints and footprints leading backward into her hot, crowded maze of life. It was Africa who designed us to walk upright across her landscapes. Because of Africa, I know the ground better than I know trees.
In the distance, across a golden backwater of high grass, stand a family of giraffes. They are motionless, watching us cross between islands of bush. The spotted derricks of their necks swivel in all directions to get a better look at us. At the end of each neck a head is cocked sideways: the universal body language that says, “Huh?” But once we stop to look, they turn away and head for cover, except for one curious female who continues to watch us.
Tramping along in Morula’s wake, I’m beginning to get the hang of all this walking and browsing – less sweating, less reliance on my water bottle. I’m beginning to wish I could do this every day of my life.
“For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” – Henry Beston
And should we not, therefore, allow our fellow prisoners the freedoms to which our nation, our populace aspires? Life. Liberty. The pursuit of Happiness – which I interpret as a life well lived.
It takes a lot of foliage to sustain an elephant. Depending on its sex and size, elephants eat four to seven percent of its body weight each day – four hundred to six hundred pounds of vegetation. And sometimes they take offense if you disturb their meal.
(Currently, the Samburu area of Kenya is experiencing its highest level of poaching in 14 years. I hope this young cow has survived.)
An Ivory Timeline: Netsuke
Popularized in the 17th century and still available today, netsuke (pronounced nets-keh) are small carved toggles used to attach pouches or boxes to the sashes of traditional Japanese robes worn by men, robes which had no pockets. Instead, “sagemono” (suspended objects) hung by cords from the belts of men’s kimono robes – the two holes in the netsuke at the end of the cords prevented them from slipping through the sash. Sagemono included cloth pouches, small woven baskets, or the most popular (and beautifully made) wooden boxes. In this manner, Japanese men carried pipes, tobacco, writing implements, personal seals, medicine, or money. The combination of sagemona and netsuke were carefully considered before any well-dressed gentleman appeared in public.
Most popular during the Endo period (1615-1868), netsuke evolved from being strictly utilitarian objects made of shell and wood into intricately carved miniature sculptures with motifs inspired by animals, vegetables, fairy tales, daily life and mythological or religious figures. Most common are sculptural netsuke: compact three-dimensional figures carved into round shapes and one to three inches long. Other types include elongated carvings, hollow netsuke, masks, or trick netsuke with hidden or moving parts.
Materials used for carving netsuke include elephant and mammoth ivory, hardwoods, hippopotamus tusks, boar tusks, rhinoceros horn, antlers, and clay. Woven netsuke are made from cane. Other materials used are the casques (upper mandible) of the Helmeted hornbill; black coral; partially fossilized pine and cedar wood found under sections of Sendai, Japan; walrus tusks; sperm whale teeth; whale bone; bear’s teeth; tiger’s teeth; ivory palm nuts, walnuts; agate; the underground stems of bamboo; and ivorine – made from the dust created when carving ivory, which is mixed with clear resin and compressed.
Subjects portrayed by netsuke include nearly every aspect of Japanese culture, including people famous, anonymous, historical, fantastical, or real. Some netsuke depict entire scenes from mythology, literature, or history. Trades people were often carved in action – woodcutters cutting wood, fishermen catching fish. Other subjects included plants, especially beans and chestnuts, often carved in actual size; inanimate objects such as roof tiles, coins and tools; and abstract patterns. Shunga, or erotic netsuke, include humans or animals in acts of conjugation or contain subtle or symbolic sexual references. Animal subjects varied from zodiac signs to rats, from octopi to rabbits. One of my favorites is by Masatoshi: “Baku Monster Who Eats Nightmares.” It resembles a standing pregnant elephant with red eyes, dark curly hair, and biceps. A contemporary piece, it is made of ivory.
Nearly 50% of netsuke is ivory.
Netsuke: an art that requires death.
Between 1977 and 1987 Japan imported 2,832 tons of elephant ivory. Two-thirds of that amount was carved into Hankos, writing seals still required on official documents. One hundred and seventy tons of ivory went into the production of netsuke. In 1989, a ban was enacted on all ivory trade. Still, countries could apply for, and receive, ivory under special sales. In 2006, 2.8 tons of illegal ivory was seized in Osaka. Japan last received a legal import of ivory in 2009.In 2011, Japan’s biggest ivory dealer, Takaichi Co., was found to be trading in “unregistered” ivory. An estimated 572-1622 illegal tusks had been converted into hankos between 2005 and 2010 by the firm – 87% of their production.And nearly all Japanese people have figurines, anime or cartoon characters, many made from ivory, hanging from their mobile phones — a mass-produced, contemporary way keeping alive the nation’s netsuke tradition.
Netsuke. Small, beautiful sculptures made of calcium, made from the incisors of dead elephants.
Carved ivory thrones are mentioned in the Bible. King Solomon had one, covered with gold. Tutankhamen’s casket had a carved ivory headrest for his pillow. Cicero wrote of Roman houses where ivory doors opened onto entire rooms covered with ivory tiles. Gladiators had chariots made of ivory.
In the 1800s, in Africa, ton after ton of tusks were transported thousands of miles to Zanzibar and Khartoum, carried on the backs of slaves. By the 1980s, more than 300 elephants a day were slaughtered for their ivory, nearly 100,000 per year.
In Amboseli National Park, in Tanzania, a recessive gene is becoming dominant, occurring in 50 years instead of thousands, selected by poachers.
Year after year tuskless elephants are born.
Both male and female African elephants grow tusks – the largest upper incisors on this planet. Tusks are defined as long teeth protruding beyond the mouth growing usually, but not always, in pairs. Most tusks are enlarged canines, such as those of warthogs, wild boars, hippopotamus and walruses. Enlarged canines in the myriad species of cats and dogs are called fangs.
Elephants and narwhal whales have incisor tusks. The narwhal’s single tusk is a left front incisor that grows in a straight spiral. Found mostly in males, narwhal tusks are believed to be the origin of unicorn legends. Oddly enough, narwhals with two tusks are usually female.
By the time Jabu is sixty, his tusks could theoretically reach a length of 18 to 20 feet. But in reality – if he does reach sixty – they will be much shorter, due to the wear and tear of everyday use.
Tusks on bull elephants can weigh seven times that of those on cows. The biggest pair of tusks on record weighed 460 pounds, taken from an old bull killed in 1897 near Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya.
The longest tusks ever found came from an elephant shot in the Congo in 1907. Its right tusk was 11.4 feet long; it’s left tusk 11 feet.
Such extraordinarily enormous tusks are a genetic trait, much the same as red hair is a genetic trait. Over the centuries poachers and hunters have always targeted male elephants with the largest tusks. As a result, the trait has disappeared from most elephant populations.
The same outcome would occur if redheads were systematically eliminated within family groups. As their genes died out, the redheads among us would become extinct.
Awash in a sea of scent, Jabu curls his trunk and samples wave after wave of odors breaking at his feet. Redolent tides wash in, wash out, a floating realm populated with aromatic citizens. Schools of scents cluster at his feet, swimming through the grass at the bottom of an ocean of air.
Sixty percent of his brain is dedicated to smell. Jabu can distinguish between a million or more separate odors in the daily news that floats by on warm currents. Just a few molecules bring him history and current events: stories of who was here, who is there, how long they stayed and in which direction they went. Jabu can detect fellow elephants ten miles away.
He reaches out and flattens the tip of his trunk over a wet spot in the sand. Eyes half closed, he stands completely still, as if lost in memory, his brain sorting through the various scents tumbling up his trunk. He samples the air thoughtfully, as if listening to a quiet conversation, as if storing it, word by word, in those huge frontal lobes of his.
I remember that elephants see the world in yellows and blues, like color-blind humans. I fasten a yellow filter over my camera lens, then a blue one. Jabu turns aquamarine. From far, far away, he snaps a branch from a shrub the color of kelp, chomps, munches, drifts closer. His slow motions make perfect sense underwater.
I wade into a lagoon of grass. Ankles, knees, waist, chest, neck. Some of the grass stalks bob over my head. My hands, my body, my thoughts, move slowly.
Immersed, my ears fill with a pure hum. The sound of my passage whispers in seashell voices.
As Jabu drifts by, undertones of blue and gray shimmer against his flanks, reflections of seaweed and kelp. I follow, sub-aquatic, at the bottom of air. Carried by the current of my imagination, I am about to tumble downstream.
Then the breeze kicks up, feels as if it comes all the way from the bottom of the Kalahari, feels red, feels gritty, feels dry as a hundred-year-old skeleton left in the desert. It sucks every bit of moisture from under me and lands me beached and gasping.
I lower my camera. Red invades yellow and the world greens.
Gray wave after gray wave surges out of the bush in small herds of twenty or less, first one group, now another, flooding the huge hollow that contains a waterhole. 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. We’re submerged in a roiling world of noise. 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 towards unimaginable ways of being. We look around with wild hearts. We have become part of the herd.