Like a Wine Connoisseur

An excerpt from my book:

Morula plucks a branch from one of her favorite snacks, a bush-willow.  She holds the stem in her teeth, wraps her trunk from right to left around the branch, and sheers off leaves, top-to-bottom with a single swipe.  She drops the branch and transfers mashed leaves from the curl of her trunk into her mouth.

Morula is right-trunked, as I am right-handed, preferring to grab and wrap from the right.  Thembi is also right-trunked, but Jabu’s a lefty.   One of the ways to determine an elephant’s dominant tendencies is to inspect the underside of its trunk for green stains on either the right side or the left.

But before you do this, make sure you know the elephant and, more importantly, the elephant knows you.

Morula sidles close to Doug and curls her trunk against her forehead.

“Those round bumps on her forehead might be an old skin infection,” Doug tells me, “but we really don’t know.”

A light breeze feathers the hair in her ears as she stands slightly sideways and nods the tip of her trunk in a tiny Hello. . .   Ribbed muscles cross the underside of her trunk.  Bristles stick out like the legs of a giant centipede.

Morula waves "Hello."

I squint against the sun, s—t—r—e—t—c—h and yawn.  Back-to-back ten-hour jet flights across two hemispheres in a 48-hour-period are taking their toll.  From Seattle to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Johannesburg, and a four-hour flight from Johannesburg to Maun.  My body thinks it’s 2 a.m.

The tip of Jabu’s trunk traces an arc from my toes to my heels, and back to my toes again.  Did I pick up essences of jet fuel on my boots yesterday when I crossed the tarmac at Johannesburg?  Can he smell the rubber floorboards of the Cessna 206 that brought me here?   Or does the scent on my boots go further back, to the dandelions in my lawn half a world away?

Satisfied with my toes, Jabu starts to pat me down, sampling scents from the rest of my body almost thoughtfully.  He expels air after each sampling, like a wine connoisseur clearing his palate.  Of course, the smelliest parts of my body are the most interesting.

Ah, fuff, sweat, mixed with fuff armpits, and fuff, crotch.  His trunk dangles over my hair, re-coifing it with a large and final Fuffff!   Jabu is treating me the way he would scrutinize another elephant, determining who I am, where I’ve been and fuff what I did while I was there.

The tip of his trunk hovers in front of my face, 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.

Tip of Jabu's trunk

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 over and over again.  The scent that fascinates him tumbles 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 nose.

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 with.  You could steal with your nose, suck on it, squeal, swat, poke and siphon with your nose.  You could take a shower with it.  Scratch your back with it.  Whistle with it.  You could even arm wrestle with your nose.

There is no other living creature on this planet that has a trunk.  If elephants were already extinct, which brave paleontologist would go out on a limb and reconstruct the trunk just from evidence of bony nostrils high on the skull?  Who could imagine a nose dangling close to the ground where scents abound?  Who could imagine a nose with the ability to pick up a single straw, rip a tree out by its roots, bench-press 600 pounds and untie your shoelaces without you ever noticing?

During a visit to Botswana’s Chobe National Park in 1999, I spent part of an afternoon belly laughing at a baby elephant learning to use her trunk.  First, she flopped it over her ear as she nursed, a rubbery, 10-inch nuisance dangling like a wayward curl among the bristles on the top of her head.  Then, finished with lunch, she began twirling her trunk lariat-style up and down, up and down, a cowgirl learning her ropes.  Tiring of that, she flung it away over her left shoulder and was absolutely amazed when it boomeranged back.  Stock still, cross-eyed, she tried to puzzle out this remarkable toy and waved it up and down as if it was a hankie.  As the members of her family drank, she leaned into the river and blew bubbles with her new plaything.

Blowing bubbles

Finally, she sidled over to her mother and knelt under Mom’s belly.  Her knee landed squarely on her trunk.  When she squealed in pain, her mother reached under and gave her a reassuring pat.

It takes six to eight months to begin to learn how to twirl your trunk, two years for it to grow all the way down to the ground.  And even longer to separate out all those entrancing Fuff! scents.

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