I write about elephants. I write about other things, too.
Author: Cheryl Merrill
Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008.
She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.
We are born. We die. In-between, ah, in-between are all the possibilities in the universe.
What brings it all forth? What have we in common with every living thing? What have we in common with the vine tendril, the bee, the unfolding flower, the cheetah, the salmon, the amoeba?
O each vanishing endangered one upon this earth, the last ones, the least ones, the ones we rarely see, the ones we will never see again. O the sun, the wind, the rain, the mountains, the deserts, the trees, the seas, and all who live around us, despite us – what a spell of life you cast!
A herd of impala browses on low scrub next to my vehicle. Every now and then one glances up, and her huge obsidian eyes reflect the setting sun. The dominant male, a studly impala ram who has won his harem from other males, snorts twice with a spitting sound phaah, phaah. He chases first one female here, then another female there, trying to move them into an open area where they will huddle together through the night, eyes open in all directions – safety in numbers from lions. The sound of munching leaves is oddly comforting as night falls.
At dusk a choir of reed frogs begins: tink…. tink…. tink…. each on the same single note, similar to small bamboo reeds clinked together.
Darkness falls and the stars come out. Orion does a slow cartwheel, his left hand already touching the horizon. Leo naps on his back, the way most lions sleep. Scorpio thrusts one claw into the leaves of a fan palm. A jewel box of stars contains the tiny, tilted Southern Cross. Under the brilliant sash of the Milky Way the large nests of Red-billed Buffalo Weavers hang in silhouette on the west side of an acacia tree. The Big Dipper’s bowl empties north, its handle sunk below the horizon.
Bowls and crosses and nests; way-finders for those who are lost in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
Later in the night a hippo claims the swath of grass in front of my tent with an ear-splitting bellow: UNGHHHH, UNGH, UNGH, ungh, ungh, ungh that would truly wake the dead. He mows the grass one huge chomp at a time – sound and word perfectly matched: chomp, chomp, chomp. I finally fall asleep against it.
Even later a lion’s roar claws into my dreams, WAAUNNNNNNH, UNH, UNH, unh, unh, unh – an invisible beginning his nightly rounds with a sound so primal it must issue from the throat of the earth. But he only roars once, and I fall asleep again.
In the middle of the night a huge resounding crash wakes me yet again. I hear a low rumble next to my tent as an elephant drags a branch through the bush, leaves crackling beneath it. Like tires with low air pressure, his cushioned feet smother the sound of his own footfalls. I fall asleep again, as the branch gets further and further away, and the sound of reed frogs swells, as if the wind blows against a million bamboo chimes.
Two days later, on the opposite side of the world, the handle of the Big Dipper is restored, a crescent moon beneath it. Inside my thickly-insulated home on a cul-de-sac, I fall asleep listening to . . . silence. In a night empty of the creatures who once lived here, my neighborhood is eerily quiet. But my dreams are full of rumbles and roars and bellows and tink….tink….tink…..
This is an updated version of a post I did back in 2014:
During my first visit with Sandi and Doug, I heard about the thieving hyenas of Stanley’s Camp when its manager pointed to the banks of a nearby lagoon. “Hyenas dragged our sofa out there and ripped it apart.”
The leather sofa never had a chance. A pack of hyenas can devour a four- hundred-pound zebra in less than half an hour, eating its bones, skull, hair, even its hooves, leaving only a smear of blood on the ground. With a bite pressure of over a thousand pounds, hyenas pulverize and consume enough bone their scat is chalk-white.
They eat almost anything that moves: wildebeests, warthogs, rodents, hares, snakes, crocodiles, turtles, lizards, birds, caterpillars, termites, and every species of antelope in Africa. They eat things that don’t move – such as dung – or flesh so putrefied and full of maggots it’s the consistency of cottage cheese. They eat anything not locked up: boots, toothpaste, shaving cream, soap, even bottles of hot sauce. What’s glass to a creature that can snack on a zebra’s hoof?
At Stanley’s the hyenas climbed into the dining lounge in the dead of night, shoved aside several tables and chairs, pulled the sofa down a set of wooden steps and tugged it four hundred feet to the banks of the nearby lagoon. They ate its leather and left a gnawed wooden frame.
I asked the manager, “Why the sofa?”
“Just the oil from human hands.” He rubbed a palm across the sofa’s replacement. It was leather, too. Doomed, I thought.
Last night, I remembered the sofa and mentioned it to Sandi, asking her many sofas had been destroyed over the years.
She thought for a moment. “One or two,” she said. “And a couple of chairs.”
Then she told me the story of the hyenas who killed an eleven-year-old American boy at the Xakanaxa Campground, thirty miles to the northeast.
A mother and son on an overland camping safari stopped at Xakanaxa with their guide. The mother allowed her son to sleep by himself, against the guide’s wishes. According to some accounts, the boy left the zipper of his tent open, hoping to photograph the hyenas circling their campsite earlier in the evening. According to others, he may have even brought food into his tent to lure the hyenas closer.
Awakened by shrieks and crazed laughter, the guide saw a huge female hyena dragging the boy into the bush. Men from nearby campsites helped locate his body, drove away the hyenas, and guarded his remains until daylight.
Last night, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a clatter. Something was rearranging everything in the kitchen shelter. Aluminum chairs scooted across the concrete floor. Silverware rained. A large enamel pot crashed. A long, long silence followed.
I replayed what I’d just heard. Yes, that had to be the enamel pot we cook in, stored near the sink.
I reached under my cot, retrieved my glasses, grabbed my flashlight, rose and tiptoed to the rear end of my tent. Lying flat on my belly, I unzipped the mesh, then the canvas, just enough to allow out a beam of light. The sound of the zippers ripped through the darkness.
The light barely made it to the end of the kitchen shelter. Nothing. I flicked it around as best I could. Nothing. No reflected eyes, no movement, nothing. The silence was deafening.
I zipped the tent shut, went back to my cot, and, oddly enough, fell asleep.
We found the pot today on our morning walk. They tried to eat that, too.
On March 13, one of the elephants I who allowed me into her life died unexpectedly of colic and a heart attack. I’ve written extensively about Thembi and her herd mates. This is one of the pieces.
Thembi, she of the evenly matched ears, long-lashed eyes, and diamond-shaped scar on the bridge of her nose, farts as she walks. Big, burbling farts.
All the trees, grasses and leaves Thembi eats gather in her 10-gallon stomach, which is pretty much just a holding area. From her stomach, roughage travels into her small intestine and then on into her large intestine. Joining the two intestines is a junction called a cecum, where digestion actually takes place. Her cecum is filled with billions of microbes, just like most mammals, including us. The microbes break down the cellulose of leaves and trees into soluble carbohydrates Thembi can digest, but the process also gives her enough methane gas to power a car 20 miles each day.
I wonder, as I walk behind her, just how one could harness this gassy natural resource. I live at the edge of a small town. Twenty miles would more than cover my daily errands. I imagine exhaust fumes smelling like fermenting grass. I imagine driving down highways inhaling the scent of mulched trees.
I wonder, as I walk behind her, why I think of such things.
Percolating along, Thembi lifts her tail and farts again. It’s a stupendous displacement of air. In this just-right light, I can actually see this fart. It looks like heat waves blasting from the back of a jet engine.
One advantage of Thembi’s size is food efficiency, miles per pound of trees. An elephant eats four to seven percent of its body weight each day – four hundred to six hundred pounds of vegetation. Mice eat a twenty-five percent of their weight daily and hummingbirds two times their own weight, or two hundred percent. If hummingbirds ate trees, the forests of the world would already be gone. Pound for pound, Thembi needs far less food than rodents or birds. And with her size comes another advantage over smaller creatures – a longer life span.
We humans, with our penchant for measurements, have conjured up a precise formula for figuring out things like longer life spans. The formula is called quarter-power-scaling. A cat is about 100 times more massive than a mouse. To calculate the cat’s age, take the square root of 100, which is ten, and then the square root of 10, which is 3.2. The lifespan of a mouse is around 800 days, or just over two years. Multiply 800 by 3.2. The result is 2,560 days, or seven years, the average lifespan of a cat.
However, if a cat’s metabolic rate was 100 times faster than that of the mouse, all cats everywhere would spontaneously combust into feline fireballs. Oddly enough, heart rate, the engine that drives the cat to chase the mouse, scales to the same formula, but in the opposite direction, to the minus quarter-power. The resting heart rate for a mouse is 500 beats per minute. Divide that by 3.2 and you have the average heart rate for a cat, around 156 beats per minute.
An elephant’s resting heart rate is a placid thirty-five beats per minute and a bit higher, around forty, when excited. While the jittery mouse lives just over two years, an elephant lives around sixty-five years, certainly long enough to power my car for the rest of my life.
I was working on this piece for my writing group when I got the news on March 13th that Thembi (the elephant in the middle of this photograph) had died from colic and a heart attack. I can’t imagine how their guardians, Doug and Sandi Groves, must be feeling. Thembi had been a part of their human/elephant family group since she was two years old. It is hard to lose any family member……
Heart shapes can be found in nature, if you’re lucky enough to see one. The heart shape on Jabu’s trunk was easy to spot when I first met him – a ridged outline high up, just below the level of his eyes, about a foot tall and half a foot wide. One of his wrinkles pierced the heart, straight as an arrow, from left to right.
Now that he’s an older elephant, his trunk has grown broader, and the heart is harder to find. I can still see the outline of it, but it’s not easy to make out.
The shape of the heart on Jabu’s trunk is a Valentine’s likeness, the kind you see carved into trees. An elephant’s heart has two points at its ventricular apex – which makes it look like an apple, instead of the red caricature on cards we give to each other once a year. You’re unlikely to see an elephant’s heart carved onto a tree.
Jabu’s heart hangs between his breastbone and ribs, a little to the left, like mine does. When I stand near Jabu’s side, our hearts are close to each other, one-point and two-point, Lupp-DUPP, Lupp-DUPP, Lupp-DUPP.
Hearts have the same basic pump-like design – a design that has worked through eons -an ancient blueprint, a master timepiece, a blueprint followed by even the tiniest of creatures. A day or two after fertilization, embryos develop a pinpoint that pales, then brightens, pales, then brightens, the beginnings of a tiny pump emptying, filling, emptying, filling.
Of all the body’s organs, the heart is the only one that doesn’t get cancer. Of all the body’s organs, Egyptians mummified only the heart.
The length of Jabu’s heart is 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 humans. My heart weighs only ten ounces, less than 1% of my body weight.
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 – it doesn’t need any messages from my brain.
The cells in my heart tissue involuntarily twitch, all together, all at once, over and over, a synchronous soft perpetual-motion machine. Rip my heart from my body, chop it into pieces, immerse the pieces in a saline solution, give them a small jolt of electricity, and the remnants of my cardiac muscle will contract . . . contract . . . contract . . . for several minutes, all on their own, all at the same time. A whole undamaged heart will beat for five to ten minutes before it dies from lack of oxygen, from lack of blood.
It’s built to be strong, our hearts.
Mouse, hummingbird, elephant, human, snakes – we all have roughly two-and-a-half billion heartbeats for our lives. Species with faster heartbeats die sooner, rapidly using up their allotment within their short lives. An elephant’s heartbeat is slower than ours. Like us, elephants may suffer from cardiovascular disease and die of heart attacks and strokes.
Cardiac arrest. When the heart shudders and stops, when the light in the eyes flickers, fades and snuffs. When the heart quits beating, when 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 finished.
For those of us left behind, its silence is almost too much to bear. But somehow we do it. Somehow, the world beckons us back in.
“We are stardust/We are golden/And we’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden.” – Joni Mitchell
Yesterday I traveled by jet. Today I fall into place behind three elephants. My mind is having a hard time keeping up with a change greater than eight time zones and two hemispheres. I’m clumsy in this new world. The old one of concrete and cell phones trails me like a lost dog.
Flirting with each one of us in turn, the wind twirls ahead in small scrolls of dust. Its warm lips nibble on my ear and blow a kiss past my cheek. Fingers of wind brush back my hair. I’d forgotten what a coquette a breeze can be, how it can lead you out into the world and make you a bit impish, too.
Thembi knuckles her eye with the tip of her trunk, curled tight as a fist. As she rubs, a dark smudge, a triangle of tear, spreads like a delta from the corner of her eye. Morula’s leans against a lead wood, rasping her hip against its rough bark, satisfying an itch. Poofs of dust rise with each scrape
Enticed by a nearby tidbit, Thembi daintily picks a single leaf from a bush willow with the two “fingers” at the tip of her trunk. Morula and Jabu join in, not so daintily, ripping entire branches from the bush. Deft as magicians, they curl their trunks around the branches and strip off its soft leaves. Jabu smacks his lips as he wads them up and crams them into his mouth. He drags one foot and stirs up a gauzy curtain of powdered insects, mud, and the cells of sloughed skin from everything that moves or crawls in Africa. From his belly up, Jabu is slate colored. From his belly down, seen through the gauzy curtain, he’s a bit rosier, more dove.
Morula swings away from the bush and stops near a patch of sand. She snorts in a handful of sand, squeezes the accordion folds of her trunk, swings it upward, and blows dust across her back. She powders herself again and again, using the same sandy spot with its talcum of dust.
The breeze carries it to me and I sneeze.
Every atom we breathe was generated in stellar engines, white-hot blossoms that pollinated the universe. Each one of us is made from trillions of those atoms, which will never be assembled in the same way again. Ever. Identical twins may look alike, but sub-atomically they too are completely unique. If you could grab a handful of atoms from your body and hold them in your hand, they will not be alive and yet, when they are assembled within us, we live. Pick Morula and I apart atom-by-atom and we would be piles of dust, no longer living. Morula’s pile would, of course, be bigger.
It is only our dust that is immortal, endlessly carried on currents of air.
I live at the edge of the continent, where an elbow of the world’s largest ocean juts into the far western side of North America, where ocean is trying to become land and land ocean. I live where elephants once roamed, where mastodons and mammoths ranged the southern edge of ice sheets.
They lived, literally, in my back yard. Thirty years ago mammoth bones and teeth eroded from the cliff just a half mile from my house.
Last night I had a dream, born, I guess, from the days when I lived in Seattle. As if my clock radio had gone off, I heard the voice of a male announcer in my ear.
Traffic Alert! The 520 bridge is slow, slow, slow this morning. Mammoths are beginning their annual migration from the Cascade Corridor into the Arboretum for salal berries! Let’s take a look at the traffic cams. Yep, cars are really creeping, trying to get a look, as the mammoths cross the Wildlife Bridge at Montlake. And now we’ve got reports of a couple of herds at the beach near the old Pier 51 site.
Female voice: Wow, Clark, look . . .at. . .that! Ferry commuters are gonna get a great view from Coleman Dock. Isn’t that something!
Male voice: Well, that’s the latest traffic update. Expect major delays into downtown this morning. Now, back to our top story . . .
It’s dark, 4 a.m., and I awaken laughing and crying, wondering where dreams come from. Wondering if I’ve imagined an alternative present where mammoths and mastodons still migrate through our daily routines, safe from the closed door of extinction. Wondering what I would see if I rose in my dream and looked out my window: mammoths in the grass, in the moonlight, plucking the heads of dandelions one by one, mastodons stripping the bark of the cedar tree in my neighbor’s back yard. Elephant ghosts reclaiming their land.
Heart shapes can be found in nature, if you’re lucky enough to see one. There’s a heart on this elephant’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 he carries on his trunk.
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.
For long periods of time not one of us with the elephants speaks a single word. Plump, babbling, feather-brained guinea fowl run ahead of us in clumps. Their noggins perch atop impossibly skinny blue necks and look professionally shrunk by headhunters. The spooky laugh of a single hyena crawls in from the distance.
Sweat trickles from under my hat. No matter how many times I gaze ahead, the path remains the same two dusty ruts in the tall, lion-colored grass. Seed heads from dry stalks pop like tiny finger snaps in the heat. Sand fine as cake flower powders my boots, and I gasp as though I have gills.
As we trudge along, I catch a glimpse of a “go-away” bird, a Gray lourie, springing along the branches over my head. He leans down and reproaches us for being foolish enough to be out in the mid-day sun. Go-wheyyyyyyy, go-wan. Go-wheyyyyyyy. The lourie nods his pronounced head crest at us. Go-wheyyy. Wheyyyyy. Go-wan. Go-wheyyyyyy.
Bleached by the sun, the sky is no longer blue. As we pass near a marshy waterhole, two blacksmith plovers bounce up and down, their call mimicking smithies tapping on metal: Klink!Klink-Klink!
In this season, the soundscape around me is filled with dry cracklings. With crickets who rasp their legs together and listen to each other with ears on their tibias. With the scrape of our footsteps. With the buzz of small flies seeking moisture at the corners of my eyes.
What would it be like to think without words and recognize shapes without names? But I hear these words in my head as I think them.
Later, in the afternoon, we flush a warthog family. One of the piglets stops and looks over his shoulder at me.