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.
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.
Off in the distance zebras nod as they plod past a line of trees. Yes, this is the right way; Yes, this is the right way. Several stop to look our way.
They are nature’s bar codes, no two alike. Quintessential Africa.
In his book, Origin of Species, Darwin speculated on whether a zebra was a white horse with black stripes or a black horse with white stripes. He compiled examples of the occasional striping on all horses, arguing that a trait from a distant common ancestor, white on black, is brought to full fruition in the zebra. His examples noted that some zebras are born with white dots and blotches, incomplete stripes on a black background, Morse code instead of bar code, natural proof that a zebra is a black horse with white stripes. The white is lack of pigmentation.
I think I’ve taken at least 300 photographs of zebras, of their herds, their stripes, their tails. Tails of Africa: I have a whole album of animals turning their backs just as I press the shutter. Portraits of elephant butts, giraffe butts, baboon butts (not a pretty sight for those who don’t get an immediate visual image), impala butts, even bird butts. None of lions, however. They tend to circle, keep you in sight. The most butts in that album belong to zebras, notorious for twirling away just when I have a great shot lined up.
The zebra family of striped horses (Equidae) has four members: Plains zebra (Equus burchelli), Mountain zebra (Equus zebra), Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) and Wild ass (Equus africanus). I’ve never seen a Mountain zebra or a Wild ass (no jokes, please), but I’ve been fortunate enough to add plenty of photographs of the Plains zebra and Grevy’s zebra to Tails of Africa.
The Grevy’s zebra is the largest of the family members and looks a lot like a mule, with large rounded ears and a short, thick neck. Their brush-cut manes are stiffly erect, broom-like, and sometimes extend all the way to the tail. Stripes on a Grevy’s are narrow, close-set, brownish, and extend to the hooves. Their bellies and the area around the base of their tail do not have stripes: Grevy’s zebras have white butts. Foals are born with brown stripes that darken as they grow. Found in Kenya and Ethiopia, there are only 2,000 Grevy’s left in the wild due to habitat loss.
Like all zebras, the stripes on a Grevy’s extend up through their manes. Their muzzles are brown, and so is the whisk at the end of their tails. Their lips and nostrils are gray.
In contrast, Plains zebras are nearly everywhere, from Ethiopia to East Africa, to Southern Africa, but usually no more than nineteen miles from the nearest water source. Smallest of the zebras, it has horse-like ears and is thick-bodied with short legs. Their stripes are vertical on their bellies, but swing more to the horizontal on their hindquarters and make neat collars around their necks. Adults have black muzzles; foals are born brown and white. Southern populations also have “shadow stripes,” a brown stripe in between black ones. Their stripes extend nearly to their hooves.
You might think such a boldly patterned animal is easy to spot. For humans, yes – we are used to bar codes and are able to string together space between vertical black slashes as part of the whole. For lions, not so much, because cats can’t see color. If they did, we would have cats with butts like baboons during mating season, a lovely (to baboons) come-hither red, or cats with blue balls, like those of Vervet monkeys. (My blue balls are bigger than your blue balls.)Then again, maybe blue balls might work for lions, because they see mostly in blues and greens.
Stripes work to interrupt the outline of a zebra’s body – a lion sees only blobs of a lighter color of blue-green as an unrecognizable pattern – since no two zebras are striped the same it would be impossible to memorize a pattern as zebra! Black stripes are seen by lions as blank spaces. Add in a screen of bush and a hungry lion might walk right by an immobile zebra. And when lions flush a herd of zebra, all those flashing stripes together give the herd a psychedelic pulse that make it difficult for lions to visualize individuals in the herd.
Zebras have thick, tough hides. Healed scars from attempted lion take-downs often result in misaligned stripes.
But for photographers, even the butt end of a zebra is fun to capture – because, for the most part, their tails are striped, too. And sometimes the light is just too perfect to resist.
Every second of every day unheard worlds tremble past my dim senses. Occasionally, when I’m in Africa, the air around me begins to thicken as an elephant’s vocalizations lift from infrasound into a register my ears can hear. Airquakes. Fractures and heaves of oscillating air. Another language, one without words, without speech.
I almost know infrasound. No more than two miles from my home freighters push through the deep waters of Puget Sound. On flat black nights the thump-thump of their propellers travels through water, through air, churns into my bed, my bones and into the lowest threshold of my hearing. It’s a mechanical throb, born in the bellies and boilers of machines, carried along rotating shafts which turn the metal blades of propellers, which slice through water like a dull knife hacking flesh. . . . . Whummp . . . whummp . . . whummp . . . . . . . . .
Out in the bay that fronts the town where I live, aggregates of barnacles coat docks and pilings and rocks. Their shells open and close, open and close, as feeding appendages catch food on the tides. Barnacle larvae hone in on the vibrations of feeding and settle in with their relatives so that they may easily exchange sperm and eggs with their kin. The sound of a large bed of barnacles can be heard for up to ten miles underwater.
Sound moves in waves similar to light waves. Light can be carried in a vacuum such as outer space but sound cannot. It needs a conducting medium. There’s a terribly silent universe beyond the top layer of earth’s atmosphere. It’s cold, breathless, without wind, without water, without life. On the moon our alien footfalls fell without sound into its dead dust. No one hears anything, unless you are in a spacesuit, listening to your own breathing.
At birth, elephants have only two or three small cheek teeth. By the age of ten, big tectonic molars began to erupt in the back of their jaws, becoming part of a conveyer belt of teeth. As molars wear down near the front of an elephant’s mouth fragments of them break off in pieces and either fall out or are swallowed. Throughout its lifetime, an elephant will grow twenty-four molars in six sets – but only two tusks.
Each molar looks like a set of dishes drying edgewise on a rack, bonded together by enamel. The vertical ridges function like giant vegetable graters as an elephant’s lower jaw moves forward and back, rather than side-to-side like a cow. Each molar grows up to a foot long, has a maximum of ten ridges, and weighs eleven pounds apiece – perfect for grinding up tree branches.
Like human teeth, elephant teeth consist of cementum, dentine and enamel. Cementum holds the roots of a tooth in place, dentine surrounds the pulp and enamel crowns each tooth with a hard protective layer. Packed with nerves and blood vessels, the pulp cavities of elephant tusks extend two-thirds of the length of each tusk. Their teeth are as sensitive as mine are.
Doug asks Jabu to “Open up.” He curls his trunk back over his head and Doug stretches to his tiptoes, pulls his lower gums wide with his hands.
In his lifetime Jabu will have six sets of molars. His sixth set will wear down by the time he is sixty. Only ten percent of aging elephants grow a seventh set of molars.
“Very good, my boy. . . . veerrry good.”
Peering over Doug’s shoulder, I count four molars in his mouth, two on top and two on the bottom.
Doug lets go of Jabu’s lower jaw. “Allllright, Jabu, allllright.”
He drops his trunk but leaves his mouth open. Doug grabs a fistful of treats and slides his arm into Jabu’s mouth, all the way to his elbow. As he lets go of the treats he rubs Jabu’s tongue. He flaps his ears.
“Elephants use their trunks to rub each other’s tongues. It’s kind of like a handshake,” Doug says.
A family is a place made of people who either own you or let you go. A place made of blood and breath, of fierce neglect or smothering love. A place of dreamers, borrowers, failures, legends. Of those who are hungry and those who are content. A place of the barefoot or the impeccable, the lost or the homebound, the wise or the ignorant, the selfish or the altruistic. Of those who would sacrifice for you and those who would not, of those who drop off casseroles and those who hold you in their arms.
A family is a place of infinite stories, once you start listening.