The elephants cross a dry lagoon abandoned by the Okavango River after last year’s flood. Enticed by a nearby tidbit, Thembi stops, sniffs at a bush willow, and daintily picks a single leaf to taste-test it. Morula and Jabu join in, not so daintily, ripping entire branches from the bush. Deft as magicians, they use the tips of their trunks to strip the soft leaves, as if conjuring playing cards from a stacked deck.
Jabu crams a wad of leaves into his mouth. He drags one foot and stirs up a gauzy curtain of powdered insects, ash, crumbled grass and dust. From his belly up, Jabu is all the colors of mud; from his belly down, seen through the dust, he’s a bit hazier, like an old, old photograph.
Chai died yesterday, less than a year after being moved to the Oklahoma zoo from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. This excerpt from my book is a memorial in words of her life:
In the spring of 1996, right before my first trip to Africa, I met a female Asian elephant named Chai at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. I participated in a “behind-the-scenes” tour – allowed into the elephant enclosure, but safely separated from the elephants by strong metal bars. One by one, the elephants were brought forward by their handler and we fed them carrots.
Chai was carefully interested in my sister’s leather coat, gently squeezing it at the shoulder, inhaling each square inch. I saw her mind at work: What animal is this? My brother-in-law, who is huge by human standards, was especially fascinating in leather. Sniff. Squeeze. And who are you?
Trunk-length from an elephant for the very first time, I was mesmerized by the meditative intelligence in her eyes.
She was close enough she could hear our hearts beat, a frequency audible to elephants. Her large ears flared, listening not to the wind that blew from our mouths, but to the music of our bodies. She rumbled.
We hummed back at her, sang a low, wordless song, my brother-in-law’s voice deep and loud. She was mesmerized, motionless, trying to understand our oscillating meaning. Then the air around us condensed, washed over us in waves. The sounds of an unknown world pulsated just below our range of hearing.
She stretched her trunk to accept a carrot we offered, stuffed it into her cheeks and then slowly reached out for another. When her cheeks were as full as a chipmunk’s, her handler said, “Okay, that’s enough,” and tapped her with an ankus, an elephant hook, alternately above each knee. She backed up as slowly as she had taken carrots, swinging her head from side to side.
In 1980, when Chai was only a year old and not yet weaned, she was separated from her mother and flown to Seattle by Thai Airways to commemorate the delivery of the first Boeing 747 to Thailand. Only sixteen when I met her, at the age of eighteen she was shipped to Missouri to be bred to a bull named Onyx. By then several artificial insemination attempts had already failed to impregnate her.
After three days and 2,1000 miles in a truck, Chai arrived at the Dickerson Park Zoo. On the third day after her arrival, the Dickerson Zoo’s staff beat her for two-and-a-half hours because she would not respond to their commands. (The zoo was later fined $5000.) Chai lost 1,000 pounds during the twelve months she was in Missouri.
Finally pregnant, she was trucked back to Seattle. Twenty-two months later, in 2000, she gave birth to a female calf. The naming contest for the new zoo resident gathered 16,000 entries. The Thai name selected, Hansa, means “Extreme Happiness.” Once the calf was on view attendance at the zoo doubled.
In June of 2007 Hansa died of elephant herpes – a highly communicable virus that has claimed the lives of forty percent of young Asian calves in captivity. Since then, Chai has been artificially inseminated a total of 112 times, resulting in the miscarriage of one other calf.
Day after day, from the time she was just a year old, Chai listens to hordes and choruses of unfamiliar human heartbeats. She listens to loud unknowable noises beyond her bars and moves slowly back and forth in her cage. Perhaps she mourns the loss of her Extreme Happiness. Perhaps after awhile it all blurs, like the background hum of an engine in flight.
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.
First, for those who are unfamiliar with black mambas, here’s a little background information:
Black mambas (Dendroaspis polytepsis) are the longest venomous snakes in Africa, measuring up to 14 ½ feet. Mambas are not black – they’re more olive or greenish gray, with a narrow, elongated head the shape of a coffin. It’s the inside of their mouths that are black – hence the name. Mambas are also extremely aggressive and may actively attack without provocation. I use the adverb “actively” with reason – a mamba can strike in all directions, even though a third of its body is raised above the ground, and it can chase you in that upright position at speeds up to 20 mph. If you are bitten, your death will occur within 20-60 minutes. An anti-venom for mamba bites exists, but it must be administered immediately, requiring 10-20 vials of solution. But if you are struck in the face or neck (quite likely, since the head of the mamba chasing you is 4 feet off the ground), you will die in ten minutes. That black mouth will be the last thing you see.
On that cheery note, on with the story:
In the Moremi Game Reserve, east of the Okavango Delta, is an elevated platform overlooking a large hippo pool in a bend of the Khwai River. Six of us, our guide OT (“just like Overtime!”) arrive in our Land Rover.
“What’s that?” I point.
It’s a large piece of stiff white paper taped with duct tape to a tree. We climb out, read it, and immediately start swiveling our heads, trying to look in all directions at once.
“Anyone want to go look?” OT laughs.
The toilet, roughly the size of those cartoon outhouses with the crescent moons carved in their doors, is a cinder block building with a tin roof. It’s about fifty feet from our Land Rover. The painted green door on the toilet is ajar.
Certainly I’m not tempted to look inside. After all, the second message (“Confirmed 30/5”) was written just three days before our arrival by someone a lot more curious than I am about deadly snakes. The mamba is most likely still in there. Who wants to reconfirm a reconfirmation? Mambas are territorial; they will always return to their lairs, although that’s usually in an abandoned termite mounds or a hollow tree, rarely, I’d bet extremely rarely, in a toilet. A mamba is diurnal, active both night and day. It could be sleeping in there. Or not.
In my opinion, I’m already standing way too close to that toilet. Trying to look both at the toilet and at everything else, I walk slowly backwards. Mambas don’t like sudden movements.
Besides, I firmly believe, even though I haven’t seen it, that this toilet is not a Western ceramic throne, but a mere hole in the cement. I’ve had enough experience with toilets-in-the-middle-of-nowhere to also believe that the area around the hole is likely none-too-clean. That bush over there looks a better. A few minutes later, after careful reconnoitering and quickly taking care of business, I can confirm that no mambas are lurking around it.
As I climb the steps to the viewing platform I look for mambas wrapped around posts. On the creaky platform I look for mamba’s hidden in corners, or nestled into the thatch of the roof. I look for mambas slithering across the branches of the trees that lean dangerously close to the rails. A rustling noise among the branches spikes my heart rate to a gazillion, but it calms when I see it’s only a Burchell’s glossy starling, squawking for handouts.
The view from the platform is wonderful. A massive cloud hangs over the hippo pool and puffs of other clouds reflect in the tranquil water. A dozen hippos rise and sink, burbling like submerged tubas. Tracks in the grass are hippo paths, where the hippos come out of the pool at night to feed, foraging as far as three miles for sweet young shoots.
At the bottom of the platform a dozen water monitors, some six-feet long, slither into positions that defend his or her portion of the bank, using the hippo paths as small highways. The smaller monitors end up with the worst spots, constantly harassed in slow-motion chases by the larger lizards. As I watch their typical reptile behavior, I think it’s lucky for us that the age of dinosaurs ended a long time ago.
On the far side of the river, specks in the distance, a huge herd of elephants splashes along the edge of a reed bed. After I check for mambas, I lean on the rail of the platform to steady my camera. I use the digital zoom to take a picture, already knowing it will be an extremely low-pixelated shot. The elephants are in constant motion, appearing and disappearing in the reeds, so the photo turns out fairly blurry, but at least I have proof that those specks were really elephants.
On the way down from the platform I look for mambas wrapped around support posts, coiled under steps, and hidden in the framework of the flooring. I scan for slithery movements in the brush and wait for someone else to climb in the Land Rover before I do. I doubt the mamba has exchanged one lair for another, but still, you never know . . .
The viewing platform has its own GPS coordinates. So if anyone wants to look at that mamba and reconfirm one more time that it’s really there, I can tell you exactly where to go!
Outside my window shaggy shadows move among the firs. An immense shape assembles and disassembles in the wind.
Fourteen thousand years ago, mastodons and mammoths roamed North America, grazed alongside the buffalo. Paleolithic peoples followed the woolly giants across the Bering Bridge to lands as game-rich as the Serengeti. Projectile points can be found embedded in the bones of their prey.
But now the great ones are nearly everywhere gone.
Time twists as I stare out the window at the huge ghost facing me. A giant form conjured from a smear of rhododendrons and shadows lifts his trunk into the wind, changes back into a bush beast with flowers in his stomach, and is extinct once again.
Near a small, bog-rich pond, a pussy willow rattles pearl-gray catkins in the driving sleet. Ice coats the bare branches of a soopolallie growing at the water’s edge, frozen red berries clinging to their stems. Upslope from the pond, in a brushy part of the tundra, a herd of elk seeks shelter from the spring squall. Higher still, the mountains are sheathed in glacial ice.
The temperature drops and the sky clears. When night falls curtains of light shimmer in the north, an aurora rippling in solar winds. Oxygen atoms bombarded by geomagnetic storms turn the whole hemisphere red. Glazed with the colors of fire, the pond flickers and burns throughout the night.
A muskrat surfaces and swims towards her burrow. The legs of a frog dangle and twitch from her mouth. The wake behind her broad tail sends ripples through the aurora’s reflection shimmering on the pond’s surface. The ripples pass through a black, four-legged silhouette in the middle of the pond. Looming over his own night shadow, an old mastodon bull curls his trunk into his mouth and releases cold clear water down his throat.
All day, during the icy storm, the mastodon browsed on sage, spirea, rosehips, frosted buttercups, wormwood and sedge as the wind left ice crystals in his eyelashes. He trudged across a marshland through sticky, hydrated clay, each footstep making a loud, sucking sound. Sunshine and snow, both opalescent, washed over him in waves.
All day long on the tall-grass prairie, through blowing clouds of sunshine and snow, he saw herds of equus and pricus, horses and bison, standing with heads lowered, their backs to the stinging wind. He saw a shaggy outline sweeping the tall grass clear with her curled tusks. Barely visible, a small calf nuzzled the fur between her front legs and suckled from a hidden breast.
Recognizing her high domed cranium and sloping profile, the mastodon did not cross the prairie to meet her, though he has seen her foraging at this place before. She is a mammoth and not of his low-browed kind.
At a gravel bar he crossed a crystalline river formed from glacial outmelt. A goose feather spiraled down from a migrating flock. His pace was slow and he often stopped, his trunk resting on the ground. An Arctic fox circled in behind him, veered away when he wheeled and held his huge tusks high.
Finally, in the middle of the night, he reached the pond and waded in.
Now he drinks and eats listlessly, pulls out hippuris, water plants with long tails and sweet green stems. The sky is clear, cold, and the blood-red aurora flames and dances over his head, wildfire in the sky. Cattails chatter in the wind.
He staggers toward the bank of the pond and into boggy mud – rich, black, and carnivorous. He touches his side, where the hole-that-hurts still bleeds. Mired, he closes his eyes, sways, falls.
Near dawn the two-legged hunters find him on his side, half in water, half out. They build a fire and settle to their work.
Fourteen thousand years later, in the summer of 1977, near the town of Sequim in Washington State, Emanuel Manis decided he wanted a duck pond in his front yard. His backhoe brought up a couple of blackish curved logs. His wife Clare thought they might be tusks and started making phone calls, eventually contacting Washington State University. The resulting excavation lasted eight years and attracted 50,000 visitors to the Manis farm.
In the loam of an ancient pond the archaeological dig found a mastodon. The left side of the skeleton was intact, all the bones in their correct anatomical position. The bones of the uppermost side, the right side, were scattered upslope from the pond and the mastodon’s shattered skull faced backwards, as if staring at its own remains. Many bones had scratches, indentations, rectangular gouges and sharp-edged cut marks – the type of fracturing done in large-scale butchering, butchery less like gutting a fish and more like chopping up a tree.
But the star of the excavation, the reason so many people journeyed to the Manis Mastodon site, was a fragment of rib that had a bone spear point embedded in it.
The first direct evidence that humans hunted mastodons.
Originally researchers thought the spear point was made of elk bone, but later analysis confirmed it was fashioned from another mastodon. It was sturdy enough to penetrate thick hide, ten inches of muscle, and three-fourths of an inch into the rib. The rib was healing, so the mastodon may have died of infection, old age, or many more wounds that did not show on his bones.
Three charcoal beds, one on top of the other, were unearthed near the pond, evidence of the oldest human occupation yet found in the Americas. During a later phase of the excavation, twelve separate layers of human habitation were discovered, ranging from 7,000 to 14,000 years ago.
The site was occupied again and again by people hunting and butchering other large mammals, such as bison, that gathered at the ancient pond. The partial remains of two more mastodons were excavated. Radiocarbon dating determined that their bones – which also had the square-cut marks of butchering – were even older than those of the mastodon originally discovered. In 1996, the remains of a mammoth were found near the site. The two elephant species lived there together, 14,000 years ago.
Emanuel and Clare Manis were more than generous. They built a fence, arranged parking, allowed researchers to construct a laboratory and storage sheds, gave tours and turned their barn into a theater for audio slide shows. And to the skeptics at the time who questioned whether or not humans hunted mastodons, Clare Manis had a short, curt reply. “What, did an elk explode?”
After the excavations were finished in 1985, the ancient pond was reburied to protect the bones that remained. The site officially became part of the National Registry of Historic Places in 1978. “Manny” Manis died in 2000; Clare Manis Hatler eventually remarried. In 2002, the land was donated to an archaeological conservancy.
Not long ago I visited the museum in Sequim, near the site of the Manis farm. Some of the mastodon’s bones remain there, caged behind glass, chop marks clearly visible from the butchering. A huge tank holds the tusks underwater so they won’t dry out and become brittle. On a shelf nearby is a rib bone labeled “Please touch me.” It’s highly polished by the thousands of hands that have done so. And just as thousands of hands obeyed the impulse to caress its delicate, yellowed length, so did mine.
I missed him by only 14,000 years, an eyelash of time.
There is comfort in keeping what is sacred inside us not as a secret, but as a prayer.
Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds
There are certain things that can only be learned from a different perspective.
Pushing aside the darkness, a tiny, flickering lamp in hand, our ancestors crawled into the caves of Europe to paint the animals important to them. Still alive on those walls, mammoths with high, domed foreheads and a hump over their shoulders face two-legged stick hunters. Their humps held fat reserves, making them coveted prey, and dangerous prey make great stories.
Caves are potent, resonant underworlds. Tallow lamps held in a hand cast a low-level light, shadow each curve of the rock wall, suggesting a hump over there, the curve of an antler here. With red, brown and yellow soils dampened by egg white, blood, animal fat or plant juices, our ancestors recorded the vocabulary of the hunt on wall after wall. They made their brushes of hair and their sponges of moss or leaves. They inhaled the dampness of the earth that receives all, both those who eat and those who are eaten.
Escape, exhaustion, success, death, galloping bison and herds of antelope, squared jaws of lions, the arched necks of horses, and outlines of cave bears – painted by generation after generation of artists, who left their signatures in an outline of a hand or a couple of dots, who left only stick representations of themselves.
After etching the outline of a mammoth on rock and storing its spirit forever in darkness, the crawl back to light perhaps gave the world a new appearance – as if it could be conquered, controlled, illuminated, literally brought alive by an artist. Life stories painted under the ribs of the earth. Hidden knowledge. The past the present the future recorded on rocks deep in caves.
Was the crawling to light a prayer?
We are the progeny of ancestors who lived with, hunted and ate the great ones. We are the result of their lives intertwined with those they knew in the belly of the earth.
I carry in my veins a longing for turquoise-blue glaciers, a blood-red night sky and breath I can see as I breathe. Ancient memories flicker across my mind, casting shadows against cave walls. I press my hand against rock, blow pigment between my fingers. This is my signature. Look, I was once here. See how your hand fits into the outline of mine? See these hairy elephants? They were here then, too.
Imagine the smell of air freshly born from retreating glaciers, a sky cleared by melting snow. Imagine the scent of an earth newly thawed. Out there, just like you painted, a mammoth driven by a hunt has fallen over a cliff and bellows arrive in waves.
Our palm prints on cave walls, carvings on bone, the exposure of light on glass plates full of chemicals, digital cameras, electrons arranged in display across computer screens, voices tumbling through the air – is it the destiny of the human race to remember and record? Is that our place on earth?
There is a cave of light from our eye to our brain; but it is the corners of our eyes that perceive the most light; the corners of our minds where we begin to understand.
Here are the first few pages of my manuscript, Larger than Life: Eye to Eye with Elephants. Having read this much, would you go on reading the rest of the book? I’d love to have feedback. Thanks!
There is nothing like him on earth. His head alone is more immense than an entire gorilla.
Jabu is one hundred times larger than I am. His trunk is larger than I am. A single leg is larger than I am.
He rests his trunk on the ground and the tip of it lifts, opens, inhales my scent. I reach out and run my fingers along his warm tusk.
Do you recognize me, Jabu, do you?
* * * * *
The pilot lets me sit up front. As his clattering Cessna lifts straight into the sun, we pass a line of small aircraft and a block-and-brick terminal only slightly larger than the Air Botswana 727 parked next to it. We leave behind a flattened land where the tallest structure is a water tower, where the olive-green scrub spreads as far as can be seen, and where footsteps have no echoes in a country mantled by sand.
We gain altitude and Maun slides under us. The last town before venturing into Botswana’s Okavango Delta, Maun is an odd frontier mix of trading companies, outfitters, curio shops, supermarkets, cattle in the streets, and an airstrip long enough for daily international flights.
We fly higher. Haphazard, barely paved roads meander to round stockades – bomas, fenced by thornbush. Each boma contains a hut plastered with mud and roofed with straw, or a small square cinderblock covered by rusty corrugated metal. Only a few corral a cow or a goat. Behind us the last buildings disappear into a curtain of shimmering haze. Maun melts into the desert.
The shadow of our Cessna passes over thin dirt tracks, which lose their way and vanish. A waterhole appears, an orphan left behind by last year’s flood. Another comes into sight, and then another. Etched into the sand by countless hooves, game trails wander through the dry landscape, headed to those life-giving pockets of water. Few animals follow the trails in the heat of the glaring sun. A small herd of zebra. A single giraffe.
Suspended above what could be considered a great emptiness, I remember the map I studied a week ago. Printed alongside the log of GPS coordinates for airstrips – some of them makeshift, many little used – I read another list of handy notations. “Tourist road, 4×4 required . . .Top road extremely sandy, takes very long.” Eighty percent of Botswana is covered by sand, some of it a thousand feet deep, but the airstrip where we’ll land is barely above water.
Swollen by November rains, the Okavango River floods south from Angola, arrives in Botswana in May or June, fans out, and then stops when it bumps into a barrier of fault lines near Maun. Landlocked, the river penetrates deeply into the Delta before it dies in the Kalahari sands. Not a single drop reaches the sea.
As the river pushes south, it creates, in the midst of a vast desert, an oasis – a floodplain the size of Massachusetts containing an ark-full of animals. Dependent upon the rainfall in Angola, the river swells or shrinks. In the dry season, it leaves behind ponds no bigger than puddles, abandoned lagoons that shrink into brackish swamps, and waterholes reflecting a cornflower blue sky.
Last week I reviewed the latest satellite photograph of the Delta – four skinny channels with several webs of water between them. The river is beginning to flood. The photograph reminded me of a duck’s giant footprint pressed into the sands of southern Africa. I located my destination, a dry spot between two of the bird’s toes.
Twenty minutes after leaving Maun, the pilot pushes in the throttle and the Cessna’s clatter mutes. We drop lower. A thousand waterholes are a thousand mirrors signaling the sun. Lower still, the mirrors turn back into waterholes, some of them connected in long braids of water.
Right before we land on a strip of dirt, we glimpse a cheetah sprinting for cover. With that single spotted blur, my life divides once again between home and Africa.
As we make our way down the two-rut road, a mob of Helmeted guineafowl runs ahead of us. They dart from one side of the road to the other, a bunch of silly old biddies, with shrunken featherless heads, thick bodies covered in spotted dark gray plumage and large rumps that bounce when they run. Blue jowls on their necks flap back and forth under their beaks. They never once consider flying to get out of our path.
The guineafowl call excitedly to each other as we flush them: Keck, keck, keck, keck, keck, keck, KECK!!!!!!! Eventually they dash to the side of the road and disappear into the bush.
Ignoring them, the elephant in front of us steadily treads down the right rut of the road. His pace is unhurried, measured, constant. A shoulder lifts, a leg straightens, accepts weight, and the foot splays out. A back leg moves forward, toenails scraping sand, straightens, accepts weight, and the foot splays out. A creature bigger than most monuments is on the move.