As sunrise smolders I begin, slowly, to thaw. Shivering, I stick my fingers in my armpits to warm them. I kick at a useless fire. Beyond a swath of purple grass the blurry outline of a knobthorn resolves into a solid tree. Doug left a couple of minutes ago to fetch the elephants. I stomp my feet as I wait.
The sun rises with spokes on her head like the Statue of Liberty. She rises into an immense lemon sky that almost turns green before it turns blue. She ignites the tops of trees with her torch. Above my head a jackal-berry thrusts up bare, wood-muscular arms. The tips of its fingers blaze with light.
Doug returns. Jabu, Morula and Thembi are right behind him.
Jabu stops just a trunk-length away. Ten feet tall at the shoulder, he fills my entire range of vision. He vacuums my scent from head to toe, reminding himself of who I am. The tip of his trunk wavers in my face then falls to my feet. He snorts out a huge exhale, CHUffffffffffffffffff, then turns to follow Doug down a sandy path.
Thembi doesn’t even bother to greet me. She hurries after her big brother, crowds up behind him. Morula lingers to make sure I will follow along behind her.
Botswana’s Okavango River disappears each year, disappears into the Kalahari sands beneath my feet. Swollen by April rains in Angola, it floods south, arrives in May or possibly June, fans out, and sinks or evaporates. Not a single drop reaches the sea. Half the time the river is here; half the time it is not. Yet its inland delta, at 5,500 square miles, is the largest in the world, an unparalleled ecosystem with an arkful of animals.
Last week, sitting at my desk on the other side of the world, I studied a satellite photograph of the river – a giant bird footprint pressed into the southern part of Africa, a footprint the size of Massachusetts. Doug and his elephants live between two of its toes, in a world without asphalt, without cellphones, without that strange human notion of time.
Last night, as moonlight roared in my ears, I rubbed crumbles of mud from Morula’s trunk.
Today, I am somewhere between the bird toes, strolling behind three unfettered, unfenced elephants, going nowhere and everywhere, all at once.
Clumsy in this new world, I stumble over each moment. The old discarded world of concrete and telephones trails me like a lost dog. I kick at it, but it circles back to nip at my heels. It just won’t leave me alone.
Am I really bumbling along behind an elephant?
Morula stops, turns, and takes a single step toward me. Somehow she doubles in size.
My heart leaps, captive within its ribs, desperate to flee. I forget how to breathe. I know these elephants are not wild, are supposed to be tame. Yet everyone else is up at the front of the herd, as far away as another continent.
Morula stands in half-profile, stares at me with one nut-brown eye.
Spiders run up and down my spine.
Slowly she flaps her ears and blinks her eyes. A lifetime later she swings around to overtake Thembi. I exhale as they entwine trunks.
My eyes deflate. My heart calms and climbs back into its cage.
I stare down at huge round footprints in the dust. I look up; the elephants are receding. Last in line, I’ve been left behind.
Wait for me! shouts my primate brain and I scramble to catch up with the herd, take my allotted slot in the order of march.
Doug is a wiry man, only a little taller than I am. His stained wide-brimmed hat covers dark unruly hair. He wears a short-sleeved cotton shirt, ankle-high boots and khaki shorts that have cargo pockets on the side of each leg. Black glasses give his face a serious look. On the streets of Johannesburg he could be mistaken for an accountant on holiday. But he has been working with elephants since 1972, first in wildlife and zoological parks on the West Coast of the United States, and then in Africa with various research, educational, film, and eco-tourism projects. In 1988 he adopted Jabu and Thembi, who were orphaned by a South African culling program. In 1994 Morula joined the small, unique human-elephant herd.
I got invited to join them by email: Hi Cheryl, We are excited to hear about your book project . . . It is possible that you could stay in our camp for a week and it would definitely involve roughing it a bit . . . .
So far, roughing it is a cluster of canvas tents at the edge of a grassy floodplain, where last night loud roars woke me several times as a lion roamed the periphery of camp. Exactly the Africa of my dreams.
This morning I washed my face in a basin of icy water and wondered, not for the first time, why I didn’t have sense enough to pack gloves for temperatures that dip below freezing at night. Now, under a cold, chalk-blue sky, I stick numb fingers in my pockets and watch as the elephants browse.
Enticed by a nearby tidbit, Thembi sniffs at a Simple-Spined Num-Num and daintily picks a leaf to taste-test it. Morula and Jabu join in, not so daintily, ripping entire branches from the bush. In six months, when the fruits of the Num-Num ripen, baboons, monkeys and birds will go to war over them.
Deft as magicians, the elephants pluck leathery leaves from between sharp, three-inch thorns. Jabu smacks his lips as he wads up a pile of leaves and crams it into his mouth. He drags one foot and stirs up a gauzy curtain of powdered sand, ash, and dried mud. From his belly up, Jabu is slate; from his belly down, seen through the gauzy curtain, he’s a bit rosier, more dove.
Morula moves away from the bush and stops near a patch of sand. She inhales dust, squeezes together the accordion folds of her trunk, and powders herself again and again across her back, using the same sandy spot with its talcum of soft dirt.
Doug has been standing aside, watching all three elephants with a paternal smile. He walks over to Morula and passes beneath her chin. She stops powdering. He rubs the edge of her ear.
Ears of African elephants resemble huge maps of Africa. But no two edges of those maps are ever the same. As pliable and soft as worn canvas, an elephant’s ear is often caught and torn on branches. In Zimbabwe I once saw an elephant with a pie-shaped wedge sliced from her ear. In Kenya my gulping camera swallowed frame after frame of a huge, huge bull. Only later, with the film developed and the prints in my hands, did I notice that the bottom of each ear was as scalloped as an old lace tablecloth.
Morula’s ears slap flatly against her shoulders as she walks Thwack . . .Thwack . . . Thwack . . . She has outsized ears, even for an elephant. As air whooshes over the network of raised arteries on the surface of each ear, it her blood cools, regulating her body temperature. Thwack . . . Thwack . . . Thwack . . . Elephant air-conditioning.
I take off my cap and fan my own neck.
My teeny, itsy ears are shaped somewhat the same as Morula’s, with an upper rim of cartilage and a fleshy, lower lobe. But I don’t have an auriculo-occipitalis – an ear muscle the size of a weightlifter’s bicep. I can’t flap my ears. I can’t even wiggle them.
I put my cap back on. I hear a tiny hiss spin through the air, echoes of a sound that already passed me by. I look up and see a jetliner, a small silver cross on its way to a different part of the world. A world as far away as another lifetime.
We pass near a burnt area – a brush fire set by seasonal lightning.
Fire is an annual visitor to this part of the Delta. Blackened, skeletal trees stand sentinel over the charred ground. Miniature tornados, dust devils, suck gray ash-twirls up into the air.
“We used the road here as a fire break,” Doug tells me.
The fire provided access to a feast of toasted treats. The elephants tore apart toppled knobthorns for the mistletoe hidden among their branches. Roasted acacias, leadwoods and palms were ravished and relished for their new gourmet taste.
But wandering over a crust of ash has its hazards.
“I think Morula got her hotfoot right over there,” Doug points.
While foraging for crunchy twigs, Morula broke through the crust and stepped on a smoldering root. She did what any sensible elephant would do and bolted, causing Jabu and Thembi to contagiously flee from the unknown threat. Once everyone settled down, Morula investigated her right heel with the tip of her trunk, giving Doug a clue as to the cause of all the commotion. After a soak in a nearby waterhole, her foot was just fine, due to the thick, hard flesh on her soles.
As we pass the burnt area, Morula cross-steps sideways, perhaps remembering her adventure. A family of warthogs trots across the road behind us in single-file, each child an exact replica of its mother. Their tails twitch like stiff flagpoles, a single tuft of hair at the top. The last in line stops and stares at us before he dives into a curtain of grass.
Grass drowns the seasonal floodplains of the Delta. Dry corduroy spikes of bristle grass rustle with our passage, each stalk an individual bottlebrush. Three-foot-tall stems of torpedo grass thrust up cannon bursts, spikelets that remind me of the trajectory of fireworks. We wade all morning long through lakes of golden lace. Isolated clumps of finger grass wave six-digit hands at us, as if we’re on parade.
I reach down and pick seeds from my socks. Studded with microscopic lancets, bristle grass sticks to my shoelaces. Six days from now the seeds will hitchhike all the way home with me, from Botswana to South Africa to Atlanta to Seattle.
As we walk, I’m mesmerized by Morula’s tail, which ticks like a pendulum with each footstep, brushing aside tall skewers of grass. Her tail is longer than I expected and round as a bullwhip, ending with a whisk of sparse, wiry hairs. It’s also kinked, broken, no one knows how. We all carry visible and invisible scars upon our bodies and sometimes we forget how they came to be; though on most days we can count each one of them in chronological order.
Orphaned at the age of two by an elephant cull in Zimbabwe, Morula is a victim of domestic abuse, a battered wife, having lived with a rampaging bull in a South African game park. When he was destroyed, she faced the same fate. But Doug stepped in, adopting her at the age of seventeen.
As might be expected, Morula was, at first, extremely submissive to Jabu and Thembi. It took years to build her self-confidence, years when she vented her frustrations by creating twisted sculptures from living trees.
Now she is the most willing, the most likely to be curious, and the one who will wave at you for no reason in particular. She curls her trunk onto her forehead in an S-shape, then nods the tip, a finger wave, You-hoo, as if she’s trying to get my attention. When I feel something large behind me, it’s usually Morula, the girl looking in from the edge of the playground. When I turn, as big as she is, we often make eye contact.
Hanging around with giants, I also feel like a girl at the edge of the playground, looking in. While Morula stuffs the leaves of an acacia into her mouth, working the bush from one side to the other, I lean against a leadwood, a tall thin tree hard as a rock. Leadwoods are heavy and extremely dense. They don’t even float.
Tattered scraps of clouds evaporate above us. A high insect whine fills my ears, a million voices on a single frequency. The sun no longer has spokes on her head. She is simply a blazing torch.
My bones lose their moisture; my blood dries out. The scent of hot sage rises out of the cracked soil.
Doug calls out from beside me, “Morula. Here.”
Taking a few giant steps she halts in front of us.
I look into a face unlike mine, yet a face with a mouth, a nose, two ears and two eyes, recognizable as a face.
Her eyes, like mine, are protected by bony sockets and eyelashes and eyelids and tears. Her eyes, like mine, sit high on her skull and light the darkness within.
The face that is like mine looks back at me.
Three-inch lashes cast shadows down her cheeks. She blinks and her lashes sweep against her skin like small brooms.
Each of the more than 200 lashes of my eye is shed every 3 to 5 months. Has anyone ever done research on the shed rate of elephant eyelashes?
I could stand here forever looking into the oak burls of her eyes.
Jabu, acting like a huge hayseed, decorates the top of his head with several stalks of grass, a few pebbles and miscellaneous bits of twigs that he carries up in his trunk and blows on with one soft fooof. A single stalk hangs rakishly over his left ear.
I step on a fallen leaf and it crackles into powder. I look down.
In dun-colored sand as finely ground as cake flour, Jabu leaves behind footprints the size of small moons.
I stop and plant a boot inside one of the moons. The brand name of my boots imprints within the outline of my soles – a clever advertisement made with each step.
My footprints are deeper, more pressure per square inch, all of my weight on two tiny points of contact. His weight spreads over four huge footpads. Large as he is, Jabu can step on a snake and not squash it.
As I contemplate the outline of my boot, I hear the unmistakable wet flat splat of fresh dung.
Kneeling down, I take a closer look at the fragrant pile of feces. An elephant defecates fifteen to seventeen times per day, up to 250 pounds of droppings. If Jabu used the same spot each time, as pigs do for their privies, the resultant tally of his daily dump would be taller and heavier than I am. Luckily, elephants leave their leavings wherever they happen to stand.
A lot of those leavings contain seeds. Thirty species of African trees rely on dispersal through an elephant’s intestine. Passing through the gut, their seeds emerge in the feces, instantly fertilized.
As I watch from grass top level, a dung beetle barrel-rolls in and lands on top of Jabu’s output. Tightly rolled bits of it are already making off into the grass, propelled by industrious hind legs. In less than an hour, most of this splatted pile will be gone, buried in tiny birthing chambers, each ball of dung containing a few seeds and a single egg.
There are 1800 species of dung beetles in southern Africa – 1800 tribes of sanitary engineers cleaning things up. One study found 22,000 dung beetles on a single elephant plop. Dung beetles enrich the soil, prevent the spread of parasites and disease, and provide food for their young, night and day, day and night – finding their way around at night by polarized moonlight.
I bend closer. Tiny grooves in the sand mark where the beetles have rolled off balls of dung. Even tinier footprints dot each groove. in the surrounding underbrush. In the surrounding underbrush cicadas sizzle all around me, as my nose nearly touches the sand.
Listening to them, I imagine bacon in a hot pan. Above the sounds of frying are the tympanic calls of a ground hornbill as he prowls the edges of the mopane thicket just ahead – the sound of a thumb rubbed across a kettle drum: Hmmmmph . . . hmph-hmph . . . . . . Hmmmmph . . . hmph-hmph . . . He is a satiny, Satan-y black bird, bigger than a fattened goose, with an inflated air sac red as a bleeding throat and a beak like a pickax, an executioner stalking mice and snakes.
The insects keep on sizzling. A dozen LBJs twitter through the grass. Mousy little birds, they’re hard to identify at a glance – so they’re often named LBJs, “Little Brown Jobs.” They spend their lives kibitzing over the back fence of a leafy branch, chattering across the clothesline of a twig.
Three years ago, on my first trip to the Delta, I heard its sounds change when the Okavango River arrived. The clinks of reed frogs joined the rasp of crickets. Hippos jostled for elbowroom, grunting and burbling like a band of drowning tubas. Mindless wildebeest questioned their daily survival from the jaws of lions with overlapped musings: Hmmmmh?/Hmmmh. Hmmmmh?/Hmmmh. The shrill cries of fish eagles skipped and rang across deepening lagoons as they tangled talon to talon in their mating dance, spiraling down, down, down, down, down.
And intersecting each sound, as the river arrived, the quaking air of elephant calls.
Morula greets me as she would another elephant, with a reassuring rumble RRRRRRrrrrrrrrrrrrrummmmmmmmmmmmm. My heart swells. Her vocalization recognizes me as a friend, a fellow herdmate . . . but it’s a rumble I cannot reciprocate. I reach out, rub her trunk and lower my voice: “Hellooooo, Morula, hellooooo.”
We stand together for awhile until she turns away to pluck a branch from a bush-willow, a favorite browse of all elephants. She holds the stem in her teeth, wraps her trunk from right to left, and rips off the leaves. Morula is right-trunked, as I am right-handed. Thembi is also right-trunked, but Jabu’s a lefty. An elephant’s dominant tendencies can be determined by inspecting the underside of its trunk on the right or left for grass stains. But before you do this, make sure you know the elephant and the elephant knows you.
Morula discards branch after branch. Shredded bushes mark her path. She pauses next to a candle-pod acacia with its upright seedpods. It reminds me of a giant candelabrum, holding a hundred or more candles in leafy tiers. Sharp, curved thorns protect each pod.
Morula strips the acacia of a branch then puts it in her mouth and eats it, thorns and all. The underside of her trunk curves close to my face. I see crushed grass between its ribbed muscles and bristles like a giant centipede before it drops like an afterthought at my feet.
A tectonic tremor sweeps across her shoulder, a shudder to dislodge flies. I lean against her leg.
The background sizzle of cicadas ratchets up a notch: Szzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!
Nebulous clouds scrawl an Arabic alphabet across the sky, blurry glyphs with curlicues and tails, the megaprints of ice crystals marking the passage of the wind. The fat, fuddled afternoon finally wheezes to a stop, backs into her overstuffed chair and puts her feet up.
Morula drowses, lying on her side, falling asleep in the sun. Her head is pillowed on an eroded termite mound. She sucks the tip of her trunk as Doug rubs the bottom of a front foot. Her eyes droop and her mouth slackens with pleasure.
Except for their gray color, Morula’s toenails look pretty much the same as mine do, only bigger and thicker. Human and elephant nails are made of tough, insoluble keratin, a semi-transparent protein that is the major component of hair, hooves, horns and quills. The toenails on her front foot are jagged and torn from stubbing out roots.
She has five nails on her front feet and three on her hind feet. They grow at a rate that might be expected from an animal that walks twenty to thirty miles a day. In captivity, an elephant’s nails must be constantly trimmed, often on a daily basis; otherwise they become infected and ingrown.
As Doug continues to rub her foot, the tip of Morula’s trunk slips from her mouth. Her eyes nearly close. She drools a bit.
Then Doug scrambles to his feet and gives a command. “Morula, Alllll-Right!”
Groggily, she heaves herself into a sitting position. Like a giant dog she lifts her chin high and shakes her head. Her ears flop back and forth. As Morula rocks forward to stand up, I get smaller and smaller and smaller.
Open, close. Open, close. With each thwack dust rises from Morula’s ears. I raise my camera and take a photograph of one earflap in the midst of many, a photograph that will be fixed to a piece of paper at home, on the other side of the world.
When I take the lens cap from my camera I glimpse a tiny reflection of myself in its mirror. Is that how Morula sees me – another one of those small, two-legged humans, diminished by the landscape around me? Does she see details: my hat, my camera, my idiotic grin?
She stands square on, keeping her eyes upon me. Her cobbled forehead broadens upward from her nose. Short bristles like an old man’s buzz cut outline the top of her head. When she flattens her ears against her shoulders, I see the tufts of hair sticking out from each ear canal. The tip of her trunk flops over itself in a loose coil and begins to twitch in an irregular rhythm.
She looks goofy, like she’s bored and playing with the only thing at hand – her trunk.
I take another photograph.
Photographs are moments caught instead of left behind, moments that last less than three-hundredths of a second. I lift my camera over and over, trying to capture details of Morula’s face. Those eyes, wrinkled as any grandmother’s – what do those eyes see?
I remember, from reading it somewhere, 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. Morula turns aquamarine. From far, far away, she snaps a branch from a shrub the color of kelp, chomps, munches, drifts closer. Her 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, as if I am swimming.
Immersed, my ears fill with a pure hum. The sound of my passage whispers in seashell voices.
As Morula floats by, undertones of blue and gray shimmer against her flanks, reflections of seaweed and kelp. I follow, subaquatic, at the bottom of air. Carried by the current of my imagination, I am about to tumble downstream.
Then the breeze kicks up again, feels as if it comes all the way up 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.
Qualities of color could keep me musing for the rest of my life. But we’re on the march again, headed for the sweet relief of evening. Doug falls back to the rear of the line.
He calls out, “Morula. Beak.”
She lifts her trunk and places the tip in his outstretched palm. He cups it carefully, just behind the sensitive hairs at its opening. They stroll together, in front of me; Morula tethered by her trunk.
He grins over his shoulder and points at her trunk tip. “It looks kinda like a duck beak. We use ‘Trunk’ for a different command.”
Doug stops. “Here, you try it. Morula, beak.”
My feet refuse to touch the ground. I float – are we both floating? – as I walk, Oh Lord, hand-in-trunk with an elephant. The fingers of a slight breeze hold my hair up to the sun.
The air flowing around us cools the sweat above my eyes. I smell myself: saltish and smoky. Morula is redolent of hay and mud and dung.
My heart detonates with small, constant thumps in a sweet, slow trance. Side by side, we mosey along – as if nothing magical has just happened.
Years pass as we wander down this innocent path. But the magic only lasts as long as Morula wants it to. Unable to resist a nearby acacia, she takes her trunk from my hand and quicksteps forward.
Beneath my feet I feel the huge bones of the earth. I shiver like a leaf under a hummingbird’s wing.
Rich, viscous, melted-milk-chocolate mud trembles next to Morula’s ponderous footfalls. On the far edge of the afternoon, one behind the other, the elephants cross a dried-up lagoon, following a compressed path the width of overlapped elephant footprints. As we make our delicate traverse, a congealed odor, the fusty, brackish essence of dung, rises from under our feet. Pea soup mud quivers. Goulash mud slops.
“Stay on the path,” Doug warns me, “Stay behind Morula.”
Several weeks before someone stepped off the path and sank up to his armpits.
“He had to strip to his shorts.” Doug says with a grin.
Across the lagoon, globs of mud stack against the shoreline like giant chocolate squares. Above the shoreline baboons scamper across the sand. One baboon baby rides atop its mother’s haunches like a perfect little jockey, while another is upside down, clutching his mother’s belly with desperate hands.
The baboons halt to watch us. Some sit with their legs straight out, arms crossed on their round bellies, a row of scowling grandmothers on their front porch. They’re bracketed by a couple of shotgun grandfathers scratching themselves. Dismounted and bored, the kids begin a game of tag. One of the grandfathers yawns, shows us long, knife-edged canines.
Despite all the distractions, I stay on the path.
“Squhweeek, Jabu.” Doug’s voice rises an octave between “Squh” and “weeek.”
Trunk tip squeezed together, Jabu obliges, emitting a series of squeaks that sound similar to rubber tires leaving skid-marks on pavement.
“It’s an inhalation,” Doug comments.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with Jabu, Thembi joins in. And over in the brush, with her back to us, Morula squeaks too. Like a kid in a corner, she keeps on practicing. Her squeaks sound more like a finger rubbed across a balloon.
“Talk.” Doug says to Jabu and Thembi.
First one “talks” and then the other. They rumble, leaning back and forth, abdomens filling and emptying like bellows, sounds made by exhalations. Jabu and Thembi’s low bass tones carry layer upon layer of vibrations. I close my eyes and imagine giant, reverberating oboes. Oboes having a bit of fun.
Silly humans. They get so pleased over just the littlest things.
Morula saunters by. The tip of her trunk curls against her forehead, waves Hello.
She drops a huge present of dung. Sharp bits of uncouth odors burr into my instantly attentive nose – a chamber pot of swilled grass, crushed flowers, and leavings of leaves. Fumes glow and bloom and waddle off on fermented, flatulent feet.
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.
Between her small and large intestine is her cecum, filled with uncountable numbers of microbes that help her digest food. They break down the cellulose of the trees she eats into soluble carbohydrates and give her enough methane gas each day to power a car at least 20 miles. In return, the microbes are provided with a free lunch.
Percolating along, Thembi 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.
I wonder, as I walk behind Thembi, downwind, just how one could harness this 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, freeways with the scent of mulched trees.
I wonder, as I walk, why I think of such things.
Under Jabu’s head, I am completely shaded. The tip of his trunk curls beneath his chin and hovers in front of my face. I blow into it, gently. He blows back, gently. My lungs fill with the fragrance of crushed leaves mixed with saproots and spearmint-scented bark. 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.
I step out from the shade of Jabu’s head and into a boiling sun. I pull the brim of my cap down to the bridge of my nose to shield my eyes.
Something like a huge beanbag touches the top of my head, knocks my cap askew. I take it off. A warm, wiggly, drooling and breathing nose snorfs and rubs slime into my hair.
“Earth,” Doug commands and Jabu withdraws his trunk from re-coifing my hair. He relaxes it, a thick rope coiled just once against the ground between his front legs.
The scents he massaged from my head tumble 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. There are 639 muscles in the human body, 150,000 muscle units in an elephant’s trunk alone.
A trunk is the most useful appendage that ever evolved. A proboscis par excellence. A prehensile, extensile, limber, stretchable schnozzola.
Imagine having a nose like a battering ram, one that knocks down trees. With such a nose you could also pluck, rip, tear, excavate, whack, and blow bubbles. You could steal with your nose, suck on it, squeal with it, nuzzle, manipulate, swat, poke and siphon with it. You could take a shower with your nose. Scratch your back with it. Whistle with it. You could even arm wrestle with your nose.
Morula strolls over, waves Hello with her nose.
Voracious vegetarians, the elephants eat and eat and eat, browsing away the day. Two of Doug’s employees spend the last of the afternoon following the elephants through the bush before circling back to camp.
Trees turn golden, then bluish, and begin to smudge at their edges, as if lightly erased. As darkness deepens, stars begin to populate the Milky Way.
The sound of gurgling drainpipes draws Doug away from his dinner. I follow. Night rolls out lemon, then violet, then purple. We walk through warm bowls of air as heat dissipates from the sand.
The elephants are in mid-drink, trunks curled into mouths, heads tipped back, eyes closed. As they siphon water they mimic the sound of rain in gutters, only the water is going up, not down.
Three elephant trunks reach toward us, sniffing the violet air. Jabu thonks the ground, as if testing a cantaloupe for ripeness.
We are content to stand with them, wordless, and rub their trunks. The moon rises from behind a screen of trees. It illuminates clouds piled into rows, ripples in the sky.
It’s an oceanic, leviathan sort of night. The beginning of time is up there, somewhere.
When the elephants head for their enclosure, the prows of their great heads plow into the gray waves of dusk, dipping and rising, breasting the night. Their ears flap and snap like the sails of boats as they luff into the wind. At their feet sharp, brittle grass hisses with their passage.
After dinner I walk to my tent, encapsulated in the bubble of illumination created by my flashlight. I walk down a short trail and around a few trees, to the back edge of camp. Forty steps and I am out of everyone’s sight. Under an unreachable net of stars I find myself, for one of the few times in my life, not witnessed by human eyes.
A bone-deep peace spreads through my body. I’m only here for 6 days, but I’m beginning to wish I could do this for the rest of my life.
I wipe dust from my face and arms, and lie on my cot. Elbows out, hands behind my head, I stare up at the canvas ceiling of my tent. Half-awake, half-asleep, I see Morula frozen in a sepia photograph, strolling down a dirt path. I walk slightly to one side.
Her trunk is shaped like a J around her left leg, its tip pointed in my direction. Deliberately mindful of her own movements, she’s keeping track of the human scent mingling with that of the herd. Then – am I asleep? – I see her following me, as if I were another elephant, although where we were going I do not know.
Is the unknown quantity, the number of our dreams. When I dream, I change from a verbal being that talks and talks and talks, to a speechless being, whose body just is and whose mind speaks without words.
Tonight when I dream, I dream of familiar bodies, large and gray.
X-rays of elephants reveal an outline as large as the frame of a small house. In my dreams I trace an x-ray – follow skull, spine, ribs, out to the very end of the tail, the smallest of bones. In my dreams I peel back layer after layer of elephant anatomy until I am left holding a beating heart in my arms, a heart as big as a medium-sized dog.
Yellow suns rise and fall in my dreams. I dream I am once again in the belly of a 747, Africa receding behind me. I ascend higher, higher, past the gaping gold pits of Johannesburg, up beyond the coast of Namibia, flying into night. Specks of light edge the continent, extinguish. It’s black down there, utterly black. On the edge of a wing a single light blinks and blinks and blinks.
I travel counter-clockwise, accelerating backwards into the life I left, back into words strange as hieroglyphs. Words like “seatbelts’ and “passports” and “luggage.”
My gaze never wavers from the window. I keep my eyes on the blinking light at the tip of the airplane’s wing. Even in my dreams I do not want to leave these elephants.
Zebras run to the horizon, to the curvature of the earth. They run without sound. The world has gone silent, or deaf. One of the zebras gallops next to me, flashes his teeth, tries to nip my haunch.
I fall back and watch as species after species silently disappear over the edge of the earth, the zebras among them, their stripes a blur, their hocks flashing white.
Closeby a lion roars. UNNNGGHHHHH . . . ungh . . . ungh . . . ungh . . . ungh.
Ripped awake, I peer out the mesh window of my tent. My heart back-flips. Breathless, I listen for carnivorous footsteps.
Silence. A long, long silence, empty except for a single, persistent cricket. I can almost hear stars crackle static overhead.
Moonlight rains through the uplifted arms of trees. It falls though the mesh window and patterns my blanket with tiny delicate squares. As I stare through the screen I hear Morula’s far-off rumble, a cousin to thunder. My heart calms. I burrow into my blankets and fall asleep again under a moon as round and cratered as an elephant’s footprint.
14 thoughts on “Living with Elephants, Alphabetically”
Thanks for your kind reply about my post and skull; and for the recommendation concerning the Okavango Delta.
Unlike you, I am an unpublished writer of journals (climbing stuff), poetry, short stories and a manuscript for a novel, and have not taken the step to develop a platform. Some of my writing takes place in the NW (Cascades, Portland, Oregon Coast). I would like to share some it with you, as you have so generously done on this site; however, I don’t wish to invade your space with my stuff.
Hi Ken – Sorry to be so long to reply, but, as they say, life intervened. I see that you already have a WordPress registration. I’ll make a deal with you. If you establish a blog, I’ll read your blog posts and comment. Two reasons for this: yes, I’m busy BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, a public blog will give you feedback from a lot more people. It’s how I started out: publishing small bits and pieces as I worked on them. WP will walk you through setting up a blog and I can give you a few tips along the way. It’s a great exercise in establishing a writing platform and extending your wings. Check out a blog I follow: A Bush Snob in Wild Africa. It’s written by a woman with incredible experiences who is just beginning to share them. Let me know if you accept my challenge and where to follow you! All the best for the holidays – Cheryl
Hi, Cheryl– thanks for your response. I have taken the step to establish an account with WordPress. I’ll see how it goes.
Enjoy the day-
Ken – I find it easier to use Word in writing my posts, then copy and paste into WordPress when I’m done. That way, bit by bit, I have an accumulation I can wrestle into manuscript form.
Cheryl, wonderful writing about a heart-rending subject matter. I am an ancient mountaineer who finds solace in the hills and among the critters that dwell there. Only one trip to Africa, in 1989, to make the grunt up Kilimanjaro, hire a truck to the Kenyan border and another one to Nairobi, spend a few days at the Norfolk hotel, and take a quick tour of the game reserve outside of Nairobi. Still, the impressions left on me of the beauty, tragic circumstances (social, economic and environmental) and spirituality of east Africa still occupy space in my rusted skull.
Your skull does not seem all that rusted if it contains all those memories. Could you smell Hemingway at the Norfolk? Thanks for your kind words. My goal in writing about elephants is to raise the bar of awareness for them.
Thank you, Cheryl, for your reply. I’m very glad to have discovered your site and the quality of your writing.
As you well know, that “big game hunter” machismo, which was pervasive during Hemingway’s years in Africa, still persists as a trophy game industry that is defended, dubiously, by the associations and governments that promote it. That industry, when combined with poaching, climate change and environmental toxins have all contributed to the peril and possible extinction of these wonderful animals that you write about.
During our climb of Kilimanjaro, in 1989, the mountain was clad with snow, and the summit “polar cap” and glaciers were still relatively prominent; although, even then, they had receded significantly since the measuring of such trends began decades before. Unfortunately, I have seen this trend, on hundreds of mountains and glaciers, during the past 4-decades, while practicing my climbing habit. In the preamble of Hemingway’s short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, he wrote, “Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high (current measurements indicate 19,340-feet), and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called Masai (his spelling) “Ngaje Ngai”, the house of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”
Over the years, philistine climbers have taken away parts of the leopard’s carcass until now there is nothing left but the tin plate. Similarly, self-serving practices by the carbon fuel mining industry and other major GHG producers, have essentially eliminated Kilimanjaro’s icecap and glaciers, which have been important sources of water for the human and animal populations who live around the slopes of the mountain.
While at the Norfolk (witness the Lord Delamere Room), I read every newspaper that I could lay my hands on, and they were chock full of reports on tribal conflicts and condemnations issued by the state against political dissent (a somewhat risky practice that can lead to extinction). The inside pages were filled with horror stories of robbery, rape and murder.
In 1989, Kenya had one of the highest birth rates in the world, and a corrupt government leading a people without choice to economic dissolution. As you know, Kenya, like Tanzania, is a heart breaking place…dangerous, indigent, corrupt, hauntingly beautiful and spiritual.
It is my hope to visit South Africa with my family, one day. My maternal family emigrated to the western U.S. from Cape Town in 1860.
This beautifully condensed post of your experiences, thoughts and reactions convince me you ought to be writing them down. Yes, I was heartbroken by Kenya and Tanzania in the way you describe, mostly by the children. I hope you get to go to SA some day. If you do, visit the Okavango Delta area of Botswana -my favorite place in the entire world. P.s. Your skull is DEFINITELY not rusted.
Nice to find an entire blog about elephants! and good writing too. I am from India, and we have the Lord Ganesh ( elephant head God). Also many stories of wisdom, benevolence and group dynamics of elephants in story form.
Thank you for your kind words, Veena. I write about African elephants because I know more about them than Asian elephants. And although we learn much about the elephant in stories, it is my hope that they are kept alive in the wild, and not just in words.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you, and I had no idea that you have been spending time in Africa with elephants. I’ve been reading your posts- fascinating!- and am interested in the book you’re working on. (I found out through Molly P.) I look forward to learning more about the elephants, and what you’ve been doing. Thanks!
Hi Autumn – Glad to hear from you. My first trip to Africa was in 1996 and I hope to go back to visit my elephant friends next year. Molly connected with me on FB. Thanks for the kind words about my writing. There’s more to come! Hope we see each other out and about – you’d think in a small town we’d bump into each other more often! Cheryl
Cheryl, I’m not sure when this was written but I just came upon it today & LOVED every entry from A to Z! Never before have I wanted the alphabet to be longer. This blog left me longing for more! Beautifully written piece about the natural wonders of Africa & your magical time with the herd. I felt as though I was right there beside you. Wish I had been!
Thanks, Patty! It’s one of my favorite pieces, too – feel free to share with your friends. It was published about two years ago in Alaska Quarterly Review.