Morula slaps her ears flatly against her shoulders.
Whoooosh, thwack . . . Whoooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .
Elephant air-conditioning, for a creature that produces enough heat to warm a small house. Elephants are pachy-dermed, thick-skinned. Some of Morula’s blood vessels are buried as deep as one-and-a-half inches under her skin. Since she doesn’t have sweat glands, her ears act like giant heat exchangers, regulating her body temperature. As her ears open, her body size increases by roughly one-fifth and her ears provide a huge area for thermoregulation. The air moving over swollen arteries on the surface of each ear cools her blood as much as nine degrees before it returns to her body.
I take a photograph of her ear in mid-flap. Where Morula’s ear attaches to her shoulder, wrinkles give way to rising rivers of blood, pumping five gallons per minute across the surface of her ears. The pattern of arteries on an elephant’s ear is as unique as a fingerprint, and often used for identification.
Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .
The breeze she creates dies before it reaches me. I take off my cap and fan my own neck.
My teeny, itsy ears are built somewhat the same as hers are, 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.
Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .
In the late morning heat Morula’s ears are in constant motion.
Ears of African elephants resemble huge maps of Africa. Ears of Asian elephants flop forward at the top and hang like small, wrinkled outlines of India. Morula’s ears fold backward, giving them a smooth, tidy appearance, a map pressed flat. Although the ears of all elephants have a similar construction – cartilage covered by a thin layer of skin – Morula’s ears are roughly three times larger than those of her Asian kin. African elephants have the biggest external ears of all mammals, perhaps the biggest of all time. Each one weighs approximately one hundred pounds.
And no two elephant ears are the same. As pliable and soft as worn canvas, the leading edge of an elephant’s ear is often caught and torn on branches or by the tusks of other elephants. In Kenya I watched an adolescent flare her ear and trace its outline with her trunk like a matador holding out her cape. Backlit by sunlight, three perfectly round holes on its border reminded me of diamond studs. Nearby, a huge bull posed for my gulping camera as I shot an entire roll of film in less than two minutes. Only later, with the film developed and the prints in my hands, did I notice the edges of his ears were as scalloped as an old lace tablecloth.
I rock back and forth, toe to heel, toward the fire and away from it. My boots touch coals while stars crowd close around, peering over my shoulder, whispering ancient stories in my ears. Only moments earlier giraffes reflected the setting sun, but now their silhouettes fade, blur and disappear. Soon, out there beyond this fire, hyenas will make short work of bones.
In the darkness elephants are on the move, and almost without sound, except for the occasional rifle shot of a cracked branch. I wish I could hear condensed air – infrasound – soft rumbling kisses brushing my cheek. The compacted silence is completely full of presence, of huge milling bodies on padded feet. A herd of mountains relocates during the night while my thoughts swirl, embers stirred by wind.
Suddenly to my right, trumpeting, perhaps furious at being left behind, an elephant thunders by, an outraged trombone blowing past. I lift my head to follow the sound, but it’s my ears, not my eyes that see.
In the morning, no more than a half-mile from camp, we encounter a herd of sixty elephants. Nervous mothers guide their newborns away with their trunks, shield them from us with their bodies. Young punk males show off for each other, make small charges to see if our vehicle will bolt. Huge bulls, intent on mating, barge past like runaway cement trucks.
We sit in the middle of a herd. Two males give us a rear view of old men in baggy pants. A jumbo-jet sized matriarch leisurely crosses right past our front bumper. Her ears are perfect replicas of the map of Africa. Like fingerprints, no two elephant ears are the same. As pliable and soft as worn canvas, their leading edge is often caught and torn on branches and scrub. Hers has a neat, perfectly round hole near the bottom of Africa, right about where we are in Zimbabwe.
A young female strolls by, scans us as if we’re department store mannequins. She’s so close all I can do is snap a picture of her eye. She stops, blinks, and regards us with the air of a disinterested shopper. I look down at her feet, round in front, oval behind. The round one is about the size of a medium pizza pan. I glance back up, directly into her eyes. She stares back and shakes her head so hard that her ears flap. A great cloud of dust rises from them. Then she moves on.
Chobe River, 2012
Dear Madame Elephant:
There is a hole in the space between us, filled with thrown dust. You stare down your nose with a don’t-mess-with-me look, but I am describing things in my language, not yours. Yours is a language of thunder, trombones, and a low, rumbling growl. Your breasts are full; your child hides behind you. We have come knockata-knockata noisy around the corner in a vehicle now halted before you. How quickly we became silent and supplicant, waiting with immobile slightly bowed heads, as you sample the scent of our intentions. We are watchers watching each other. Your eyes are deep brown pools. Your benevolence is the most important thing to us. We hope you will bestow it upon us. Dear Madame Elephant, what would you tell us in our language, if you could. Or did you already tell us: your forbearance louder than our beating hearts, louder than words.
A Thankful Human
Not far from here jungles of papyrus lean their feathery seed heads over the clear blue channels of the Okavango River, tall stands of reeds that line the permanent footprint of the Delta. The river is inching southward, breaking the boundary between water and desert. Soon it will flush this lagoon, scouring out the sweet muck at its bottom to spread among grassy floodplains.
With the river will come crocodiles and hippos and other denizens of its deep, running water. When the river reaches this part of the Delta, a new population of birds will arrive with it: Wattled cranes, Egyptian geese, Reed cormorants, Darters, Avocets, Black crakes, Red-knobbed coots, Sacred ibis, Hamerkops, Fish eagles, and Saddle-bill storks.
Standing shoulder to shoulder on a mat of trampled reeds, two elephants blow a concert of bubbles, bassoons under water. They shower their spines, poke their trunks into the back of their throats and release gallons of water at a time. Corkscrew spirals spill from their mouths, patter like rain on the surface of the lagoon. Sky-blue ripples spread from one edge to another, bounce back images of a thousand suns.
Believe me: you could spend the rest of your life watching this.
The sound of water splashing draws us away from camp. We leave behind dinner preparations and walk out into the sunset, our feet soft in the sand. My boots kick up dust the color and texture of crumbled parchment.
Musty, bacterial, moist as a swamp cooler, the evening air condenses into cold pools. Shreds of scent blossom. I inhale freshened earth, the damp beginnings of night.
We find the elephants in a lengthening night shadow, drinking from a metal trough. Trunks curled, heads tipped back, eyes closed – they siphon water from the trough into their mouths. The sound they make as they siphon mimics the sound of rain in gutters, only the water is going up, not down.
Three elephant trunks reach toward us, sniffing the shadowed, violet air. Jabu thonks the end of his trunk against the ground, as if testing a cantaloupe for ripeness. Then he places the tip of his trunk directly under the hose gushing into the trough. Thembi curls her trunk tight enough to be nearly round, like a tire. Morula waves a medium-sized Hello.
The honey-colored evening deepens to gold, then orange, shot through with veins of red, a saffron sunset. The elephants become a shade of rusty rose.
On our walk back to camp the last of the sun catches the top of a fan palm as the purple shadow of the earth spreads across the sky. The rim of the earth becomes the rim of the moon as it rises.
Reposting one of my favorites, from back in 2013.
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.
If you missed it the first time, my radio interview will be broadcast again this evening, Tuesday, November 10th, from 10-11 p.m., P.S.T., United States. Heres the live feed link: https://kptz.org
I’ll be speaking on our local radio station, KPTZ 91.9, on Friday, Nov. 6th, at 1:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, U.S. and answering questions about all things elephant. For my friends all over the world, you can live-stream by clicking on the link below, and send in email questions. Plus we’ll be broadcasting examples of elephant sounds. See you then!
You can click here to listen!
An excerpt from my book, Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants
My eyes tired from a day spent looking into the sun, I drowsed in a Land Rover beside a waterhole in Chobe National Park. Only a few yards from our vehicle, a single-cylinder pump drew from the water table beneath the sands and sent spurts through a pipe to a square concrete trough. The bachelor elephants of Savuti congregated around the trough as they waited for spring rains and the return of female breeding herds.
The steady sound of the pump, chugga-sputter, chugga-sputter, chugga-sputter, lulled my eyes closed. They opened, closed, opened half-lidded, closed again.
“Here he comes,” someone whispered and my eyes flicked open as a huge bull strolled past. I picked up my camera.
His enormous tusk splayed out almost sideways. I focused on his great head, nodding downward with each step, as he trudged past. A thirsty pilgrim in a parched land, his trek to water was nearly finished. The clicking and whirring of our cameras didn’t alter his gait.
Through the viewfinder I marveled at his tusk. It was easily four feet long, stained and chipped on its end. Because of the growth pattern of his tusks – out, rather than down and up – he seemed a much wider elephant than he really was.
Mid-drink, he curled his trunk into his mouth; head tilted back, eyes closed. Extending his trunk into the waterhole, he blew bubbles before curling his trunk again and again to hose several gallons at a time down his throat. With each swallow went samplings from all the animals that drank here – zebra, wildebeest, warthog, ostrich, hyena and the occasional furtive flavor of lion.
I tried to imagine the bouquet garni of the waterhole and how its myriad fragrances might seep into the crevices of an elephant’s mind, form pools of scent they recognize, year after year, the liquid memory of Africa. Perhaps that old bull was memorizing the stories in that trough, paragraphs of taste and smell, twists of plot and character and fate.
He retraced his steps to where we were parked, and stopped close by. His skin was the color of seasoned cast iron. The waterline on his body rose just past his belly. Spatters of mud stained his ears and back.
After several long minutes, his eyelids drooped and his mouth slackened. Under the hot sun he fell asleep, lulled perhaps by the narcotic of a long, slow drink. The tip of his trunk coiled like a magic rope on the ground. He slept with his weight on three legs, resting a hind leg, occasionally rocking back on it as if he dreamed of his trek. Drool from his trunk slowly seeped into the sand.
I matched my breathing with his, and drowsed once again, sedated by the sun.
The giant beside us rumbled soft snores in his sleep. Other elephants shuffled by quietly on their way to and from the waterhole, as if they didn’t want to wake us.
I almost know infrasound.
No more than a mile from my home huge freighters push through the deep, cold 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 the lowest threshold of my hearing. Born in the bellies and boilers of machines, the mechanical throb carries along rotating shafts that turn the metal blades of propellers, which slice through water like a dull knife hacking flesh: whummmp. ..whummmp…..whummmp.
Everything makes a sound when vibrations travel through a conducting medium, although we may not be able to hear it.
As Morula scuffs dirt, waves of air particles wash out in all directions. They reach my ear and vibrate my eardrum, which excites the three small bones of my middle ear: the hammer, anvil and stirrup. When the last little bone, the stirrup, takes up the vibration, it presses against fluid in my inner ear and creates a tiny sea of waves that tickle the hairs inside the spiral of my cochlea. The tickled hairs trigger auditory nerve cells that shoot electric signals to my brain.
Air, water and electricity in such a small space.
Large without, Morula’s ears are also large within. The bones of her inner ear are massive compared to mine. The combined weight of her hammer, anvil and stirrup totals just over a pound, compared to mine at two ounces. Her ear canal is eight inches long and her eardrum is about one and a half square inches. Maybe this doesn’t seem very big, but my eardrum is thinner than this paper and only one third of an inch square. You would need two hundred and fifty of my eardrums to create a stack an inch high.
Hum with your mouth closed. Now place your hands over your ears and hum again. The vibrations bypass your eardrums and are transmitted through your skull. Wavelengths tingle along your jaw line. Your bones are rattling.
Sounds are louder with a bigger collecting surface. Cup your hands behind your ears and listen as if you were an elephant.