“We are stardust/We are golden/And we’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden.” – Joni Mitchell
Yesterday I traveled by jet. Today I fall into place behind three elephants. My mind is having a hard time keeping up with a change greater than eight time zones and two hemispheres. I’m clumsy in this new world. The old one of concrete and cell phones trails me like a lost dog.
Flirting with each one of us in turn, the wind twirls ahead in small scrolls of dust. Its warm lips nibble on my ear and blow a kiss past my cheek. Fingers of wind brush back my hair. I’d forgotten what a coquette a breeze can be, how it can lead you out into the world and make you a bit impish, too.
Thembi knuckles her eye with the tip of her trunk, curled tight as a fist. As she rubs, a dark smudge, a triangle of tear, spreads like a delta from the corner of her eye. Morula’s leans against a lead wood, rasping her hip against its rough bark, satisfying an itch. Poofs of dust rise with each scrape
Enticed by a nearby tidbit, Thembi daintily picks a single leaf from a bush willow with the two “fingers” at the tip of her trunk. Morula and Jabu join in, not so daintily, ripping entire branches from the bush. Deft as magicians, they curl their trunks around the branches and strip off its soft leaves. Jabu smacks his lips as he wads them up and crams them into his mouth. He drags one foot and stirs up a gauzy curtain of powdered insects, mud, and the cells of sloughed skin from everything that moves or crawls in Africa. From his belly up, Jabu is slate colored. From his belly down, seen through the gauzy curtain, he’s a bit rosier, more dove.
Morula swings away from the bush and stops near a patch of sand. She snorts in a handful of sand, squeezes the accordion folds of her trunk, swings it upward, and blows dust across her back. She powders herself again and again, using the same sandy spot with its talcum of dust.
The breeze carries it to me and I sneeze.
Every atom we breathe was generated in stellar engines, white-hot blossoms that pollinated the universe. Each one of us is made from trillions of those atoms, which will never be assembled in the same way again. Ever. Identical twins may look alike, but sub-atomically they too are completely unique. If you could grab a handful of atoms from your body and hold them in your hand, they will not be alive and yet, when they are assembled within us, we live. Pick Morula and I apart atom-by-atom and we would be piles of dust, no longer living. Morula’s pile would, of course, be bigger.
It is only our dust that is immortal, endlessly carried on currents of air.
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.
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.
Theoretically, it is possible to reclaim extinct beings, to spin evolution backwards. To recreate a mammoth all you need are a few live mammoth cells, since each and every cell contains complete genetic information. Red-furred segments of mammoth flesh are not uncommon discoveries in Siberia, usually found by sled dogs that eagerly gnaw on frozen haunches. But cells die if stored above minus 94º Fahrenheit, even for short periods. Still, the possibility of finding live cells does exist. Paleontologists in Ohio have isolated 11,000-year-old bacteria from the stomach of a mastodon, the oldest living organisms ever found.
To recreate a mammoth, destroy the nucleus in the ovum of an Asian elephant. Then inject live mammoth-cell DNA into the altered ovum and implant the artificial zygote into the uterus of an Asian elephant. If the 22-month pregnancy is successful, you can expect the birth of a 100% mammoth baby.
Another method is to take mammoth sperm (selected to ensure female offspring), inject it into an elephant’s egg and wait 22 months for your mammophant, a half elephant, half mammoth calf. Then wait until the hybrid is sixteen or so, breed it with more female-selected sperm, and in 3 generations of mammophants, say sixty years, the resulting pachyderm will be 90% mammoth with 16-foot tusks. The obvious obstacle to this method is that hardly any non-degraded frozen mammoth cells exist, let along viable sperm. And even if some were found, would two species separated by millions of years of evolution even be capable of producing offspring?
So let’s go back to the method that just might be successful. Let’s find live mammoth DNA, or perhaps just replicate some of it, and join it with the ovum of an Asian elephant. The resulting offspring would be a cloned mammoth.
To get more mammoths you have to artificially construct more zygotes, which need more live mammoth cells, which would result in clones of clones – unless you find a lot of live mammoth DNA from many different individuals. And for such a project you need elephants as surrogate moms. Endangered Asian elephants. Even with a whole herd of resurrected mammoths, inbreeding could make the population nonviable. Would a hyper-disease be resurrected too? Could it jump to elephants?
And where would we put our newly minted species? In zoos? On reservations? In those isolated pockets we call National Parks? While we’re at it, shouldn’t we resurrect some cavemen, too? In Northern Siberia scientists are already attempting to create a mammoth ecosystem called Pleistocene Park. Imagine the tickets they could sell to watch Neanderthals, our human cousins, hunting.
And where do we stop? Do we bring back Saber-toothed Cats, Dire wolves and Giant Short-faced Bears? Do we re-create their habitats? Lower the temperature of the earth four degrees in this time of global warming? Bring back the Ice Ages?