Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Photography, Travel

Why Grey Matters

THIS IS A GUEST BLOG from my friend the alliterative punster, Douglas Groves.  Doug and Sandi Groves live in Botswana’s Okavango Delta with their three elephants: Jabu, Morula and Thembi.  (You may have already noticed that I write about them in this blog and post pictures of them from time to time.)  Be sure to check the elephant’s Facebook page.

 

L to R: Jabu, Thembi & Morula, photograph by Cheryl Merrill
L to R: Jabu, Thembi & Morula, photograph by Cheryl Merrill

Humans and elephants have evolved the largest and most complex brains of all land animals.  Social brains, emotional brains, brains that change, connect, cooperate, compare and compete.  Our convoluted cortex and huge hippocampus help us to perceive, process and pass information down through the generations in a similar way.

Tender, strong, silly and smart, elephants tug at our emotions, and, perhaps, we at theirs.

We become self and socially aware as well as aware of the world around us, through our brains.  And the Earth, it has been said, has now become self aware through our collective intelligence.  Our brains make us resourceful, dynamic and adaptable but they can also get us in to trouble.

Common spawn of the same ancient African alchemy, we go way back together, our deep organic roots entwine through steamy primordial millennia.  Emerging from a marvelous melee of merrily mutating mammals, man and elephant, the two terrestrial titans began lording over the lesser lot. Nosey and manipulative in equal measure, our tribes and herds exploded out of Africa on an extraordinary evolutionary extravaganza, becoming very prominent features of the fauna far and wide.

High and mighty, yet down to earth, elephants embody the gentle soul, the sacred heart, the wonderful wild wisdom and the absolutely awesome and pivotal power of our almighty matriarch herself…  Mother Nature.

From aberrant ape and rag tag tribes to a great globalized superorganism, Man has drifted apart from the magic of nature and his great grey friends.  Our biological evolution has been usurped by lightning fast cultural and technological advances.  Ignoring planetary limitations we’ve become a geophysical force, reshaping the face of the planet and impacting the future of life.

We’ve created creeping confluent conurbia, fetid factory farms and monstrous mechanized monocultures, mining and megopoi!  We’ve altered atoms and modified molecules, tinkering with the very stuff of life!

Unlike our rapacious rat race, elephants utilize only renewable resources and the byproducts of their consumption become a biological bonanza. Ecologists call them a super keystone species and ecosystem engineer. When we conserve areas large enough for elephants we conserve whole ecosystems. Conservationists know that their role as a charismatic flagship species is essential in preserving wild habitat.

Today, for the most part, we live walled off from nature.  Gizmos and gadgets, distractions and devices dominate our lives. Isolated from the natural world we rely on luxuries rather than relationships for a sense of fulfillment. Much of the information we receive is carefully controlled and expertly edited, cherry picked, censored.  In this era of skyscrapers and screens when virtual reality has invaded our dreams, we desperately need something real, something big to believe in, we need elephants now more than ever before.

We are currently at a crossroads. We can stay on the same path, a business as usual course, in which case we will destroy our planetary life support systems or we can reconnect with our elemental foundations, get back in touch with nature and learn to live with ecological integrity.

Grey matters because things change as energy flows through us.  Our trajectory through time is limited. As we become more mature we often start examining existential questions and issues.  Why are we here, how can we help and will we leave a legacy worth living? Hopefully, as we grow older we will also become bolder in making choices that will benefit future generations.

 

Posted in Africa, Doug, Elephants, Jabu, Morula, Sandi, Thembi, Travel

Mammals Are Called Mammals Becuz. . .

As promised, I’m re-visiting the third most popular blog post of my blog in 2014:  an excerpt from my book, Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

 

 

Doug gets my full attention when he proclaims to his guests, “Thembi has a great set of knockers.”

“Thembi, leg.”

She obliges by bending her left front leg at the knee and raising it, exposing a clear view of her breast.  “See?  Elephant mammary glands are located on the chest, like humans.”

A Great Set of Knockers

I lean over Doug’s shoulder and look at two gray breasts with permanently erect nipples.  They’re about the size of a medium cantaloupe and, like human breasts, slightly globular, due to the pull of gravity.

“Alllllll-right, Thembi.”  As her foot touches the ground, she flaps her ears and her trunk snorfles around his feet.

“If you reach in like this,” Doug demonstrates, “you can feel them.”

Steadying myself with one hand on Thembi’s leg, I reach in and cup her breast with the other hand.  The skin of her breast is as soft as an old, creased leather bag.  Her nipple, as one might expect, is harder than the flesh around it.

Thembi emits a low, murmuring rumble.

“Oh you like that, do you, Thembi girl?”  Doug chuckles.

I quickly withdraw my hand and step away from her side.

“Anyone else want to try?” asks Doug.

Out of the seven of us, several people look away, several look down.  No one ventures forward.  I can’t tell if everyone is embarrassed or just reticent.  Feeling up an elephant may not be quite what they had in mind.  It certainly wasn’t what I had in mind.

“Well, OK.  Mammals are called mammals because . . . . ?”

One of the guests ventures, “Mammary glands?”

“Right.”  Doug continues his lecture: “Like all mammals, Thembi’s lactiferous ducts terminate in her nipples.  They point out a bit, while Morula’s nipples point down.  Thembi gets a bit of stimulation while she walks, don’t you, Thembi girl?”

Some of the guests look mildly scandalized, while others giggle and whisper to each other.

Doug rubs Thembi’s leg, which generates another snorfle.

Female elephants don’t have a row of teats, like cats or dogs.  They don’t lie on their sides, suckling a litter.  Elephant calves nurse standing up, with their small trunks flipped over an eye like a wayward curl.

All mammal breasts are modified sweat glands.  Some mammal breasts are located in the groin and some on the chest.  The breasts between Thembi’s front legs are in the same location mine would be if I walked around on all fours.  Her breasts weigh about four pounds each, .1% of her body weight.  Human breasts weigh .08% of total body weight, dogs 2%, rats 9%.

Do all mammals have larger breast size to body weight than humans?  I pull out my notebook to write down that question, but then decided I really don’t care, and put the notebook away.

“Is she pregnant?” asks the woman behind me.

Although Thembi possesses relatively trim tonnage in comparison to the other two elephants, she is significantly rounder – huge thighs, huge belly, a Rubenesque sort of girl with a really long nose – and very full breasts, unusually large for a non-pregnant elephant.

“We don’t think so,” Doug replies.  “We had her hormone levels tested about six months ago, and they were normal.  She’s an enthusiastic eater, so she might be a tad rotund because of that.  She might be incubating a surprise, but we doubt it.”

Sandi laughs. “That’s because she’s a bit of a flirt with the wild boys around here, but when things get serious she becomes quite horrified and scoots on home.”

Another one of the guests pipes up: “Has Jabu ever tried mating with her?”

“Yes, he’s tried,” Sandi replies, “But we’ve never yet seen him achieve intromission.”

Heads nod thoughtfully.  I can see intromission has thrown them a bit.  It’s not a word commonly used to describe sexual penetration, but I think most of the guests have a general idea of what it might mean.  Several of their heads swivel to gaze at Jabu, ripping apart a nearby bush.  Since he’s such a big boy, why couldn’t he just have his own way?

“Thembi doesn’t really favor him,” says Sandi, as if she’s reading minds.

“What if she had a calf?”

There’s not one second of hesitancy to Sandi’s reply: “Oh, we’d keep it.  It wouldn’t be easy, though.  Thembi’s never been in a breeding herd and has no clue about birth.  And she’s rather stuck on herself, you know.  We don’t think she’d be a good mother.  But if it happened, we’d make it work.”

Even though it’s not likely that Jabu and Thembi will become pachyderm parents, I can easily imagine Thembi as a pregnant princess, mood swings, food cravings and all.  As if to prove my point, she regally sweeps through a stand of grass, a princess on a mission.  She breaks off a few branches from a small thornbush, stuffs them against her back molars and chews with her mouth open.

Thembi has never been with an extended herd of mothers and sisters and aunts and hasn’t had the opportunity to learn the complex behaviors required to be a mother.  She’s never learned that newborn calves stay in physical contact ninety-nine percent of the time, either below or beside their mothers.  Although calves will begin to forage by nine months, they continue to suckle for about four years.  Elephants in zoos will quite frequently shun newborn calves.  So I can just about predict Thembi’s reaction to a calf:  What IS this thing following me around?

I glance over at Jabu.  He has nipples, too.  Guy nipples, nozzle-like nipples, surrounded with sparse hair.

A Guy Nipple

All mammals have three distinct features: hair, three middle ear bones, and mammary glands.  Even whales, dolphins, porpoises and manatees have hair, usually on their snouts or next to blowholes.  Elephants and manatees shared a common ancestor fifty-six million years ago, but the nipples of female manatees are now under their flippers, in their armpits.

A question comes from the back of the tourist group.  “What about Morula?”

Dear, Old Maid Morula.  The wallflower with big ears, large liquid eyes and a knobby forehead.

“If an elephant doesn’t breed by the age of twenty-five, they are unlikely to,” Sandi replies.  “Morula is already the ripe old age of thirty.”

Female elephants typically become active at a quite young age, around thirteen.  They can conceive as early as ten years old and possibly have 12-15 offspring by the time they are fifty.  Female calves will stay with the herd the rest of their lives.

Male elephants take a bit longer to mature and become sexually active around the age of twenty-nine.

Morula has missed the boat.  But I’ll bet she’d make a great aunty.  She stands close by, slowly opening and closing her great ears, patiently watching.

One of the Lactating Class

When he first developed his classification system, Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus originally called mammals Quadrupedia, after the name Aristotle gave them.  Later he became actively opposed to wet-nursing practices in the 1750s and wrote a book on the benefits of breast-feeding your own child.  As a political act, he reclassified Quadrupedia to Mammalia in later editions of his most famous work, Systema Naturae, defining mammals as a lactating class within the Animalia kingdom, a classification that has lasted to this day – all because women of nobility in Linnaeus’s time thought breastfeeding would ruin their figures.

Certainly that’s one thing Thembi doesn’t have to worry about.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Photography

Elephant Infrasound, Part Two

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

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.

Posted in Africa, Nature, Photography, Travel

Whoooosh-Thwack! Whooooosh-Thwack!

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

A selection from my book in progress:

As she walks, Morula’s ears slap flatly against her shoulders, Whoooosh, thwack . . . Whoooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Elephant air-conditioning.

Morula produces enough heat to warm a small house. She is also pachy-dermed, thick-skinned. Some of her blood vessels are as deep as one-and-a-half inches under her skin’s surface. Since she doesn’t have sweat glands, her ears act like giant heat exchangers, regulating her body temperature. As air moves over the huge network of swollen arteries covering each ear, Morula’s blood cools as much as nine degrees before it returns to her body. When spread open, her ears increase her body size by roughly twenty square feet, a huge area for the process of thermoregulation.

Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .

I take a photograph of her ear in mid-flap. Where Morula’s ear attaches to her shoulder, wrinkles give way to swollen arteries pumping five gallons of blood per minute across the surface of her ears. The pattern of those arteries is as unique as a fingerprint and often used to identify individual elephants.

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.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Photography

The Oldest Human Footprints in the World

An excerpt from my book in progress:

Morula

After Morula finishes browsing, I follow her down one of the unmapped, two-track, lightly traveled, nameless roads of the Okavango Delta.

Zik! Zik! Zik-zik! A masked weaver hops through the brush beside us. White clouds above our heads twirl like cotton candy across the sky. The track we’re following parts a shallow lake of grass and climbs out on an island of trees. A game trail crosses the road. Morula swivels her trunk to one side, then the other, at the intersection where the grass is beaten down.

In dun-colored sand as finely ground as cake flour, Morula’s prints barely register. I can’t see a single puff from the impact of her feet. With each step, she leaves behind outlines of small moons. We cross the recent, delicate hoof prints of impala and the moons obliterate them.

photo by Cheryl Merrill
photo by Cheryl Merrill

My boot prints, inside the crater of her footprints, look like exclamation points, the heel separate from the rest of my sole.

The oldest human footprints in the world are 1500 miles north of here, at Laetoli, in Tanzania. Found in 1976, the 3.5 million-year-old footprints are not far from the Olduvai Gorge, where the Leakey family discovered the first hominids. Although the Laetoli hominids are Australopithecines and not Homo sapiens, they are part of our family tree, a relationship comparable to that of mammoths and elephants.

Fossil footprints are not uncommon, especially near ancient riverbeds. But the Laetoli footprints were created when a nearby volcano erupted, covering the ground with a slurry of volcanic ash somewhat the consistency of concrete. Once excavated, the site was found to have over 9,500 impressions, mostly made by rabbits. In order of decreasing abundance, tracks were also found of guinea fowl, hyena, antelope, rhinoceros, giraffe, buffalo, elephant, horse, small carnivores, monkeys, pigs and ostriches. Just one short, 80-foot section was made by hominids.

Their footprints – that of a man, a woman and a small child – tell us much about our ancestry. For in that trackway is a hesitation, as if one of the hominids thought about turning left. Perhaps it was the moment before an earthquake, when the ground was no longer solid beneath their feet. Or perhaps one of them considered turning around, going back.

I stop and look over my shoulder, in the same way my human ancestor did. All of Africa stretches out behind me – overlapped boot prints and footprints leading backward into her hot, crowded maze of life. It was Africa who designed us to walk upright across her landscapes. Because of Africa, I know the ground better than I know trees.

In the distance, across a golden backwater of high grass, stand a family of giraffes. They are motionless, watching us cross between islands of bush. The spotted derricks of their necks swivel in all directions to get a better look at us. At the end of each neck a head is cocked sideways: the universal body language that says, “Huh?” But once we stop to look, they turn away and head for cover, except for one curious female who continues to watch us.

photo by Cheryl Merrill
photo by Cheryl Merrill

Tramping along in Morula’s wake, I’m beginning to get the hang of all this walking and browsing – less sweating, less reliance on my water bottle.   I’m beginning to wish I could do this every day of my life.

 

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel, Writing

The Most Useful Appendage Ever Evolved

Since I have a huge cold and can’t think, I’m re-blogging this post from early in 2012.

An excerpt from my book-in-progress:

Morula plucks a branch from one of her favorite snacks, a bush-willow.  She holds the stem in her teeth, wraps her trunk from right to left around the branch, and sheers off leaves, top-to-bottom with a single swipe.  She drops the branch and transfers the leaves from the curl of her trunk into her mouth.

Morula is right-trunked, as I am right-handed, preferring to grab and wrap from the right.  Thembi is also right-trunked, but Jabu’s a lefty.

One of the ways to determine an elephant’s dominant tendencies is to inspect the underside of its trunk for green stains on either the right side or the left.  But before you do this, make sure you know the elephant and, more importantly, the elephant knows you.

Morula peels and discards branch after branch.  Shredded bushes mark her path.  She pauses next to a candle-pod acacia, easily recognizable by its upright seedpods.  It reminds me of a giant leafy candelabrum, holding a hundred or more candles in ruffled tiers.  Sharp curved thorns protect each pod.  Morula strips the acacia of a branch, then puts it in her mouth and eats it, thorns, pods and all.

She sidles close to Doug and curls her trunk against her forehead.

“Those round bumps on her forehead might be an old skin infection,” Doug tells me, “but we really don’t know.”

Morula waves hello

A light breeze feathers the hair in her ears as she stands slightly sideways and nods the tipof her trunk in a tiny Hello. . .   Ribbed muscles cross the underside of her trunk.  Bristles stick out like the legs of a giant centipede.

There is no other living creature on this planet that has a trunk.  If elephants were already extinct, which brave paleontologist would go out on a limb and reconstruct the trunk just from evidence of bony nostrils high on the skull?  Who could imagine a nose dangling close to the ground where scents abound?  A nose with the ability to pick up a single straw, rip a tree out by its roots, bench-press 600 pounds and untie your shoelaces without you ever noticing?

“Stand here,” Doug commands me.

I obey, my back to an elephant lineup.

With a little guidance from Doug, Thembi gently places the tip of her trunk on top of my head.  It feels like a big beanbag up there, but one that’s warm, wiggly, drooling and breathing.

As Thembi rubs nose slime into my hair, Doug places Jabu’s trunk tip on my right shoulder and then Morula’s on my left.

Jabu has trouble keeping his trunk balanced on such a narrow ledge.  He constantly fidgets and pokes my cheek with his bristles.  Morula’s trunk drapes over my shoulder like a slack hose with a dripping nozzle.  Her runny nose continuously drains to clear out inhaled dust – the common condition of all elephant trunks.

When I look down and to the left, I have a close-up view of the two “fingers” on her trunk.  Her top finger is more pointed than the one on the bottom.  The shape of it reminds me of a hooded cobra.  But perhaps that’s because I think of Morula’s trunk as thinner and “snakier” than Jabu’s spectacular snout.

Which is getting heavier by the moment.  With the peripheral vision in my right eye, I see two nostrils dotted with grains of moist sand, nostrils more flesh-colored than gray.  Each opening is nearly as wide as the “O” of my mouth.

All three trunk tips, I can attest, are not just sheer weights.  They sniff, snorf, squirm, wiggle, inhale and exhale.  They create an atmosphere of elephant breath around my head.

Doug lowers my camera and pronounces, “Allll-right.”

The weights disappear.  For a few steps I am oddly light, as if walking on the surface of the moon.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel, Zoos

A Pedestrian Afternoon

Plump, babbling, feather-brained guinea fowl run ahead of us in silly mobs.  Perched atop impossibly skinny blue necks, their noggins look professionally shrunk by headhunters.  The morning air is hot, dusty, and soft as windblown sheets.

A faint sizzle above my head makes me look up.  A pointed dart in the shape of a cross moves steadily across the pale blue sky, spawns a cloud of ice behind itself for a hundred miles or more.   Its contrail broadens from a sharp point into a wide cottony smudge.  One of the astronauts reported from space that contrails could be seen over all parts of the world, often radiating from major airports like the spokes on a wheel.

Morula and I mosey along at the rear of the herd, one foot in front of the other, each footstep connected to the next one.

I place my boot inside Morula’s huge footprint.  The brand name of my boots is imprinted within the outline of my soles; a clever advertisement made with each step.  My boots make deeper impressions than Morula’s feet because each one of my steps applies more pressure per square inch.  All my weight transfers to my feet, my two small points of contact with the earth.  Morula’s weight spreads over four large footpads the size of a medium pizza pan.

One week ago, looking down from a jet that took me across Tanzania, I was surprised to see crater after crater, giant ancient footprints, leading to Kilma-ngaro, the Maasai words for “hill of water.”  At 19,340 feet, Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa and one of its oldest volcanic cones, providing water to the rivers of the Masa Mara.

Some of the cratered footprints leading to Kilimanjaro were shaped like the sharp tracks of zebras.  Others were so worn down they were completely covered with vegetation, visible only from the air.  The sequence of volcanic craters looked as if Kilimanjaro itself had marched up the eastern fault line of the Great Rift Valley, which is sort of what volcanoes do, given millions of years to do it.

From the air, I could see webs of roads and trails near the ancient craters – some leading up to their rims, some circling around them.  Many of these paths are generations old, harmonious with the landscape, paths that flow around obstacles and toward places of safety and browse.  Compacted by many feet, they are safe passages across treacherous quagmires that could swallow you and me.  Some of them make so much sense to the feet that they can be followed in the dark.  In Kenya, the old highway from Nairobi to Nakuru was once an ancient elephant route, zigzagging down to the Rift Valley floor.

Earlier in the afternoon, the elephants stopped to browse.  I took a photograph of Morula resting against an eroded termite mound and noticed the bottoms of her feet were as cracked as dried mud puddles.  They mirrored the ground upon which she walks.Morula's cracked footpads

Morula has four toes 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.

Incarcerated elephants also have problems with the pads on their feet.  Without wide-ranging activity the pads thicken and grow hard and must frequently be pared down.  Otherwise their feet begin to resemble shoes with worn heels.  The displacement of their gait will cause joint problems later on.

Steve Ringman, The Seattle Times
Steve Ringman, The Seattle Times

Tramping along in Morula’s wake, I’m beginning to get the hang of all this walking and browsing – less sweating, less reliance on my water bottle.   I’m beginning to wish I could do this every day of my life.

There’s a lot of languid movement packed into the word: “browse.”  Days and weeks and years of walking.  Walking and stopping.  Walking and stopping.  Walking in one elephant’s lifetime the equivalent of 5 times around the circumference of the earth.

Morula’s round print, side-by-side with my boot print, tell a story of companionship, of human and elephant as equals.   Our direction is not purposeful or hurried or even random.  We take this path day after day, a normal occurrence.  It’s a way of life.

Imagine that.  A way of life.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel

Toenail Sun

Morula Sucking Trunk

An Excerpt from my Book:

Morula drowses, lying on her side, falling asleep in the sun.  She catches the tip of her trunk in her mouth, as Doug rubs the bottom of her front foot.  Her eyes droop and her mouth slackens with pleasure.

As Doug continues to rub, the tip of her trunk slips from her mouth.  Her eyes nearly close.  She drools a bit.

I kneel down next to her.

Morula’s legs are folded together, bent at the ankle and knee, the same way I fold my wrists and elbows together in sleep.  She’s strangely voluptuous, even Rubenesque, with her rounded belly and nipple peaking out from underneath her right leg.  Her ear drapes like a leather cloak over her shoulder.  From this angle it’s easy to see how her right tusk pierces her upper lip.

People often mistake an elephant’s ankle joint for a knee, since it seems far away from the foot, but the locations of her ankle, knee and shoulder are clear from the way her legs are bent.

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.

Morula’s toenails grow at a rate that might be expected from an animal that walks twenty or thirty miles a day.  They are also highly polished from walking through sand.  In captivity, an elephant’s nails must be constantly trimmed, often on a daily basis; otherwise they become infected and ingrown.  And without the opportunity to walk long distances, the pads on the feet of incarcerated elephants thicken and grow hard, and must be frequently pared down.  If they’re not, the displacement of their gait will cause joint problems later on.

I take a photograph of the sun mirrored on Morula’s highly polished nail.

 

Morula's toenail b&w

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Morula, Nonfiction, Photography, Pleistocene

Footprints

Footprints

Our feet anchor us to the ground.  Just as my Pleistocene ancestors could read the tracks of mastodons, so I now gaze down at an elephant’s prints in the dust.  Her back feet are oval and her front feet round.  City slicker that I am, even I can tell the direction she is going.

 The sand beneath our feet  is the color of a lion’s coat, studded with brittle leaf litter.  Morula walks through it without making a sound.  Shock-absorbing pads on the soles of her feet cushion each footstep, smother crushed leaves.

I step on a dry leaf and it crackles into powder.

The brand name of my boots imprints within the outline of my soles; a clever advertisement made with each step.  All of my weight concentrates in two small points of contact with the earth, so I make deeper impressions than Morula’s footprints.  Each one of my steps applies more pressure per square inch; Morula’s weight spreads over four large footpads the size of a medium pizza pan.

She can step on a snake and not kill it.

Morula lifts her foot and grains of sand roll down slope into the crater of her footprint.

Following two paths, the one beneath her feet and the one in her mind, Morula strolls on.  Dust rises, a half shadow that marks her passage, before it collapses again to the ground.

There is a before and an after to each moment of our lives, paths we follow and paths we do not.