On March 13, one of the elephants I who allowed me into her life died unexpectedly of colic and a heart attack. I’ve written extensively about Thembi and her herd mates. This is one of the pieces.
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.
All the trees, grasses and leaves Thembi eats gather in her 10-gallon stomach, which is pretty much just a holding area. From her stomach, roughage travels into her small intestine and then on into her large intestine. Joining the two intestines is a junction called a cecum, where digestion actually takes place. Her cecum is filled with billions of microbes, just like most mammals, including us. The microbes break down the cellulose of leaves and trees into soluble carbohydrates Thembi can digest, but the process also gives her enough methane gas to power a car 20 miles each day.
I wonder, as I walk behind her, just how one could harness this gassy 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. I imagine driving down highways inhaling the scent of mulched trees.
I wonder, as I walk behind her, why I think of such things.
Percolating along, Thembi lifts her tail and 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.
One advantage of Thembi’s size is food efficiency, miles per pound of trees. An elephant eats four to seven percent of its body weight each day – four hundred to six hundred pounds of vegetation. Mice eat a twenty-five percent of their weight daily and hummingbirds two times their own weight, or two hundred percent. If hummingbirds ate trees, the forests of the world would already be gone. Pound for pound, Thembi needs far less food than rodents or birds. And with her size comes another advantage over smaller creatures – a longer life span.
We humans, with our penchant for measurements, have conjured up a precise formula for figuring out things like longer life spans. The formula is called quarter-power-scaling. A cat is about 100 times more massive than a mouse. To calculate the cat’s age, take the square root of 100, which is ten, and then the square root of 10, which is 3.2. The lifespan of a mouse is around 800 days, or just over two years. Multiply 800 by 3.2. The result is 2,560 days, or seven years, the average lifespan of a cat.
However, if a cat’s metabolic rate was 100 times faster than that of the mouse, all cats everywhere would spontaneously combust into feline fireballs. Oddly enough, heart rate, the engine that drives the cat to chase the mouse, scales to the same formula, but in the opposite direction, to the minus quarter-power. The resting heart rate for a mouse is 500 beats per minute. Divide that by 3.2 and you have the average heart rate for a cat, around 156 beats per minute.
An elephant’s resting heart rate is a placid thirty-five beats per minute and a bit higher, around forty, when excited. While the jittery mouse lives just over two years, an elephant lives around sixty-five years, certainly long enough to power my car for the rest of my life.
I was working on this piece for my writing group when I got the news on March 13th that Thembi (the elephant in the middle of this photograph) had died from colic and a heart attack. I can’t imagine how their guardians, Doug and Sandi Groves, must be feeling. Thembi had been a part of their human/elephant family group since she was two years old. It is hard to lose any family member……
Heart shapes can be found in nature, if you’re lucky enough to see one. The heart shape on Jabu’s trunk was easy to spot when I first met him – a ridged outline high up, just below the level of his eyes, about a foot tall and half a foot wide. One of his wrinkles pierced the heart, straight as an arrow, from left to right.
Now that he’s an older elephant, his trunk has grown broader, and the heart is harder to find. I can still see the outline of it, but it’s not easy to make out.
The shape of the heart on Jabu’s trunk is a Valentine’s likeness, the kind you see carved into trees. An elephant’s heart has two points at its ventricular apex – which makes it look like an apple, instead of the red caricature on cards we give to each other once a year. You’re unlikely to see an elephant’s heart carved onto a tree.
Jabu’s heart hangs between his breastbone and ribs, a little to the left, like mine does. When I stand near Jabu’s side, our hearts are close to each other, one-point and two-point, Lupp-DUPP, Lupp-DUPP, Lupp-DUPP.
Hearts have the same basic pump-like design – a design that has worked through eons -an ancient blueprint, a master timepiece, a blueprint followed by even the tiniest of creatures. A day or two after fertilization, embryos develop a pinpoint that pales, then brightens, pales, then brightens, the beginnings of a tiny pump emptying, filling, emptying, filling.
Of all the body’s organs, the heart is the only one that doesn’t get cancer. Of all the body’s organs, Egyptians mummified only the heart.
The length of Jabu’s heart is twenty-two inches; its width eighteen. His heart weighs around forty-four pounds, almost the same as a medium-sized dog. Still, it’s less than 1% of his body weight, a common proportion among large mammals and humans. My heart weighs only ten ounces, less than 1% of my body weight.
The human heart is approximately five inches long, three-and-a-half inches wide, and shaped like a pulsing cone. It is the only muscle in my body that acts on its own – it doesn’t need any messages from my brain.
The cells in my heart tissue involuntarily twitch, all together, all at once, over and over, a synchronous soft perpetual-motion machine. Rip my heart from my body, chop it into pieces, immerse the pieces in a saline solution, give them a small jolt of electricity, and the remnants of my cardiac muscle will contract . . . contract . . . contract . . . for several minutes, all on their own, all at the same time. A whole undamaged heart will beat for five to ten minutes before it dies from lack of oxygen, from lack of blood.
It’s built to be strong, our hearts.
Mouse, hummingbird, elephant, human, snakes – we all have roughly two-and-a-half billion heartbeats for our lives. Species with faster heartbeats die sooner, rapidly using up their allotment within their short lives. An elephant’s heartbeat is slower than ours. Like us, elephants may suffer from cardiovascular disease and die of heart attacks and strokes.
Cardiac arrest. When the heart shudders and stops, when the light in the eyes flickers, fades and snuffs. When the heart quits beating, when its resonance
Lupp DUPP Lupp DUPP Lupp DUPP
is gone. The gurgle of digestion, all the silky, sturdy, slapping noises, the blood rush, gone – the symphony of the body finished.
For those of us left behind, its silence is almost too much to bear. But somehow we do it. Somehow, the world beckons us back in.
Here is their Facebook page:
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.
an excerpt from my book:
The elephants cross a dry lagoon abandoned by the Okavango River after last year’s flood. Enticed by a nearby tidbit, Thembi stops, sniffs at a bush willow, and daintily picks a single leaf to taste-test it. Morula and Jabu join in, not so daintily, ripping entire branches from the bush. Deft as magicians, they use the tips of their trunks to strip the soft leaves, as if conjuring playing cards from a stacked deck.
Jabu crams a wad of leaves into his mouth. He drags one foot and stirs up a gauzy curtain of powdered insects, ash, crumbled grass and dust. From his belly up, Jabu is all the colors of mud; from his belly down, seen through the dust, he’s a bit hazier, like an old, old photograph.
She has very smooth ears, don’t you think? A well proportioned, if a tad round, elephant. Thembi is an enthusiastic eater.
An early photo of Jabu and Thembi.
Thembi twiddling a stick, about to grab it with the tip of her trunk.
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.
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.
A continuing series of elephant photographs. Watercolor of Thembi, photoshopped. Loved all the original blues and thought it might look great as a watercolor. Chief’s Island, Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana.
A continuing series of elephant photographs. That beautiful evening light. Eye level with Thembi in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.