As Speaking With
Elephants was originally edited with an eye to publishing
it in a national journal, it was necessary to reduce its length
considerably. What follows is a compilation of the sections
that were removed for the sake of brevity.
In the last years, I have been opening to the lives and presences
of animals in ways that my culture forbids, and that western
culture regards as superstitious, naïve , even heretical,
entering into a healing idiom and language that involves the
animals. Timber Wolf, who came into my life as if to enact
this series of miraculous events first taught me that language
during the fourteen years we lived together. As he aged, I
began to call Timber the Buddha wolf because I saw that he
was the bearer of great presence and wisdom and had found
ways to communicate it to human beings who did not speak his
There are many different ways to tell a life and now I can
tell my life story from the perspective of a woman affiliated
with animals. It would not be a lie to say that everything
in my life has led to this moment even though I have never
fully told my story in this way and even though I did not
realize what I was being prepared for. Suffice it to say that
obscured as this theme has been, it is, nevertheless, a great
subterranean river underlying and shaping my life.
The old ways of knowing, which I have taken to call original
wisdom, are essential to us at this time. Unless we find ways
to align ourselves with these ways of knowing and live our
lives within the natural law and the cosmic order we may not
be able to stop our downward cycle toward self and global
A series of dreams and experiences led up to the meeting with
the Ambassador elephant at Chobe not all of which I was able
to include in "Speaking With Elephants."
When we were in Africa, Patricia Langer, a healer from Canada
gave me a silver ring with the head of an elephant that was
crafted by a Native American. We were marveling that she was
able to find an elephant icon in Toronto when Gillian van
Houten, the writer and wild life photographer we were visiting
at Londolozi, told us the story of an elephant, Angus, at
Bowmanville Zoo in the Toronto area . The coincidence alerted
As a young bull, Angus had been captured during a cull at
Kruger National Park and transported to a circus in Quebec
and then to Bowmanville. He has spent his days in the company
of a small group of female elephants and has developed the
reputation of being very amiable and friendly to children.
Indeed, a friend has told me that her children spent many
hours riding on his back and these have been high points in
Gillian and her husband, J.V. [John Varty]ñ a wildlife photographer
and co-owner of Londolozi have the dream of bringing Angus
home before he goes into musth for the first time and has
to be confined. Of course, there are many complications including
the concern of a psychic who has told Gillian that Angus is
very reluctant to return. While in North America, he can manage
his memories, she said, but he is afraid that he will be completely
traumatized by remembering the cull when he returns to Africa
ñ the cull, that as it happens, John Varty filmed. Gillian,
a journalist, forced herself recently to watch a cull and
write about it. She had to see for herself what the elephants
I had a wild idea. I was going to Toronto. I determined to
see Angus. I wanted to speak to him about the pilgrimage I
had made in 1987 to ten Death Camps in Eastern Europe. I wanted
to speak with him about bearing witness, about what we are
increasingly called to do on behalf of our peoples and our
tribes. Though I have not myself been a victim of a holocaust,
and Angus has, I thought we had a common ground of understanding.
When I came to Toronto in the spring of 1998, the appointment
that Patricia had made was not honored by the zoo keeper.
We had called several times to confirm but our calls were
not returned and when we did come to Bowmanville at the agreed
upon time, Angus was elsewhere. When we tried to re schedule,
it became clear that the schedule being established for him
would not accord with ours in any way. Angus would not return
to Bowmanville until I left the country.
In the cold barn like structure we stood in front of the elephants
who were there. Some females and a great bull in musth, chained
to the wall, his legs akimbo, spread outward, as if in great
physical pain. He might be confined in this way for months.
"A bull in musth is uncontrollable," the keeper said.
I thought of prisoners in solitary confinement. I remembered
listening to poet Carolyn Forche speak of visiting a political
prison in El Salvador on behalf of Amnesty International.
There she was allowed to inspect a torture chamber where there
were shelves of people confined in boxes smaller than themselves.
She had been cautioned not to indicate a single response,
not to allow a single twitch or alteration in her facial expression
or her life, also, would be endangered and nothing would come
to light of this visit. Later, in private, she vomited and
when she was safely out of the country she spoke out.
Before these beings I prayed to be informed by elephant intelligence.
"We cannot heal it, cannot change ourselves even on your behalf
without the benefit of your intelligence," I said silently.
I heard nothing inside myself but a deep and cold emptiness,
the rumble of implacable silence.
Patricia and I were traveling north to spend a few days in
the snow at a small lake before I was to lead a workshop regarding
the role of the healer in the 21st century. All
the time we were traveling, I was trying to imagine Angus
[Angamello] of Kruger National Park. South Africa in the snow.
Thirsty, we stopped in a small town, Lynsie, and came upon
a curio shop displaying small elephant figurines from Asia.
There on the wall was a photograph: the eye of an elephant.
The eye from my dream journey, a gift Patricia later bought
for me. "You needed to see her eye again in order to remember
her wisdom," she said.
That night, I meditated upon Angus, clearly, it seemed, feeling
his fear and distress. Understanding. which did not feel like
mine, entered me and I understood that the company of a matriarch
who lived on the land to which he would be returning could
ease him from his fear and reorient him to a new but original
life. In elephant society, it is the matriarch who carries
the wisdom of the tribe including the nature and geography
of the land. Gathering this knowledge, holding it and teaching
it is her role. A young bull elephant detached from the herd
is forever undeveloped without this knowledge and often exhibits
the scars and distortions of trauma. The consequences are
severe. These young ones, are now called rogue elephants for
the ways in which they attack species with whom, traditionally,
they have lived peaceably. We do not have to look further
than to the rise of gangs and crime among displaced, homeless,
rootless exiles and immigrants to understand the shock and
aftermath of disconnection from the land, oneís tribe and
I conjecture that land is to the elephant as language is to
us; it carries meaning, history and culture. It is the ground.
Therefore, if Angus is to return to Africa, it might be easier
for him he should be in the company of one who carries the
map, the living geography, history and culture within her
mind. He may need knowledge we humans cannot imagine and to
have the landscape imprinted upon his heart by a wise one.
"Because everything is where it is," Patricia said,
"It is what it is."
Returning to Toronto, we studied the photographs that Patricia
had taken at Londolozi months before, remembering how we had
been mesmerized by a leopard in a tree after it was dark.
This leopard was the granddaughter of a great matriarch who
had first let herself be filmed by J.V. The daughter had been,
as leopards usually are, most shy and aloof and had never
allowed herself to be seen while the grandmother had, with
what can only be described as will, invited or inveigled J.V.
to tell her story. There is no other way to describe the relationship
that developed between this man and this animal, the shyest
of cats. After allowing his friendship and observation for
twelve years she allowed him, perhaps invited him, to be close
to her and witness her death.
In the photograph, the granddaughter leopard was staring into
the distance at something past anything we could see but I
remembered the moments before she looked away. I had found
her eyes and they had locked into mine for a long time. Five,
ten minutes, I think. ëTransmission,í is what Patricia had
been thinking as she observed us. Driving back to our room
that night after being with the leopard, it had seemed to
me that I could smell the wildlife in the preserve. Particular,
pungent, acrid, sweet, intoxicating mammalian smells pierced
the air like shafts of light striking darker areas of vegetation.
Elephants were here, I noted, not knowing if I was picking
up the sweet smell of dung, their dark bodies hidden close
by in the brush, or whether it was their earlier presence
lingering in the air, on the leaves they had brushed, the
grasses they had trampled. Dark as it was, I closed my eyes,
giving momentary credence to the possibility that I could
sense wart hog, impala, baboon, could smell the water holes
and the dry earth, the different foliage, vines and trees.
Perception or fantasy, it lasted a brief time and then vanished
as soon as we entered the lodge. Human habitation has its
own sensory language but is careful to eliminate or overwhelm
the organic. In this atmosphere, my momentary olfactory intelligence
disappeared. But for that hour, it was as if I were moving
across the land like a predator, alert and informed through
senses, smell, predominantly, then sound, that had never been
primary before. But it was not only the predator, that the
leopard transmitted, I was connected with a vast world, informed
under and beyond language.
"I think they can see beyond us," Gillian had said later.
"They see realities we cannot see."
When we had been eye to eye, I had not lifted my camera to
take a picture but afterwards when she was staring out into
the distance, I did. In my own photographs, the leopardís
eyes are bisected horizontally by a beam of light from the
land rover. Dark above and light below. She stares, oblivious
or inured, resigned to us, to the intrusion of light; she
stares out into the distance, unmoving, removed, unblinking.
It was the leopard at the threshold of the dream/journey when
I first encountered the elephants. I had also forgotten her.
In the interim between Toronto and my return to Africa in
December 1998, I began reading Joyce Pooleís, Coming of
Age with Elephants chronicling her life as a researcher
and continued with two novels about elephants published in
Canada by Toronto authors both based upon the research of
Katy Payne whose remarkable book. Silent Thunder, was
published later that summer of 98. Elephant Winter,
by Kim Echlin, chronicles the story of a woman who, by default,
became an elephant keeper in a zoo that can only be Bowmanville.
More interesting than the human story is Echlinís dictionary
of elephant language based on Katy Payneís and ëJoyce Pooleís
Barbara Gowdyís novel The White Bone took my breath
away. A book written purely from the internal experience of
elephants, this novel renders ëthe otherí in language humans
can understand but as if spoken directly from the elephant
to their human interlocutor. This is elephant speaking not
a human confabulation. Not anthropomorphic imaginings but
the rendering of the unfathomable consciousness and awareness,
profound interconnection, unbearable tenderness, and awesome
grief of elephants, who have developed a culture based upon
empathy and compassion, living out the horror of the lives
imposed upon them at the end of this all too human-centered
century. The coincidence of the books, the wisdom and insights
in them, worked deeply into my own consciousness and the elephants
became figures in my daily life upon whose existence I meditated
in the ways that we occasionally meditate upon the lives and
hearts of those we love, particularly when they are endangered
at a distance and we are helpless to assist them.
In the journey, I came upon pale red, brown, gray sandstone
cliffs rising up steeply from a warm river bed. The first
thought in my mind was: Where are the elephants? Then as if
the earth has spoken: "We are the elephants." Cliff and elephant
were indistinguishable. I was longing to touch it / them,
to stroke the entire height of the 200 foot cliffs. I moved
toward and the elephants came forth out of the earth.
It was the same prayer I had uttered before but it felt original
to the moment. When I awakened from the journey, I did not dwell
on the ecstatic moment of connection and embrace. I was more
aware of the dance between terror and trust, what it took to
submit to the animal, to a force and intelligence beyond my
I was aware of intense intimacy between us. It was everything
I have ever hoped for and feared. There was great danger
involved and it had to be met with trust. It was possible,
as people have always maintained, that all elephants are
wild animals, inferior beings, intrinsically dangerous.
Or that these elephants like others had been driven mad
by humans taking their territory, hunting them, amputating
their tusks and feet. If either of these possibilities were
true, I was not only endangering my own life, I was endangering
the elephants. If I were to be injured, they would surely
be killed. I had so far neglected, despite the example of
my friend and colleague, Beverly Antaeus, to leave a note
in my will protecting the life of any animal that might
happen to kill me.
But if I didnít trust that the elephants have been in communication
with us, that they are the profound beings I think they
are, then all was lost. It was necessary that I trust even
at the risk of my life. An elephant reached out and wrapped
me in his trunk. This was the essential moment. Could I
trust him? Overwhelmed with fear, I yielded to him. Embracing
and embraced by the trunk, that was fully animal and fully
earthen, I was taken into a domain of love where flesh,
clay, and heart dissolved one into the other and I couldnít
distinguish the love which I felt from the soft skin of
the elephant or the mud from which all being has emerged.
Fear, which had been great, disappeared as I implored the
elephant wrapped about me: "Imprint me with your sound as
I was once imprinted by the whales. Pass on your wisdom
so we will know how to walk among you."
It was this journey that prepared me deeply to encounter the
Ambassador. When he approached me so closely, I was not afraid
because I had, in the real, but distinct, realm of the imagination,
confronted the inevitable human terrors and was able to yield
to the sacred event that was occurring between us.
A month later, I had the following dream:
I was on a roof garden atop a skyscraper. Elephants appeared.
They came out in a rush, wanting the children. Reluctant to
indulge fear, I felt it nevertheless. An elephant ran by me
so close and so fast I assumed he didnít see me between him
and the stone walls of the roof garden. Unaware of my presence,
he could have easily crushed me. But he didnít. I noted this
and calmed myself.
It was this dream that alerted me to the dangers of human will
and self-centeredness, to the ways in which we do not take responsibility
for our emotions or actions in regard to the natural world.
It was this dream which echoed in my mind when the group Michael
had brought to Chobe encroached upon elephant territory.
Meanwhile, I heard the silent elephant demand. They wanted
the children. I decided not to be afraid and reminded myself
that I had been waiting for and it was necessary to trust
them. It was essential; this much I knew. I held my granddaughter
Sarah, who is a tiny one, up to them. Others were offering
their children to the bull elephants who were growing breasts
to nurse the human children. One came by me and stood up
on two legs. A voice whispered ëhermit.í I gave Sarah to
this one who took her gently and happily with his trunk
and she snuggled into his chest with great delight. I didnít
need to be told the hermitís name but I was clearly informed
that he was Chiron, king of the centaurs, hierophant, great
teacher of all the mythic heroes, most renowned as the wounded
healer. The elephants disappeared with our children. The
roof garden was empty. I dimly perceived that I have offered
up my granddaughter to the sacred.
Then a blonde, carefully coifed woman entered dressed in
a Broadway showgirl version of Annie Oakley with short skirt
and petticoats, fringed red and white leather vest, cowboy
boots and pistols, a lariat, making nervous figure-eights.
She was panicked about the safety of her child but pretending
that she was trusting. Her anxiety and determination were
apparent, they exuded from her like a strong and noxious
odor. It was certain that the elephants would smell her
fear and also her determination to exercise her will. Now
I could smell will; it had an caustic metallic odor. However
she approached them, she was certain to provoke the elephants.
They would stampede. The children would be killed. The elephants
would all be shot. And the woman would never know that it
was her action which had caused the tragedy.
I took her aside, insisting that she give me the lariat,
the pistols, that she leave the area and allow me to get
the child. I was, myself, apprehensive because of the stink
of her anxiety and anger. Finally, she relinquished the
lariat and departed. It was my task to get all the children
back before the humans panicked., I couldnít accomplish
this unless I had full trust in and of the
elephants. How it occurred, I do not know, but the task
was accomplished and everything was saved.
These were some of the other experiences that prepared me
for meeting the Ambassador. Returning to Londolozi after Chobe
in 1999, Amanda Foulger, a shamanic practitioner and I considered
with Gillian on the meanings of the meeting that had, it was
becoming clear, been orchestrated by the elephants. Gillian
speculated also the meaning of the moment when she, J.V. and
Elmon Mhlongo were surrounded by the bull elephants. She wondered
if the elephants were trying to determine if the three of
them would be serving the elephants by bringing Angus back
to Africa. The bulls may have wanted to know exactly who they
were and what were their deepest intentions. As we discussed
this, I was aware that we were accepting the possibility that
elephants could determine such information about us as human
beings, even by telepathic means. Also that within the network
of all life, Angusí fate and the fate of all elephants are
understood as intimately related. What we as humans have not
yet come to acknowledge is that other species beside human
beings, elephants being only one example, are informed and
shaped by the intelligence of such interconnections.
These events offered the three of us a basis from which we
could speak to each other about the elephants, about Gillianís
work with lions, leopards, cheetahs, about our different experiences
with animals and about crossing the borders between the known
and the unknown. Towards the end of our time together, Amanda
led us on a journey so that we could come to an even deeper
understanding of what was occurring and how we might respond.
Following Amandaís drumming, Gillian and I journeyed and came
upon the very same images.
We found ourselves within a circle of animals. Many of the
same animals were in both of our circles. In the dream/journey
I was eye to eye with a woolly mammoth. I was startled. I
didnít remember even thinking about wooly mammoths before;
they were not figures of my imagination. Gillian was startled
as well, but for other reasons: When she had been in Toronto
filming Angus, she had been overcome with the necessity, despite
great difficulty, to film the bones of the woolly mammoth
in the museum. We did not know how to respond to this coincidence.
"The ancestors are calling us," Amanda said quietly.
Yes. It seemed so. Many bridges were being made. The skeletons
of woolly mammoths can also be found in Los Angeles, preserved
in the La Brea Tar Pits, not ten miles from my house. When I
returned to Los Angeles, I came upon an article in Wild Earth,
Spring 1999 by Paul S. Martin and David A. Burney, "Bring Back
"In the fall 1998 issue of Wild Earth, Michael Soulé
and Reed Noss proposed rewilding as the foundation
of a continental conservation strategy. Central to this proposition
is the recovery of existing top predators such as grizzlies,
cougars, and wolves to large parts of their native ranges.
Here we consider the ultimate in rewilding. While the diversity
of Americaís charismatic megafauna was severely impoverished
in the late Pleistocene we can turn to Africa and India for
surrogates for restoration. We suggest that the project begin
by restarting the evolution of the most influential of the
missing species, the extinct animals most likely to have exerted
the greatest influence on their natural environment. Based
on what is know of living megaherbivores in Africa and Asia,
and based on the fossil record of the New World, there is
one clear choice, animals as potent as fire in their dynamic
influence on ecosystems. If we want the "superkeystone species"
(Shoshani and Tassy 1996), second only to our own capability
for altering habitats and faunas (Buss 1990, Sukumar 1994)
we should start with the restoration of living proboscideans
ñ with African and Asian elephants.
I had in some sense come home.
In April of this year, 1999, I returned to Toronto and this
time I did meet Angus and spent several hours with him in
the meadow next to the Zoo enclosures. [See photographs this
website taken by Patricia Langer.] I will not speculate if
anything occurred for him with our meeting, but I know the
ease I felt with him, the hope I have that he will return
to Africa and the comfort of embracing this one who is, for
me at least, a member of the family.
Here are the last two dreams, as of August, 1999 that I have
had of elephants. Each occurred within days of my return from
I returned from a journey to Africa and was living among elephants
and other wild animals. It was like Londolozi in a suburban
area. I took a walk keeping an eye out, as one does, for the
animals. Of course, I wanted to see the elephants. Down the
street I saw the huge form of elephant head and ears against
the sky. I called my granddaughters Jamie, age 7 and Sarah,
age four and insisted that they hold my hand as the elephant
approached. At first, we were approached by a strange flying
beast more like a dinosaur, but then I saw another dark shape
and knew that in a moment we would be in the company of the
elephant who was walking down the street.
This is the last dream:
I was teaching a major workshop in a theatre. Several hours
were required to communicate the material on dreams. One of
the students became restless. She did not want to hear what
I had to say but wanted a directect experience, one, she clearly
intimated, that would be interesting but not too challenging.
She wanted to be certain she would not have to consider changing
her life in any way. I wondered how I might accommodate her
when it was clear she not ready for the experiential work.
A great deal had to be known and understood in order to see
what was to be seen. Also the experience would be dangerous
to anyone who was not prepared.
It was my intention to return to Africa in September 1999. I
wanted to meet with the Zimbabwean trance medium who had come
out on behalf of the elephants. But shortly before I was ready
to leave, I learned that seeking her out might put her in danger
with those authorities who are dismayed by her outspokenness.
I learned this the same day that "Speaking With Elephants" was
published in Earthlight and mounted on this website. I wondered
whether I should return to Africa. Was I being called or was
I seeking an adventure?
The dream work was about meeting the elephants. In the dream,
it was made plain to me that more than any other animal,
the elephant is fully other. When one moves across
a field and comes, suddenly, upon the elephant, one confronts
the other absolutely. To confront the elephant is
to confront absolute nakedness; it is that shocking.
A few days later, I was with my granddaughters at the Wild
Animal park near San Diego. Jamie and I were standing before
two female Indian elephants. Jamie was wondering what it means
to be elephant totem. We are ndzou [Shona] or mandlovu
[Ndebele] I was telling her. "What does it mean?" she
was asking. "It means we and the elephants are one family,"
"I wonder," she speculated, "if I can organize the children
in my school to send peanuts to the elephant so they only
have this dry hay to eat. I wonder how we can free all the
elephants so they can go back to their land."
At that moment, one of the elephants took a trunk full of
hay and threw it in the air with a snort.
We laughed. It is a common gesture for elephants to cover
their backs with hay against sunburn but it was the only time
she did it during the fifteen minutes we were with her. Jamie
thought the elephant understood and applauded her intention
and so did I.
In that moment, I knew that I had one more task to do -- to
write this piece. And then I would know that my work, at this
point, is done. I am not returning to Africa this fall. I
have heard the call and have responded as deeply as I know
how. If there is another call, I will answer it. In the meantime,
I know that many of you who have been reading these pieces
are dreaming of elephants. Be attentive to what they are calling
you to do. They are our family.