ANIMALS

Speaking with Elephants - Short Version
Speaking with Elephants - Long Version
Speaking with Elephants - Addendum
Intimate Nature
Mandlovu


       From the moment we enter the park, we are in the presence of elephants.  There is a bull in the brush along the road and two females and a baby splashing on the other side of the river bank and further out, more elephants, and further out what seem at first to be small hillocks or large hay bales turn out to be isolated elephants grazing on the flat plain.  Just before we descend toward the river, we see a small breeding herd, six or seven elephants in a line.  I do homage silently.  I am relieved to see them and grateful.  Their size and number testify to the endurance of life.  So quickly I find my desire met.  The elephants are here.  I have been in their presence.  I am satisfied.
     As we approach the river and the vast muddy fields we see the dignified secretary bird, several water buffalo, herds of impala with their comrades the baboons, hippos walking along the bottom of the river and rising up in pink, wide-mouthed ecstatic roars.  It is early summer and most of the animals are with young; there is something joyous and benevolent in the air.
     Some people maintain that an animal's life is only fear, that all of our psychology develops from the terror of being eaten and there is nothing to life but fight or flight.  Here the young amble in what can only be called delight, their elders alert but equally jubilant.  Being alert has its own aesthetic - the beauty of focus, awareness, concentration.  This is and is not an eat and be eaten world; alongside the necessities and the dangers is the exuberant animation of the life force.  Augustine sees this immediately and cries out happily as we encounter one family after another: the wart hog family, the mongoose family - oh how tiny and sweet are these little ones - the eland, water bok, monkey, zebra and rhinoceri, some within their own little unit or organized in a social group but all lovingly mindful of the little ones.  How visibly tender their feelings are for each other, and tenderness, we perceive, is a significant intelligence.
     I am not a utopian or a romantic but I do recognize that it was once different.  Human population growth, the development of agriculture, corporate interests and urban needs have sacked the earth and devastated it.  Now, if only through artificial maintenance of the way it was, the open and visible co-existence of different species, we are in the presence of original beauty.  And this is, thankfully, not Disneyland, not Lion Country Safari, not virtual reality.  Something of the way it was remains and is being lived and we are able to witness it.
     As we prepare to leave in the light of an astonishing brilliant orange and coral African sunset, we come upon two fisher eagles in a tree and pause for Augustine to pay them homage.  They are his sacred bird.  He calls them the peacemakers.  We have shared such moments with each other before when the sacred eagle, Chapungu, has come during a ceremony, and the barrier between this world and the spirit world has thinned enough to be virtually transparent.  And as I have had such moments in my own life, even in North America, and certainly lived it out for twelve years with the wolf companion I called Timber Wolf, I feel confirmed in the virtue of this journey we have made to the preserve and so, recognizing, that we were called and that we followed, or that we prayed and we were being answered, I let myself fold into the beauty of the evening and the camaraderie of the presences around me and the company of my companions.
     We arise in the dark the next day to go out on an official early morning game ride.  My desire is to see the extent of the park and become a bit familiar with its layout and roads so that we can determine how to spend the afternoon when we will go out once again in our own car.  Though we have been led to believe that dawn and early morning are the best times for viewing animals, we see relatively few animals.  But Augustine, who is Lion totem [Shumba] does see a family of lions, at least the ears of some lions sequestered in the tall grasses.  It is summer in Africa and the rainy season and everything is overgrown.  The terrible drought of last year has been alleviated though now, in some places, there is the danger of flooding.  What we notice more than anything on this ride is the camaraderie of the animals.
     And now it is the afternoon and we are going out ourselves into the park.  I feel the necessity to prepare for something, although I do not know what it is.  What I do know is what I don't know: what my dreams have meant; why the elephants have become so important to me; what it can possibly mean to sit in Council with the elephants or with other animals; why I imagine that I who have lived a fairly urban life and who have never fully lived among the animals, might come into such a relationship with them.
     As my companions pile into the 4 x 4, I rush back to my room to sit by myself in silence.  The now familiar petition rises up into my heart and I say it aloud.  There is a great longing in me for the restoration of the natural world.  There is a great longing for a reconciliation between the human and the natural world and the spirit world.  Again, I am not thinking about the return to Eden, or untroubled lives, but something else.  Lives that are sustainable and respectful of each other.  I have been equally impatient with those who have blithely assured me that nature will survive even if humans won't as nature will always recreate itself, as I am with those who as blithely assure me that humans will find a technological solution to the problems we have created and that we are truly making progress.  I am yearning for lives that have a future to them, a sense before I die that the earth will continue.  I have a passion for a world truly based upon a council of all beings.
     And so I speak of this aloud and silently, and offer myself up again.  If it is possible for us to meet in council, I am here, I whisper and then jump into the open back of the 4x4.  My husband, Michael, is with me; Amanda and Michele are in the cab with Augustine, who is driving.  I have begun and continue praying.
     We have been respectful of each other's spiritual needs.  We have been beside Augustine in what will be a two-week initiation.  This afternoon has been set aside for me to follow my own inclinations and these companions have offered to accompany and sustain me.
     We stop at a small market where I must pass a wart hog guarding the entrance in order to buy oranges having read that elephants love oranges so much they will break open any car for them.  I don't find oranges but I do find a ruby red grapefruit, and this will be my offering.
     At the gatehouse, Michael and Amanda explain that we are to enter for a reduced fee as we paid an entry fee in the morning.  We have the papers but the gatekeeper is adamant that we must pay the full fee.  Amanda returns to the car for more pulas, cheerfully assuring the man that we will pay anything to get in.  But, by the time she returns, he has decided, for no reason Michael can discern, that we are to enter free.  You are good people, he says.  We enter the park.
     There in the distance are the two females and the baby elephant who were across the river yesterday.  This time they are entering the water and are immediately approached by two tourist boats.  I climb out of the back of the truck and kneel on the ground, making my offering to the elephants.  First, I must apologize to them for my species.  "We have made a deal," I say, "that you can live in this land if we have the right to observe you in all your intimate activities.  And I admit that I have come for the same reason.  To see you.  To be near you.  To observe you.  I, too, would like to be close to you. And I don't honor it, I wish there were ways for it to be otherwise, I wish we were coming to each other with pure volition.  I wish you had the land you need and were permitted to live on it in the old ways when humans did not own land.  So I come to you with these hopes in my heart and in this spirit make an offering to you, honoring who you are."
     Getting back into the truck, I am aware that the bull elephant we saw yesterday is there again in the same place.  We watch him as we did yesterday only we seem more closely aligned as I am not enclosed in the cab.  As he moves slowly along the hill we follow until he ambles down toward us, preceded by two other bulls.  All three pause on the road and look at us for a long time.  We can see them clearly.  Yes, they are aware of our presence.  But are they interested in us in any way?  I doubt it.
     They go down toward the river and we go on.  I ask Augustine to drive toward the river and tell him that I have no need for anything more to occur.  There is so much beauty here, to ask for more would be unconscionable.
     When we come to the river, we see a water buffalo fully immersed in the mud so that only his head is visible.  I have seen water buffalo before but never one who is so imposing.  He is so patient, I say. And someone corrects me.  Patience is such a human quality.  He has presence.  Yes.
     Driving most slowly, greeting the birds and the impala, we follow a turn in the road that opens to vista with a large bull elephant around three-fourths of a mile away, eating grasses alongside the river.  There are two land rovers next to him and I ask Augustine to drive toward him, but not too close, as I would like to avoid the humans.  There is something compelling about him.  Perhaps it is only that he is so close to the road and there is no brush obscuring him.  It is as if, even at this distance, there is nothing between us.
     Augustine begins driving toward him, but just then a fisher eagle flies over the car and lands on a branch of a neighboring tree.  Of course Augustine parks beside the tree and though the eagle flies away immediately, we stay here.
     Yes we stay here, and I begin chanting aloud, an ancient kabbalistic chant which has been my prayer and meditation for two years; now it bursts out of me.  I know the elephant can hear it.
     Slowly the elephant lifts his head from the grasses and begins walking along the river.  He does not stop to graze nor does he look around but walks with clear determination and intention.  I want to say the words again because they carry what must be communicated here:  focused, deliberate, determined, conscious, aware intention.
     And he stops directly in front of the truck.  The two other cars have followed him but when he raises his trunk they turn around and leave.  Fear?  Perhaps.  Whatever their motivation, I am grateful for it.
     The elephant has raised his trunk and is curving it over itself and under itself and up and over again.  That is, he ties his trunk into an impossible knot.  I have never even seen photographs of such a movement, of such a mudra.  I am on my knees and I don't know what Michael is doing because I am completely taken by the elephant.  Actually, Michael tells me later that he was sitting cross-legged and slightly behind me for the entire time.  My hands are open on the edge of the truck so that the elephant knows that I am empty-handed and that I have no weapons.
     Then the elephant bows his head. There is no other way of describing it.  He bows his head and unfurls his trunk.
In my mind, I am speaking to him.  And this is approximately what I say:
     I know who you are and what kind of beings your people are.  I have some sense of the extent and depth of your intelligence and development.  And I know that you are a holocausted people.  I know something of what this means because I also come from a holocausted people and I have studied other holocausts on the planet in this century.  I apologize to you for my species and that we are doing  this to you.  I cannot tell you the extent of my shame and grief.  If there is any way for you to imprint me with your wisdom so that we can form an alliance, so that we can, together, accomplish something on behalf of the earth, I am here and I am not afraid.
     Then, I silence my mind.  I have said enough.  Humans have said enough.  I want to be empty and to listen.  The elephant moves toward me with the same grace and determination as he moved down the river.  It does not take a long time for him to cross the road.  He is less than a trunk's distance from me.  Four feet perhaps.  He can, if he wishes, wrap his trunk about me without moving closer.  Later Augustine will tell me that his hand moved twice to start the car but each time he stopped.  He decided even if it came to it to allow me my chosen death.
     The elephant stops at this distance and looks me in the eye.  We stay this way a long time.  Ten minutes perhaps.  At least ten minutes.  He is a great bull.  He is one of the old ones.
     Then he turns and moves to the back of the truck and faces it.  I turn to him and put my hands out again.  We look at each other eye to eye.  There is a meditation practice called trespasso where people look into each other's eyes.  The task is to be as naked as possible, to allow oneself to be seen as well as to try to see the other.  We are doing trespasso.
     Another ten minutes or so pass.  Just before the elephant turns again, I realize that I am in my dream.  This is the moment in the dream when the old matriarch looked into my eye and I was altered forever.  And this is the moment in a later dream when a bull elephant wrapped his trunk about me and I was not afraid.  I recognize that I am not afraid.
     I hear words in my mind and I let them be spoken silently.  "I promise you" is what I hear myself say.
     And he turns and goes behind the truck as if to disappear up the hill into the brush, but turns again and faces the truck and so I turn also and on my knees again acknowledge him.  I place my hands together before my heart, the way one does to bow and honor a holy person.  It occurs to me that I am in the presence of God.

     Another ten minutes pass.  You cannot imagine the silence that has descended.  The elephant departs, climbing slowly up the hill, and disappears into the trees.  We all leap out of the car and throw ourselves on the ground in full prostration.  Augustine makes an offering of snuff and prays.
     When I have words, I ask what must be asked.  Did you see this?  Did this happen?  So on and so forth.  Recounting the moments, verifying them, remaining astonished.
     Then we quiet down.  We do not explain or understand anything except that Amanda says: "You are an ambassador and they sent their ambassador and you have made a covenant with each other."
     It is getting late and we must be out of the park by 7:30.  We make our way slowly, stopping to watch the sunset and the different creatures. The secretive hippos and their little ones are coming out of the water, small birds are landing on their heads and backs to eat the parasites.  We watch them but time tugs at us, and reluctantly we head back to the entrance.
     But now we cannot believe our eyes.  Elephants are coming down the hill and crossing the road to the river.  At first only a few females and their babies, but now more of them are coming.  Waves of elephants.  Waves upon waves.  Augustine stops the car and we jump out and kneel again.  I can hear Amanda sobbing behind me.  Even now as I write these words, I am crying.   The elephants continue to come.  We watch for about ten minutes.  There are dozens of them lined up alongside the river and still more are coming.  Bulls and cows, old ones and young ones, babies and adolescents.  It is like -- I do not know --I think -- it is like the world ended and then it was saved and the animals are coming forth into the new dawn.  That is what it is like.  There are no other words for it.
     Now we have no choice but to get back into the car again.  Someone suggests that we find another road back so that we won't have to cross between the elephants descending the hill and those on the river; we do not want to come between a mother and her calf. But I know that we must go along the road.  They know we are here.  We must show up for whatever it is they are calling us to do.  And so Augustine drives very slowly and very carefully along the river.  The elephants are lined up for at least a quarter of a mile, as if for a parade.  Now it is Amanda and Michele and myself in the back of the truck.  We are passing by them.  They are bowing their heads and flapping their ears at us.  And we are bowing and waving and saying, "Thank you.  And bless you.  And thank you.  And bless you."
     And now we have reached the entrance to the park, and the man who interrogated us so fiercely last night and insisted that we show him all our papers and receipts waves us through with a great flourish.

     I am aware of the date.  It is January sixth.  It is Epiphany, the festival commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi.  Thankfully, we had the wisdom to recognize and so do gasho before the sacred.
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