Speaking with Elephants
by Deena Metzger
expected to enter into an alliance with elephants and it has only been
a few years since I have begun to imagine what an alliance with
an animal might mean. One cannot enter into such a relationship
unless one's entire world of assumptions and beliefs has changed radically.
One does not seek this out. The task is rather to avoid refusing
it when it is offered. Such experiences, which shatter the known
world, are familiar to each of us even though, for the most part, we enter
these ordeals alone carrying the burden of having to make private meaning
I traveled to Zimbabwe in December 1998, as I had the year before, to live within the community there, the daré, and to do mutual initiatory work with a renowned traditional healer, a nganga working in the ways of the Shona and Ndebele people, Augustine Kandemwa. My husband, Michael Ortiz Hill had first gone to Africa in 1996 where he had met and begun working alongside Augustine. Michael and I were traveling with Amanda Foulger, a shamanic practitioner and a Jungian therapist, Michele PapenDaniel.
Initiation, the core activity of spiritual healing work, is dishonored and trivialized in contemporary western culture. Rituals have become a social event, rarely pursued with the deep rigor and purpose required to prepare someone to meet sacred obligations. In more traditional societies, one purpose of initiation is to prepare individuals to live in direct contact with the spirits. Though some rites are communal, coming of age ceremonies, for example, like the Apache Sunrise ceremony recognizing the healing power of girls entering menarche, there are also moments when a particular person is spontaneously called by spirit to initiation. In such a situation, the consequences of refusing are dire. Other times one does not hear a call so much as one simply knows that it is time to step toward a spiritual life. Once initiated, one finds that the barriers and obstacles between self and spirit are removed and one may receive powers or abilities, which are to be used on behalf of the community. Accordingly, one must shape one's life appropriately and devote oneself to suitable practices in order to walk with compassion in the world and to carry the responsibilities of healing and vision.
Daré, in Shona means Council. In this tradition, when people gather to seek each other's counsel, they seek the counsel of the spirits as well. Native Americans and Buddhists are but two of many peoples who have traditions of gathering the elders or wise ones to meditate on issues of great concerns. For several years I had been thinking about Council as a means for all of us to examine and wrestle with the global issues that are so pressing now, urging individuals to meet with ëthe otherí, as diversity and deep respect for different ways of knowing are the very essence of the council process. Just before I left for Africa, I sent out the third in a series of Council of Elders letters advocating the formation of communities of diverse, intelligent and aware people willing to listen to and yield to each other's wisdom in order to live and act in ways that are in the interest of the planet. In that letter, I had also written:
We must find ways to sit in council with the animals and the natural world, with those other intelligences who are so deeply threatened by imprisonment, slavery, consumption and extinction."What do you want from this trip to Africa?" my husband asked me as we landed in Bulawyao.
"I want to sit in council with Augustine and his people and I want to sit Council with the elephants."
Is there anything else that I want? I asked myself. There was nothing else I wanted.
"How does one sit in council with elephants?" my husband asked.
"I don't know," I answered. "I do not even know how to imagine it."
* * *
In the course of co-editing an anthology, Intimate Nature: Women's
Bond with Animalsi I had become acquainted with several
women from various game preserves in Africa and the United States who
began to educate me regarding issues of conservation and extinction, protection
of species, breeding programs, habitat management etc. Their work
and lives informed me deeply and my interest in and concern for the animal
world expanded beyond the Americas and the oceans.
Several nights ago I dreamed an elephant, the sensuousness of her stride, her lustiness and passion, the glory of her sense of her own beauty, the weight of her age, her subtle and intricate relationships with her daughters, sons, grandchildren, members of her tribe, her fears for the savanna, and her humiliation and rage for her kin who had been hunted and killed during her lifetime or, as officials call it, ëculled,í and for those of her beloveds who have been kidnapped, enslaved, and bred in public captivity. When I awakened inside my relatively puny body, remembering the knowledge I had briefly held, I felt bereft but strangely comforted by the final image of the dream. As I separated from her, I was confronted by a great unblinking elephant eye, which transmitted everything I had experienced in a wink. And now I return to that memory. See the eye. It flickers. I receive. Now, itís gone....iiThe dream was most unusual and unexpected. It was the first of several about elephants and afterwards one event and then another began weaving elephants into my awareness.
In December 1997, I had first traveled to Zimbabwe and South Africa and
had visited my friend, Gillian van Houten, the writer and photographer
based at Londolozi, a large private game preserve bordering on Kruger
National Park. In Intimate Nature, we had published an essay
she had written about hand-raising an abandoned lion cub, Shingalana.iii
When Shingi was almost two years old, Gillian, her husband, J.V. and a
tracker, Elmon Mhlongo set up camp in Zambia for many months in an attempt
to assist Shingi in returning to the wild. That Shingi was killed
in a battle with the lionesses of the territory is a great grief in Gillian's
life. I was anxious to meet this courageous woman who had crossed
the barrier between human and animal with such sensitivity and intelligence.
I have the fortune of living in a semi-rural area, Topanga California, among deer, bobcat, cougar, coyote, squirrel, rabbit, quail and others. These are shy beings in a predator's domain and stay mostly hidden. Any sighting is always considered a blessing. Driving through a preserve is something like this and also another experience all together. Here the animals are visible and there seem to be large numbers of them. Londolozi, Matopos, Kruger, Chobe, Hwange are extraordinary sanctuaries despite the roads, vehicles and tourists, but, also, the animals are herded, even when they are not herd animals, into a circumscribed territory in which the ratio between species and availability of land is carefully and sometime cruelly maintained; the natural cycles of predator and prey, of consumption and reseeding take too long and there is not enough land remaining for them to play themselves out. The two hundred year elephant cycle that historically maintained the savanna for the grazing animals like antelope and provided enough arboreal vegetation for the elephant's needs has been replaced by artificially imposed cycles and severe limitation on the distribution and numbers of animals in the preserves. To allow the natural cycle would mean that the small preserves would be quickly destroyed. As very few animals survive outside the preserves this means that all species are severely limited except, of course, the humans. The possibility of pan-African wildlife corridors crossing national borders addresses some but not all of this dilemma which will be grave as long as we, humans, cannot modify what we think we need in order to survive or to thrive.
On the last day I was at Londolozi, a breeding herd was sighted and we made our way toward it, but each time we came to where it had been, it was elsewhere. At the end of the last day, we came to the place where just minutes before the herd had crossed the river and disappeared. The extent of my grief astonished me. My sobs startled me. I was bereft.
As a consequence of visiting Gillian, I became concerned with the fate
of an elephant in a small zoo outside of Toronto and began to educate
myself in earnest concerning elephants, learning of their enormous intelligence,
their ability to communicate across vast distances, the complexity of
their kinship networks and mourning rituals as well as the devastation
caused to them by hunting, poaching, culling and loss of habitat.
Our initiatory work began in a Bushmen cave in Matopos, where the paintings on the wall could easily be 7,000 years old, the age of paintings in a nearby cave, Pomongwe. There is evidence that Bushmen culture has been in Southern Africa for 20,000 to 40,000 years. We had come here to be in the presence of the ancestors. Immediately I felt brokenheartedness as I contemplated yet another tragedy of what we call civilization: The Bushmen and the elephants, long and earnest partners on the planet, are being set against each other as the territory each needs to survive is subsumed by the commercial interests of agriculture, mining and tourism.
Two weeks later Gillian van Houten would tell Amanda and me how the Bushmen
used to hunt; she knows of only one hunter who still carries the tradition.
When this old man dies, the tradition will be dead for it is unlikely
that his apprentice, student, and redactor will have the spiritual foundation
to carry it forward. To carry cultural understanding requires more
than personal development, devotion, know-how or training; it also requires
that the ancestors are behind one. In this case it may require
being rooted in an unbroken human tradition that is many thousands of
In the bowl of the sandstone cave, considered the holy of holies by Augustine, a Shona man who profoundly mourns the way his tribe has in the past persecuted the Bushmen, we felt the sacred history and paid respect to the ancient images, the impala, kudu, hunters and shamans who adorned the walls and roof. I didn't know Gillian's story then but I did know that I was in the presence of ancient wisdom and that evolution is not an accurate view of history. I felt the wisdom of the old ones and how far we have wandered from it. Africa does this, of course. Despite the lasting effects of having had to live under a brash and disrespectful colonial culture, which is most adolescent in its narcissism and self-importance, many of the native people have managed to keep faith with the ancestors.
Being at Matopos was like beginning at the beginning. We all felt re-connected to the ancient ones and sustained by their presence, we left for Victoria Falls and Botswana. A half-hour drive from the border is Chobe National Park, known for its large elephant population. It took us far more than a half-hour to gain entrance to the park. We were not surprised as we knew that one way or another we were entering a sacred arena and it was inevitable that we would encounter difficulty in the beginning.
The Chobe River is slow, narrow, deep blue in most places, brown in others and opens up on to mud flats and patches of rich green grasses that spread themselves out in mottled patterns. I found myself silently repeating the opening lines of T. S. Eliot's "The Dry Salvages":
Wondering what Eliot knew and why I thought I could have understood these words when I was twenty and endeavoring to study poetry. I could not be aware in any consequential way at that age that the wisdom the elders were passing on could not be understood intellectually but would take a lifetime to comprehend - and that is the nature of things. And so after a fine and rigorous academic education, I have for many years been involved in the necessary process of disentangling myself from hypotheses and suppositions, deconstructing assumptions and theories of all sorts, attempting to reach back to what always has been considered and still seems to be, wisdom. Many travels and experiences have brought me here and certainly the meetings with Augustine have both confirmed and humbled me in the ways that are essential to the soul.
* * *
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
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.
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.
* * *
When we arrived at Londolozi some days later, Amanda and I waited for
the right time to speak to Gillian about the elephants. She was
not surprised by the story and told us one of her own. She, J.V.
and Elmon Mhlongo were filming at Shingalana dam where she and the lion
cub Shingi used to walk when Shingi was alive. The three of them
were in a land rover and behind them was another car with a film crew.
As they prepared to leave, they saw a bull elephant coming onto the field
and they decided to stay and film him as he approached the car.
Soon he was joined by another bull and then another. In time they
were surrounded by twenty-six bulls. In all of J. V.'s and Elmon's
history, they had never seen twenty-six bulls together. At some
point, J. V. tried to start the car, but the car didn't start.
He tried another time, unsuccessfully, and they were forced to sit silently,
not without considerable anxiety, in the bulls' presence. Then
as mysteriously as they arrived, the bulls left. "Something important
has happened," J. V. mused, but he wouldn't venture what it might
Here are more of the details that came to me in that first experience or dream of elephants.
I was in a circle of elephants in the Serengeti perhaps. There were females, grandmothers, little ones and before them on the ground there was a dead bull, his tusks amputated. They were mourning and I felt the hum of their grief enter into me and then I was mourning with them. It was as if I was one of them.True, it is not the elephant who forgets. I forgot. The dream faded and I began to doubt. The elephant had come in a stunning vision and I had allowed myself to be dazzled and then I turned away. Other dreams came, other events occurred and then I was in Africa because I had stopped forgetting.
What happens when we communicate across species lines? There are many theories and assertions - that we think to each other in pictures, that we can read each other's minds in language. I am skeptical of all of these because I don't think we know anything yet. Nevertheless I have, it seems, experienced something that sometimes feels like a transmission of mind or the opening of a channel of communication.
When I returned to Topanga after being with the bull elephant, I awakened with the following dream image:
The head of an animal. Like the water buffalo at Chobe. It is a head clearly separated from the body but it isn't beheaded. It is somewhat like a water buffalo and somewhat like a rhino. Massive, impressive. It reminds me of Augustine; it carries power.The dream asked to be addressed:
Something remarkable happened in Chobe and Londolozi. Isnít it true that the animals came forth to meet us? That we prayed for this and prepared ourselves and they trusted us enough to let us see their faces free of the disguises we insist upon, the fur and the teeth through which we assure ourselves that we are superior or through which we diminish who they are.Now this creature comes to me in a dream. A head. A spirit allying itself with me or a spirit with whom I am making an alliance. The world is new. It is not the world I was born into but it is a world I have been looking toward from the time I was a child. The unexpected and inexplicable affiliation with the natural world.
Then these words appeared on the page, the echo of unspoken words from the dream world:
"Humans will heal nothing in themselves or between themselves, they will not heal the world in any form if they do not fully re-integrate themselves into the natural world. Humans will heal nothing if they persist in seeing themselves outside the natural order, whether for reasons of their putative development or frailty. Arrogance and fear are a dreadful admixture, and humans are possessed by it. Only by entering into the network of interconnection and alliance, into the natural order, yielding to the implicit law, is healing even remotely possible."When I told the story of the elephants to my friend, the poet Peter Levitt, I said, "I can only come to two conclusions: God exists and the elephants are exactly who I have come to see they are: conscious, spiritual beings that we are destroying."
"I would not say it that way," Peter responded.
I began to try to put words to this insight: There is a wave between us manifesting as elephant on one side and I on another, connected by longing, prayer, hope, insight, vision. We are distinct, but one and the same, partaking equally of God's universe. In this universe, there is no dualism; we are each a manifestation of a single source, one consciousness walking toward each other in one shape and in another.
Now the elephants do not leave me. They are before me all the time. It is as if the old bull is continuing to look into my eyes. The world in which I live is radically changed. This is another world altogether in which such events can occur, a world we are obliged to learn to understand.
In the past six months, I have been engaged in studying the Holy Letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In six months, I have not yet studied all the letters. In truth it takes years to fathom the meaning of any one of them. Meditating one day after returning, I dared to ask: What does all of this mean?
The card that fell out of the deck was the letter , Lamed. It is a card I have studied before and so I knew before I turned to any texts that which looks so much like an elephant's trunk is, in fact, associated with the elephant.
Of the path associated with this letter, Madonna Compton says:
The 22nd Path is called the Faithful Intelligence ... because we have a responsibility - if we want to have a relationship with it - to increase our own faith.ivI then turned to another source, which has guided me for these months in my study of the letters:
The form of the represents the aspiration of the truly devoted pupil to learn from the mouth of the teacher. The literal meaning of the letter is "to learn or to teach." A seed of wisdom descends to impregnate the full consciousness of the heart. The heart ascends to receive this point of wisdom.As I sat down to write these pages, I asked the letters again: How do I proceed? This time I received the letter , Kuf, a letter I had not studied before. I came upon the following:
In Sefer Yetzirah, the letters of Adar, , Kuf and its sense, is that of laughter. "The strength of the miracle makes all ëturn overí even until the ëworld of deceití turns into ëthe world of truth.í The miracle of Purim is the secret of the ëelephant entering the eye of a needle,í which even in the vivid, often wild imagination of a dream is ëimpossible,í unless explicitly thought of by day. The word, ëElephantí relates to the word ëturned over,í or ëwonder,í [as it is said, "One who sees an elephant in his dream, wonders of wonders shall happen to him"]. The ësongí of the elephant in Perek Shirah is ëHow great are Your deeds, G-d; your thoughts are very deep.í"viMomentarily following one other lead, I came across this:
In Mishnah and Talmud the elephant is called pil. Jastrow suggests that it was originally naphil, [plural nephilim] meaning ëgiant.í ... The Talmud offers a different interpretation for the word pil. The Rabbis declare that if one sees an elephant in a dream, wonders [pelaíim] will be wrought for him; If several elephants are seen, wonder of wonders will ensue. [Berachot 56b, 57b].Within the sacred order, there is an ongoing conversation between all beings. In the face of it, our understanding of influence and also cause and effect is naïve, mechanistic and overly simple. It should be no surprise that the sacred texts I was researching reconnected me directly with the phenomenon of elephant presence, intelligence and wisdom. The sacred texts are not outside the natural order. They are of the natural order for they are one of the languages that Spirit speaks, one of the forms through which Spirit manifests. What we look at as signs are the glimpses we manage of the way of the sacred. The natural world is not outside of this; we are. But we are outside only by our own choice. We have not been exiled; we have exiled ourselves. Within the sacred order, creation is on-going, all beings are involved in its dynamic and the world emerges originally each moment from these distinct and beautiful interactions. The experience I had with the elephants was a momentary return from exile. The texts I consulted confirm this. So many possibilities exist now. We can come home; we can live within the sacred order.
* * *
Soon after I returned from Africa, I visited my granddaughter Jamie and
described the meeting with the elephants. "The elephant spoke
to me," I said.
The same night I had a dream and it reminded me of sacred animal funerary rites. I am haunted by the stories of elephants mourning their dead. And I am haunted by this story told to me by Christine Jurzykowski, Director of Fossil Rim Wildlife Center of a vigil of giraffes, circling and circling the old one among them who is dying:viii
He knew I knew he would die soon - I knew he knew too.Who are these beings who attend the lives of their kin with so much respect and dignity?
This was the dream I had:
We were walking in the bush in a sacred circle. The circle belonged to the animals who have walked it again and again. We walked around twice. Perhaps we saw the elephants. The man who was teaching me the way to walk this circle revealed that someone had just died as he walked the circle a second time with the group. The dead man was offered to the animals. But this was not the important focus. What was important was the circle that was walked and the presence of the animals, in particular, the elephants.
When Michael came home from Africa in late January, we realized that I dreamed something of what happened to him. After we left, seven people arrived from the United States and Europe to work with Michael and Augustine. Because of our experience with the elephants, Michael and Augustine decided to incorporate a trip to Chobe into their initiatory work. As they descended to the river, they saw the bull elephant in the place where he had approached us. It was as if he had been waiting for them. They drove to him and sat in his presence. Michael noticed his own desire for the experience to repeat itself, for the people he had brought to have a vision. He meditated fiercely, recognizing his hunger, trying to release it. The elephant left and they drove on. In a dense area, they came upon a few elephants with several newborns at the side of a pond. A giraffe was browsing at the far end of the water. Everyone climbed out of the vehicle to stretch their legs and look upon this scene. The elephants did not seem to mind the intrusion. Slowly, approximately three dozen elephants came silently out of the bush and walked to the edge of the water. Swept up by the beauty of this, one of the participants took his camera and ran toward them in ecstatic jubilation. The bulls began to trumpet and stamp their feet. Michael yelled for the man to return but he was lost in his passion. More trumpeting and flapping of ears in what appeared to be great anger and apprehension. After some insistence, Michael was able to get the resistant man back into the truck, but by now they were surrounded by elephants and more were appearing on all sides. It was as if elephants had called for re-enforcement. The people started to drive down the road but their way was blocked and turning around they saw yet another herd appearing. Deeply shaken and frightened, they drove cautiously, seemingly making their escape, and so ventured to pause at the side of a large meadow to watch the sunset in sight of another large herd of elephants that was browsing in the distance. But after a few minutes they noticed that these, too, were drifting in their direction. Cautioned, they made their way toward the exit and finally found a way to leave the park.
It was inevitable that this occurred. As Aldous Huxley once warned
us: "The Greeks...knew very well that hubris against the essentially
divine order of Nature would be followed by its appropriate nemesis."ix
While they were contemplating this in Africa, I was thinking about what
we, with some disparagement, call group mind and that this train of thought
requires me to undo many cultural assumptions. Group mind, herd
mind, following like sheep, these imply a lesser form of intelligence,
without individuality, creative innovation or personal will. Having
watched the elephants and other animals, even for such a relatively short
time, I would like to suggest other possibilities:
For a long time, I have been contemplating what the etiquette might be
between human and animal if we ever enter into reciprocal relationships
with each other. It will require, in the deepest sense, a change
of mind. Perhaps it is not that we need to see that humans are
also animals. Perhaps we also need to see that some animals, at
least, are more than human. Coming into some recognition of the
true face of the others we call animals, what will be the polite and respectful
conventions, the procedures, ceremonies, formalities, unwritten codes
of honor by which we will approach these beings?
I do not think I called the elephants to me. I think they are coming
to us, calling us. I think they are consciously transmitting cries
of anguish and grief, and some of us are hearing them and are responding.
When we come forth in that way we are re-united with them in a single
wave of consciousness. Peter Levitt is right: Those of us who want
to live in God's world can be part of the same wave.
ii "Coming Home," by Deena Metzger in Intimate Nature, Womenís Bond with Animals, co-edited by Deena Metzger, Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson, Ballentine, New York, 1998
iii A film, Shingalana, The Little Hunter, was made from the same story. Londolozi Productions
iv Archetypes on the Tree of Life: The Tarot as Pathwork, Madonna Compton, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1991, p.157
v The Alef-Beit: Jewish Thought Revealed through the Hebrew Letters, Rabbit Yitzchak Ginsburgh, Jason Aronson, Inc., New Jersey, 1995, p. 181-183
vi The Alef-Beit: Jewish Thought Revealed through the Hebrew Letters, Rabbit Yitzchak Ginsburgh, Jason Aronson, Inc., New Jersey, 1995, p.289
vii The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought, Shlomo Pesach Toperoff, Jason Aronson, Inc., New Jersey, 1995, p.64
viii "Dance With a Giraffe," by Christine Jurzykowski, Intimate Nature: Womenís Bond with Animals, Fawcett Columbine, pp. 393-396, Christine Jurzykowski is Director and Chairman of the Board, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, Glen Rose, Texas
ix Old English Dictionary 1950 A. Huxley Themes & Variations 259