The stamp of the African elephant
We’ve been seeing elephant tracks for so long, and in so many places, that it’s almost as if we’ve stopped thinking about the animals that made the tracks, and have become accustomed instead to perceiving the animal only through its tracks.
I’m not saying an elephant is a deity, but it is surely an Other. You can look so hard for clues to the nature of a thing’s existence that you forget how to see.
Thus it is that we barely recognize the animals standing motionless in the trees before us: hulking silhouettes in the shady grove of an island in the middle of the river of bright burning sand. Our Namibian driver, Andreas, points them out. “Elephants,” he says, and a part of me wants to correct him, or my own eyes, and say “No, mountains.” The elephants, or silhouettes of elephants, are all staring, watching us, and Andreas stops the jeep at a respectful distance to let them become accustomed to our rude intrusion. They remain motionless, though something about the unity and stolidity suggests that there is a communication going on between them, in that perfect immobility; and finally, as if a consensus has been reached, the broad flap of one ear stirs, fans the stillness of the heated shade-air in which they are all standing shoulder to shoulder, and the muscle of them shifts and seems to relax a notch or three: though still, defensibility and unity remain the potent message projected.
We stop again when we draw even with the elephants, about 50 yards distant. Andreas is jumpy, utterly tense—just this side of frightened. He still has the clutch depressed with one foot, and is keeping his right foot on the accelerator, ready to pop the clutch and bolt.
There is something almost overwhelmingly attractive about them, something that makes a person want to trust them, know them, admire them. There is something about them that we are drawn toward, something we see in them that I think we want to see or pretend is in ourselves—a presumed camaraderie, so that we are tempted to assume what I suspect feels to the elephants like a forced bonhomie.
We are awed by their obvious power and strength, and by their intelligence, and by the presence of their more tender emotions, even within animals so strong and fierce—and yet I think there is a part of us that empathizes with what we perceive, mistakenly, as the physical clumsiness or psychic isolation of elephants. We perceive that they have baggy wrinkled skin, and that they shuffle with heads lowered, trunks hoovering the ground for scent, and we think, Here is a fellow traveler for whom the world is still a riddle—and we are tempted to seek them out.
We observe how there is no other animal in the world even remotely like them, and we misperceive that in that solitude there is loneliness. We move toward them with patronizing gestures, offering them positions in our circuses, and in our labor camps, and in our zoos, and are surprised somehow when things do not work out according to our plans. We shoot them and saw their tusks off to make into jewelry, in an attempt to make our own selves appear more beautiful and less shambling, and then are surprised and disappointed when they “turn on us.”
Across that distance, we behold each other. With the elephants as well as ourselves repositioned, we can see now that there is a baby among them, an infant by comparison to all the others around him— and that it is heart-meltingly cute. The baby, alone among them—possesses no reserve, and appears to be trying to scamper out of the herd and come over to where we are, to investigate, or even play, but the adults, the old aunts and uncles, matriarch and patriarch and older brother and sisters, have it surrounded in a corral made by their thick legs, and every time it tries to scooch through, one of them pushes it back gently and shifts a leg in such a manner as to refortify the prison, the containment, the safehouse constructed of the herd’s legs; finally, exasperated, the baby elephant contents itself with peering out from between two of those gigantic legs, its head squeezed between the column of them, with its little trunk twisting and twirling, trying to take in our curious scent.
Frustrated, the baby elephant begins making odd little chirping sounds and fans his ears energetically, but the bars of his prison squeeze together more tightly, and with an audible sigh he plops down to nap, lying down in the sand like a man on a couch. Andreas eases out the clutch, tests the forward motion of the jeep to make sure everything is still working—that we haven’t somehow become bogged down in the sun-softened sand—and feels compelled to tell us finally that a friend of his was guiding some tourists on a similar elephant-watching journey, where everything was going fine until the guide discovered that their Land Cruiser had gotten stuck: and when the elephants likewise came to understand that the truck was stuck, the elephants charged, as if thinking, All right, fish in a barrel.
The guide had a gun and was barely able to turn the elephants by firing at them, striking the lead female in the ear, drilling a hole in it that did no more damage than if one were to fire a shot through the frond of a palm leaf. Dennis and I listen to this and then look back at “our” herd of elephants, trying to discern any such capacity for betrayal, or what we would perceive as betrayal, but can find none; all seems to be only indolence, utter sunstruck lassitude.
Through Dennis’s binoculars, we study the intricate striations of thick skin, with those myriad wrinklings (which increase the surface area exponentially, allowing even greater mass to aid in the dumping of excess body heat) matching exactly the striations and planes and laminas of cross-bedding in the sandstone bluffs behind them: as if the elephants have literally arisen from the sand, stepped out of it and into the land of the living, but still possessing the mark of their origin and the stamp of their maker.
The driftwood piles of spars that are resting next to the resting elephants appear identical to the tusks of the elephants—appear to be constructed of their ivory tusks—and yet we pay no mind to the driftwood spars, desire only the ivory tusks, and I do not, cannot, understand why. Did some opportunity for choice exist within our own minds, our own path, not so long ago—six of one, half dozen of another— wherein we chose an attraction to one over the other? And if so, why, and how might things have been different if we had somehow chosen an attraction to beauty that did not involve killing?
It seems these days that one might as well be imagining a different species, and a different outcome to things, if not a different world. I for one hope that as a species we can find our way back to a course that more properly celebrates the crafted, intricate, fitted beauty that is the underpinning of an older world, and am glad that there are still some creatures, such as elephants, that are so large we cannot miss seeing such beauty.
Rick Bass is the author of 25 books of fiction and nonfiction. He lives with his family in Yaak and Missoula, Montana. His new book, Nashville Chrome, is a novel about music and the destructiveness of fame.
Image: © Nick Brandt, courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler