“There is a language older by far and deeper than words. It is the language
of bodies, of bodies on body, wind on snow, rain on trees, wave on stone. It is
the language of dreams, gesture, symbol, memory. We have forgotten the language.
We do not even remember that it exists.”
Derrick Jensen, A Language Older than Words.
On September 13, 2011 I traveled to the Chobe National Park in Botswana with Krystyna Jurzykowski, founder and former Chair of the Board of Fossil Rim, a preserve in Glen Rose Texas that was originally for endangered African animals and now includes animals from North and South America. I wanted to see if communications that had occurred between me and one individual elephant on three separate occasions, and whom, accordingly, we named the Elephant Ambassador, might occur and be witnessed again. I was choosing for the second time to be with the Ambassador on my birthday; Krystyna was also choosing to be with the white rhinos in the area of Ghanzi, Botswana, a week later, on her birthday. We dared not speculate about the meaning of such events except in the ways that they accord with the developing understanding about the mysterious nature of the world in which animals and other non-human beings reveal themselves capable of intentional activity and of originating inter-species communication. We chose to do this on our birthdays so that, if the elephants came forth yet again, we would be open to being catapulted onto new paths to realize the work of the rest of our lives.
It is difficult to speak of this because western languages lack the vocabulary for such experience. Indigenous people from many parts of the world would understand our journey having lived with such assumptions and experiences until imperialists, colonizers, westerners denounced, diminished, prohibited this knowledge and, ‘cleansed’ our language of the means of this discourse. In the way of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ the languages, and the beings themselves, are being disappeared. The right, the means, to speak with the animals and of the animals as sentient companions as essential to the planet as human beings, is regularly dismissed. It is replaced by the ever increasing human passion to dominate animals and the natural world, to use, consume, and enslave,or, at its “best” to confine these non-human beings in circuses and zoos for our entertainment or education. And finally, to only allow them to live in designated areas or on reservations that too often become the equivalent of displaced persons camps.
In this century, preserves such as Fossil Rim, or the Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary are necessary tiny sanctuaries protecting the species’ existence, attempting to preserve the gene pool and to provide some peace and quiet for a few members rescued from the violence of habitat destruction and hunting. But they are not able to replace the wild and vital life that was once original to the planet. Traveling to be with the elephants in this way, Krystyna and I were treading in the area of the forbidden.
Both Krystyna and I have had many encounters with animals that could be considered a dialogue. Both of us know that animals are intelligent, sentient and adept at communication. However, this was different. We were traveling to the wild, or a small strip of what is left of it, half way across the world, with the hope of keeping an appointment that could be made only in our hearts but would call us to change our minds, and so our lives, in the most profound ways.
We have not yet learned fully why Krystyna was called to be with the rhinoceroses. The experience with them was different than with the elephants in Chobe. They live in the wild but this wild has to be fenced. Wherever they live, they must be protected or they will be slaughtered for their horns. For awhile, conservationists hoped that if their horns were removed, they would be safe from poaching; this has turned out not to be true. Poachers who track rhinos from the air have taken to killing those without horns so that they will not spend the efforts tracking them only to find there are no horns to be gotten. It seems hopeless.
Krystyna was greatly surprised to see that Edo’s Camp in the Kalahari near Ghanzi is a mirror image of Fossil Rim. Similar antelopes and small predators, like cheetahs, populate the preserve. Like so many private preserves, they were both once used for hunting. The question, in Africa in particular, is whether eco-tourism can finance what hunting once financed. Can preserving life be as profitable as destroying it? Krystyna was intrigued by the ways in which Edo’s Camp and Fossil Rim resembled and differed from each other and what might come of their learning of each other.
The first night we were there, we toured a small portion of the preserve, watching the rain clouds come in two weeks early, mesmerized by the flashing lightning and rolling thunder. A good sign and a relief to Krystyna because Texas had been in flames for the months before we left. (When we had arrived in Botswana, she received a text saying that an inch and a half of rain had fallen at Fossil Rim. Just days after her return, seven inches of rain fell. The pans were being replenished and the first tufts of new grass and red flowers were emerging.) We were at home at Edo’s camp: there were impala, wildebeests,
kudu, sable antelope, springbok, waterbok–
the antelopes that Krystyna knows so well from Fossil Rim.
Then at night, as the African sunset was bathing the earth in its red light, seven of the twelve rhinos moved with an unexpected determined grace down to the water hole.
Two of the rhino were pregnant, their young sons keeping close contact with their mothers, knowing that as soon as the birth contractions begin, they will be sent out to be alone. There are no longer small groups of bull rhinos to receive them and teach the ways of the species that existed for 50 million years. Rhinos are the old ones. The ancestors. These young bulls, however, despite their heritage, will be alone and lonely and untutored for the long time until they are ready to mate and then they will have to fight the dominant bull for a female to begin their own herd. There are not enough bulls to sustain this natural conflict and replenish the species without human intervention moving bulls from place to place.
Edo’s camp, like Fossil Rim, is one of the few places on the planet where rhino breeding has been successful. So again, Krystyna was at home there. When she had been drawn by intuition to this area of the Kalahari, she hadn’t known of Edo’s Camp nor was she aware that we would be with the rhinos in the (protected) wild. Another strange circumstance to be fathomed over the next months as she cogitates on the possible connections between these two preserves and works to understand where and to what the rhinos, so so so endangered, might be calling us in their own slow and powerful ways. What is rhino intelligence, rhino legacy and how might we meet it?
We were going to meet the Elephant Ambassador that I had met before on three separate occasions: Once on January 6th (Epiphany) 2000, with four other companions, a Jungian analyst, Michele Daniel, a shamanic practitioner, Amanda Foulger, my husband, a writer and RN, and a Zimbabwean medicine man or nganga, Mandaza Kandemwa. Again, in August in 2001, when my husband, Michael Ortiz Hill and I made the pilgrimage alone, the Ambassador came to our car from a great distance, aggressively pushed through a small circle of females to stop inches from the front of our car and trumpet. The third time, that we met the Ambassador was also on my birthday, was in September 2004. Filmmaker Cynthia Travis, also founder of the peacebuilding NGO, everyday gandhis and I had gathered a small delegation of Bushmen, Africans from South Africa and Liberia, and participants from North America to meet the Ambassador and encounter the wild. a similar group, including ex child soldiers and ex combatants, would travel with us again to Tanzania where we would once again have unprecedented real meetings with elephants.
Each time the connection was made with the elephants at the same place in Chobe, at the same tree, at the same hour 5 pm, which was the very last hour of the very last day that we could be in the park. That last time, there was material evidence of an incomprehensible but irrefutable exchange between the Ambassador elephant and ourselves. After becoming the audience for a carefully choreographed display or performance, we were thrown a bone. Literally. Those who know something of elephant culture, who know the enormous significance of bones to elephants, might guess what gifting us with such a sacred object implies.
This return to Chobe was six years later. As we entered the park, Krystyna asked if the elephant that had come the last time, was the same elephant. Did I recognize him by his tusks or ears? Did I recognize him at all? I didn’t know. “I believed it was,” I said, “but I don’t know. It may be that it is the same energy carrying the same intent but I do not know if it rests in a particular individual or moves to another or other beings.”
I was also wondering whether the elephant’s intention emerged from a single elephant, or arose from the consciousness and intent of the species at a critical time in their history, or was an expression of Spirit’s intent using elephant, or none of these, or was some combination of all. I continue to wonder if I will ever be able to answer this question with confidence. In the same way, I do wonder whether I am Spirit’s instrument or whether I am merely acting with human agency even though I always hope that I am aligned with Spirit on behalf of the future of all beings. Am I intuiting? Am I being guided? Are these my ideas? Is Spirit working through me? Can anyone of us answer these questions with certainty?
At our last meeting, the Ambassador had introduced us to his female partner, another younger female and a calf, a very young bull elephant who wanted to stay with his father. We had also been a tight knit group that afternoon, my husband, Cynthia Travis and shamanic practitioner, Valerie Wolf. The others in our group had decided to explore the park on their own. When we saw what was being presented, the four of us assumed that the Ambassador wanted our family to meet his family. We began to understand that our communication was to be focused upon family and its meaning among his people.
As I write this, I realize I had attributed all agency to the Ambassador without considering that the Matriarch might have been collaborating in the meeting, or that the energy and agency was moving through them, not only through him. The new understanding fits the social structure and wisdom of elephant culture – which is tribal at its best, is relational, not individualistic.
As a writer, I am immediately within the dilemma. I am comparing elephant culture to human culture, anthropomorphizing. The error is not that elephants can’t attain human development but rather the opposite; these experiences indicate that Elephant may be communicating beyond what we have achieved, that Elephant is a culture that may in many ways be more developed than our own. That Elephant may be coming forth to teach us as we increasingly fall into brutishness.
There – I have said it!
In the years that have followed this third meeting, there have been other experiences and many opportunities to compare notes with others who have found that the hierarchical thinking that places humans above all other non-humans is wrong and unacceptable. These hierarchies merely serve the industries that exploit animals and other beings as food, resources and subjects of experimentation Such hierarchies, and the criminal intentions they serve, are at the core of the myriad forms of racism, sexism, colonialism, economic and political exploitation. Science, for example, is not likely to recognize sentience and intelligence in the beings it tortures for prestige and profit.
The first three meetings with the Ambassador challenged everything I had been taught to believe. I was/ we were astonished and grateful. Those of us who were working with everyday gandhis would soon learn that elephants are seen as peacemakers in Liberia and that they have played a mysterious role in helping to end the Liberian civil war, 1989 -2003. As a writer, and Senior Advisor to everyday gandhis, I was trying to detail what was being revealed about elephants as I was trying to integrate these three experiences into my life. To be honest, I might have been trying to normalize them as they challenge the very basic assumptions of civilization itself.
It is easy to write such a sentence. It is very hard to live with it. The foundations of my life were shaken as my heart insisted that I meet what was being revealed sincerely and without bravado. It was very important to refrain from exploiting the experience or my knowledge for my own enhancement. My loyalty had to be to Creation, to the elephants, and the nature of what was being unveiled.
The first time we met, I had said to the Ambassador, “I know who you are. We are both from a holocausted people.” Then I continued, “Your people are my people.” I have to live according to my word. One does not want to invoke rhetoric with a species that knows truth.
This morning I spoke with a writer who said that truth is the entire foundation of culture and identity. Without truth, there is only violence, disorder and despair.
I understand now that it took six years to be able to return and be worthy of, that is readied for, what might occur. As I prepared, inner understanding cautioned me to be more concerned that the Ambassador would show up than that he would not.
I was preparing for another experience that could be entirely discontinuous with modern or post modern life, with Western culture, with the dominant assumptions of the media, and with current religious, scientific, commercial, political, technological and military ideologies (or ideology). I was preparing for the possibility of an experience that constitutes a significant cognitive and ethical challenge to our way of life.
In the intellectual and spiritual communities that I serve, we have developed a common response to extraordinary events: “What is the true nature of the universe in which such things occur. And how then shall we live?”
The advent of the Ambassador had been leading me to ask what is the real nature of the universe that we inhabit. What is the real nature of the universe in which such events are occurring? Hardly the first to ask this question, I was grateful to be companioned by Krystyna who has also been reflecting on this for many years.
I had met Krystyna in 1995 when I interviewed her for the anthology, Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals. In her essay, “Dance with a Giraffe,” she wrote, “When I am in direct, intimate relationship with an animal I am more able to ask questions from within the cycle of nature. Animals take me into the nature of nature. The universal dance of form and relationship–creation and destruction, of which we are all part.
Krystyna’s words came out of her deep, unconditional respect for animals and the complexity and sentience of their lives. “Being with the giraffe, Old Nick, brought this feeling to me, especially when I was summoned to participate in his dance with death,” she wrote as she described the hours she had spent before he died with his head in her lap, as the other giraffes circled and circled him in the ritual moment.
Hearing this story from the Founder of Fossil Rim, who is deeply involved in conservation on national and international levels, was fundamental to understanding animal intelligence. We had not expected some of the conclusions that developed from gathering the essays for Intimate Nature: “At the center of empathy and compassionate understanding lies the ability to see the other as true peer, to recognize intelligence and communication in all forms, no matter how unlike ourselves these forms might be. It is this gift of empathy and connection, embodied in the relationship between us and other species, that enables us to thrive now and into the future.” Krystyna’s essay and her experiences were critical to our understanding of the field of relationship between women and animals that had been challenging the more conventional beliefs held by science and western culture.
If the Ambassador came again, in whatever way and form, I would have to transform my life entirely to meet this real event and its implications. I could not imagine what would be asked and was glad that I was not pretending to know. However, I am carrying the question each moment of each day since my return: How then shall I / shall we live now?
I am always alert to events at the threshold of a journey. Just days before the trip, I learned of an attempt in South Africa to save a particular bull elephant, the patriarch of a small herd, from being the object of a hunt. The price on Ngani’s head was $20,000+. He had been sold to a hunter by the owner of a small preserve who had been in financial difficulties. Now the old owner wanted him back but the new owner who had organized the hunt for very wealthy international clients, wanted twice the money he had paid. From the moment I learned of Ngani’s situation, I felt as if a brother of mine had been kidnapped and was being held for ransom. I was impatient with all the maneuvering as everyone, even those with the best intentions, had agendas to fulfill through serving Ngani’s story; I wanted to secure the life of my kin.
The appeal for Ngani was prescient. Most of the conversations we had with guides and tourists in Botswana and Namibia centered on the economics of eco-tourism, buying and selling animals, stocking and restocking, hunting, canned hunting (shooting an animal such as a white lion confined in a cage) and the technology and munitions involved in the poaching of elephants, lions and rhinos. Poaching has become a militarized industry using advanced technology, helicopters and machine guns. Modern warfare at its most insidious.
At the time we left, we did not know the outcome for Ngani, but we did learn to our horror, at the end of the trip that even if he were to be ransomed, another elephant would be hunted in his stead. It was hopeless.
I had once dreamed that my father and I had been given the task by Nazis to choose ten people who would saved from the Death Camps. In the dream, we tried to find those who had the most life in them, who would live longest, who would be able to … who knows what. In the dream, the task was horrible and haunted me for a long time. Another instance was occurring in real life at a time when I was preparing to make an unprecedented alliance with another very intelligent, socially and ethically developed species.
Now we were both searching for ways to respond to Ngani’s situation and to hunting in general, an activity that Krystyna knew well from her professional history of animal activism. In her essay, Krystyna recalled a pledge she, as a child, had repeatedly made to a baby anteater. “You are my friend, you are safe here, you will be taken care of.” She has been living according to this pledge her entire life. But, at the very beginning of our journey, we were being challenged by the dangers that animals experience each day and were wondering if / how we could create safety for them.
(Editing this on Wednesday, November 30, 2011, I know the terrible outcome of the terrible situation. Ngani’s life was saved but another elephant was offered up. The hunter was given a “destruction permit” on the very last day that it could be issued. He came upon Beuga, the matriarch of the seventy elephants in the herd, darted her and killed her. (See http://www.corporate-wildlife-teambuilding-adventures.com/2011/10/further-elephant-communications-saving-the-life-of-ngani-and-beuga’s-plea/)
There are no words to describe this tragedy.)
When I was considering going to Chobe to see if I could meet the Elephant Ambassador on my 75th birthday, Krystyna had said, “I want to go with you. I want to meet him too.” When I heard her words, knowing who she is, I knew that we would go.
I traveled to Africa, this fourth time, with the stated intent or, hope, to meet with elephants, to sit in council with them, and to see how we might, together, act on behalf of a viable future and the restoration of the natural world. For the fourth time they came. They came even though we do not have, or I did not know we have, an established means of communication.
Krystyna and I could exercise our human will to the extent that we could board a plane and make our way to an established meeting place in Chobe. After that, what would occur was in the elephants’ trunks, so to speak.
We had three and a half days to stay in Chobe. We would go to the appointed place. We would see what if anything, outside the realm of tourism, might occur. I knew that we had to be very sensitive to any gestures, movements and activities so as to distinguish which, if any, were directed toward us, and which were part of ordinary elephant activity. Yes, we had come to see the elephants as they live their lives, but we had also come to be with the elephants.
We do not have a common language. If there were to be a conversation, a language would have to be created. And so it was. At first it was a language of gesture and response, then a language of event, then of events becoming motion. Motion and meaning became one. That one can also be understood as Story. Then all the other stories integrated to become one Story. Except by arriving each time, it was not a language that we initiated. The elephants had agency; we were the respondents.
I don’t know the first sentence of the communication between us, because I do not know if they called me/us or whether we called them. I know that each event or moment might have been understood as static, as a noun. Then the nouns gathered, one after another, like a procession that had a dynamic energy that could be called a verb. Syntax: noun – verb – object became verb, became dynamic, became resonant relationships, like an Athabascan language. Utterance by gesture, then reply and acknowledgment. And again. Call and Response, inseparable from each other. Music. A divine order that includes all.
We, the two humans, who met the elephants, as we had seemingly agreed, in the years before, at a certain place and at a certain time, did not create the language except by making the journey and keeping our word. This was already a great leap out of the conventional human world into another dimension. We went toward the elephants who, we came to believe, called us, with eagerness and without expectation. That they had come before had been an unimaginable gift, not for us alone, but for the future, for consciousness, and creation. That they might come again, might recognize the gesture we were making toward them, was more than we could hope. It was enough to see ourselves as willing to set forth because this alone might have the possibility of changing the field. But then they came.
Immediately, yes, but at first not from within Story. We were just, it seemed, passersby, even merely tourists, different beings in the same place at the same time. Then we realized we were in a dialogue. And the dialogue became a Story – a coherent, complex, inter-connected, resonant set of events that gathered meaning as they progressed. Then this story began to merge with the previous stories and we saw that we were in another field of knowing and being altogether. Story. Story as I have known it and have been teaching it for more than thirty years. Story: A series of comprehensive, interlocking events, experiences, and understandings that arise determinedly and spontaneously, from within and without one’s life, that cannot be willed or controled and that,ultimately, create, establish and reveal a little world, a singular and integral cosmology.
The reality, according to which humans, particularly westerners, have lived for several thousand years and which they consider absolute, was being shattered as these two humans and the elephants were considering each other as peers with the ability to converse in the ways and field of another dimension. We met in the field called trust. As humans, Krystyna and I hoped to be trustworthy. It is a new territory, a manifestation of ancient knowledge and current experience.
Needless to say, this is not the first time that animals and humans have had such an exchange. Such is the very basis of indigenous life, myth and spiritual understanding. Such meetings have been increasingly recounted in the last years. Nevertheless, the experience is awesome and those who participate are left undone – as they should be. It is required that we fall apart and reconstitute to meet the new reality. I knew this and Krystyna knew this and we offered ourselves to it.
After we left Chobe National Park, we were traveling with Wilem Barnard, the son of Izak Barnard who had introduced photo safaris to Botswana, and the grandson of Bvekenya Cecil Barnard, the notorious elephant hunter, who had given up elephant hunting when he saw that it had become a terrible, commercial business and was no longer remotely a sacred or respectable activity. At age 43, he had hunted a great mammoth of an elephant and at the last moment, Barnard recognized who, indeed, the elephant was and risked his own life by letting him go. Barnard quit hunting and forbid his sons to ever hunt again.
As I watched Wilem interact with the animals, and the ways he avoided our being surrounded by them, or the way he avoided elephants who were coming toward us, as he had to do as a responsible guide, I understood how remarkable the experience was that Krystyna and I had had. We had gone ourselves where few go unguided and mutual trust had allowed us to truly come together.
From the beginning, when we were alone in our car in the Park, we were always directed by mutual intuitions to be in a certain place when the elephants would also be there. Within minutes of our coming to a place where we felt we should stop, an elephant herd appeared and quickly and gently surrounded us as if we were not there, as if we were ourselves elephants. Though there were very young elephants in the herd, some nursing, and though the car often separated the young from the adults as they crossed behind or in front of us where we were parked, there was never a sense that we were disturbing them or intruding upon their lives.
In contrast, we saw a white car make its way down the road by the river when elephants were crossing to the waterhole blocking the road. The driver of the car insisted on continuing and we watched, alarmed, as a matriarch reared up and trumpeted in rage. Frankly, I was concerned for the consequences to the elephants should they have been provoked to defend themselves.
When it was time for us to leave the Park at 6 pm on the night of the 16th, we made our way carefully without incident. Soon, we found ourselves enveloped by elephants coming toward us – we stopped instantly – and then released toward the Park exit just before closing.
On the 17th, the elephants were always with us during the hours we spent by the river at our meeting place, the tree. Then at six, we made our way toward the exit. We were taking our last photos when Krystyna spotted another tree. “An elephant ears tree,” she exclaimed. I took the photograph. I was astonished to see that the tree appeared with a rainbow on it.
“Rainbow as a covenant” had been a theme for Michael and myself in the summer when we had gone to Canyon de Chelly. At the last hour of the last day we were at the Canyon, rain clouds had gathered, a greatly welcome sight at a time of drought and fires. As we stood at Face Outlook we watched a rainbow descend into the canyon and then rise up again making a double rainbow before us. Then the rain came.
I had met such a rainbow on the summer solstice at the Arctic Circle in 1996 and had written a song which ended, “Rainbow as a covenant/ God exists /And Beauty has won. / God exists / And Beauty has won.”
A rainbow preceded our journey to Africa after Canyon de Chelly and welcomed me as I was telling the story of the journey to Michael on our return.
The strange appearance of the rainbow on the tree caused by the light bouncing off the car mirror echoed the time in the Canyon and Topanga and alerted Krystyna and I that we were being asked to enter a covenant with the elephants.
On the last day, we went toward our meeting place early but on the way we saw a herd of elephants out on the field across from the river and we stopped to be with them. They were not close but we did not feel we could leave unless we had permission from them. Much out of character, and perhaps playfully, I asked the elephants to give us a sign if we should go to the tree where we had met the elephants each time. We were aghast when the elephants broke out of the clutch they had formed and stood, evenly placed, in a line facing south to the tree. It would have been rude to ignore this sign and so we went to the tree. To the south was another group of elephants standing in random order. When we arrived, they also briefly formed a line and faced us. We were now, it seemed, in the right place at the right time. The area where we were at the water hole was, however, empty of animals.
In awhile, a small elephant, three years old perhaps, came down on his own to the water hole. We were alarmed. Lions had been in the area in the morning and they would not hesitate to take down a lone little elephant.
I began, we began, to pray for its safety.
Soon a truck came by with a guide and tourists. They stopped to photograph the baby and I flagged them down as they passed us. I asked why this baby might be alone and the guide said that it was probably ill and had not been able to keep up with the herd. From all appearances, however, despite his thirst, this little one was not in dire straits and the herd was not threatened and needing to go on without one of its own. Everything I know about elephants contradicted what the guide said, and we were troubled by this anomalous situation; elephant mothers do not desert their child, nor do the herd members, unless it is dire.
So, we continued meditating, praying both for the health of the baby and for the appearance of his mother. As we sat there, I found myself in the grip of strange emotions. I have been visiting Africa and participating in Safaris since 1985. I am deeply respectful of the rules and the ways humans are ethically required to behave in the wild. The first time on Safari in Kenya, we were witness to a young male lion testing himself by stalking a baby elephant behind his mother in the midst of a herd. Even when the lion was perched on a great rock above the little one, slowly hunkering down into leap position, we were enjoined to be absolutely silent and let the wild enact itself. Human restraint is essential. In that instance, just seconds before the leap, the elephant mother flapped her ears, even without looking up at the lion, and he slunk away.
Now I was observing a baby elephant without a herd and without his mother. What would happen if a lion came? I tried to gather myself into disciplined silence, but another part of me suspected that I might not be able to control my impulse to run out of the car and protect the elephant. It was a mother instinct that I had not known before with non-human beings. It would be wrong. it would be foolish, it would be dangerous, and it would be ineffective as the two of us might easily be taken by the lion. But something was occurring within me. The words I had first uttered to the Ambassador were becoming real: “Your people are my people.” These words were not sentimental. This was my kin. This was, as if, my child or grandchild were threatened. I had crossed the species border finally into unexpected and entirely, for my life, unprecedented relationship.
In about fifteen very, very long minutes, two older elephants came to the water, a mother, we thought, and a sister. They spent some time at the water hole and then went on toward the sand bridge that led to a wide plain along the river. Again we were alarmed as the baby did not move. But then the two returned and stayed with him.
At this moment, another white car approached and a stopped. A photographer stepped out of the car and approached the elephants closely. I yelled to him to return to the car, afraid of a repeat of the elephant anger that we had seen the day two days before. Ultimately, the man returned to the car and the car took off and we were left alone, again, with this tiny group. Soon the three began walking toward the sandy plain.
We watched them for a long time, relieved, as they were staying together. Then we were stunned as elephant after elephant came down to the water hole. So many elephants of all ages.
The Gathering of the Elephants at the End of the Story
We were together for a long time when the sun turned orange and began setting and we knew it would soon be the end of the last hour of the last day we would be in Chobe. Then more elephants were coming toward us from every direction, as if all the elephants in the area were gathering around us. In the last minutes, we saw that the elephants with the small bull were returning.
The female we thought was a sister stayed at the break in the sand bridge, directly across from us,
reminding me of the photograph by Cynthia Travis of the Ambassador on the cover of my book, From Grief Into Vision: A Council.
The larger elephant had gone forward to join the others and we were enfolded, again, in a very large herd.
Now, it was time to leave. How very difficult it was. But if we didn’t leave, we would be locked in the park for the night. Not a comfortable situation. So I turned the key and began moving very, very slowly onto the road. Immediately, the largest elephant of the herd bounded up the incline from the water hole and stopped in the middle of the road. Others joined, including another little one, and we were effectively and adamantly blocked.
I remembered well the incident with the first white car and so I leaned out of the car and told them that I would not insist my way. We would not be willful. We would yield to their wishes. I turned off the engine and we sat looking at each other. Then they ambled down to the water again. Regretfully, I started the car and we crept slowly past the herd on the road they had vacated. When they were behind us, we stopped again. They were forming a long line with the great elephant in front and, we saw, the little elephant who we had prayed for earlier, the last, following the female elephant and kin up into the brush. Within a moment, they had all disappeared.
The next day as Willem Barnard was driving us on the highway that bisects the park, we slowed for three elephants crossing the road who looked exactly like the three we had prayed for the night before. They were together and it was clear the little one was healthy and vital.
Yes! Another part of the story inserts itself on October 10, 2011. I am writing this essay and looking at the photographs I took for the first time. I stare at the photographs and revisit the scene I could not concentrate on before because of my concern for the little one. The large elephant is a bull.
The smaller one, obviously now, the mother of the little bull.
We have been met by a family as we had been the time before. A most unusual circumstance and so an event to be noted and seriously considered.
Elephants do not travel in nuclear family units. The older bulls stay to themselves. Breeding herds consist of the females and the young ones including young bulls.
We have been in the presence of the Ambassador without knowing it.
The question I was asked before? Does the Ambassador always come in the same form? Will you recognize him?
The Ambassador came. It takes time to understand what is being said in the language of the Elephant People.
The Ambassador came and did not announce himself but engaged us in a Story, as is his nature, or is the nature of this gathering. We have been met again, family to family, and we have been taken into tribe. The great elephant who ran up to block the road and test us was probably also the Ambassador. We have, indeed, crossed the barrier and have become kin. I am awed and frightened in the way one is shaken by the Presence.
How, now, shall I live?
I am reminded of Krystyna’s questions upon the death of Old Nick. “Am I willing to imagine the possibility of true partnership in nature? Am I willing to engage in the mystery of language beyond words? Will I trust what I hear? What am I being called to remember?”
The first time we met the Ambassador, he had stood a few feet from the side, the back and then the other side of our own truck and looked in our eyes for no less than ten minutes in each place. Then he had disappeared. But as we drove along the river to leave the park, all the elephants in the area lined up along the river and bowed their heads and flapped their ears as we passed.
The second time we met the Ambassador, he came at the same hour from a very great distance, a mile away, perhaps, and shouldered his way aggressively through a group of female elephants at the water hole, then climbed up the embankment and stopped directly before our car and trumpeted, then disappeared.
The third time, as I have written, we were introduced to his little family and then were given a sacred bone.
We have had four remarkable, unprecedented, irrefutable meetings with elephants acting with agency, intent and grace. This time, we were enfolded into the herd. But also, they tested us, as well they should, to see if we are trustworthy. Would we be honorable? Would we yield to the circumstances they were clearly creating, even to staying overnight in the park if required? Would we follow their directions and their lead?
In the proximity of these great gray beings, I understand that they are not merely another species; they are a formidable and beautiful people inhabiting the earth with us, capable of complex communications and wiser than we can imagine. The Elephant People are essentially kind, exceedingly intelligent and conscious presences, increasingly maddened and driven to acts of unnatural violence by our destructive behavior, tortured beyond endurance by their clear understanding that the earth, all life, their little ones, will not survive unless we human transform entirely, become more like they are again.
( See http://www.kerulos.org/learn_more/elephants_edge_assets/BradshawSchoreEthology07.pdf”)
Krystyna and I were allowed to cross the barrier that humans beings created when they separated themselves from all life and manufactured cultures entirely incompatible with the life force. Barriers as hideous and real as the great stone walls we arbitrarily erect to isolate ourselves from all others.
In contrast, every gesture, every action from these great beings revealed or involved us in vital and dynamic relationship which is the very core of elephant life. The Elephant People made visible the depth and profundity of their connections with each other, they reached out to us and spoke to us in profound and irrefutable ways, and they reminded us that human beings have fallen out of the network of all our relations and the consequences for all life are tragic.
Their communications were clear and the language precise. As we were leaving the area, they appeared again, as to underscore what we could barely comprehend. The Ambassador and the Delegation from the elephants called us to them from across the world. And now I am transmitting their call to you. Come meet with us in the way of beauty. Be aligned fully once more with an inspirited world. Become whom you must become in order to communicate with these great ones, in the field of their understanding, in a language older than words.
This fourth meeting with the elephants, with the Ambassador, with his family in an unusual and notable configuration, and then also with an entire Delegation is the unequivocal answer to a prayer that we, as a species, might truly be in alliance with other species. That the human people might meet the Elephant People as peers. That the original ways of Creation can be restored and, together – “Your people are my people” – we might strive to help the earth and all its beings survive and flourish.
How fortunate I am to come home and find your experience with the elephants in my inbox. How fortunate we all are, not only to have you as our Ambassador to the Elephants – but that you have the language to contain that experience. I have also been fortunate to travel extensively and meet many species – but I have never felt any sadness at departure
comparable to my sense of loss when we left the elephants of Tanzania.
Dear Deena, How well I remember our first trip to Africa and the drama you recalled in this narrative, and how honored I feel to read the ongoing communion with the elephants of our planet. You are such a great spirited compassionate and intrepid voyager in our multiple dimensions. I was gripped by reading this, and send you blessings on your path to engage with our larger and smaller relations in a world we share in both understanding and mystery. Thank you , Deena. Love, Gloria Orenstein
This is very touching, Deena. God bless you and the elephants.
How blessed I feel to have come upon this writing. I am breathless.
Always, the elephants have called to me; I followed your words with my heart racing. I am so deeply moved by your words and pictures. My heart aches for these gracious people, and yet I feel somehow they will take back their earth. One day. Thank you.
I love this piece of writing. It speaks to my heart in ways that are hard to verbalize in writing. I have always wished that I could learn the language of animals, that I could connect and understand on a true level, and not, as you say, for sentimental reasons, or for sentimentality.
I love that you have documented your elephant journeys and have shared your stories about communicating with elephant people, sharing about the Ambassador and the larger family, the heard.
It’s just so moving and emotional and so… beautiful. I remember the seeing the elephant bone in your place too and, I can almost see you and your friend as you described the journey so perfectly.
I was completely struck by the image of the tree with the rainbow and wasn’t sure if you had noticed the silhouette of the elephant spirit within the photograph. Strangely enough, before I even read your piece, I saw that photo and the first thing I noticed in the image was of the elephant spirit inside the image of the tree shaped elephant. Did you see it?It’s bright eyes sit just above the line of the rainbow, and its ears and head shape are also inside the tree. It’s ears flap down below the rainbow globe. It’s just amazing. The energy in that photograph is just amazing.
Thank you Deena. I really appreciated this message and this writing a lot. In solidarity with elephants, dogs, cats, winged ones, wolves, the whales and dolphins of our oceans and all creatures on land and sea…
thanks again. xo jo.
p.s.I would love to see a larger picture of the one with the rainbow where I swear there is an animal spirit inside the tree!
I marvel. At you. At the glory of language. At the intimacy of relationship. At the brilliance of nature. At the miracle of creation. At All There Is.
Thank you deeply,
Ah, Donna. Thank you. The miracle and mystery of creation. May we serve it well. Blessings, Deena
I have also been following your work and your concerns, Heidi. The Elephants are a tribal people in the deepest sense and I think that we are learning to live accordingly and these connections, for example, between you, and me and the dynamic heartopened community,is one way. Thank you for writing and I hope you find exactlhy the right title for your forthcoming book.
Bless you, too, Yolanda
Oh yes Gloria. We were there together witnessing that young lion. That was my first – and your first – introduction to the wild. How fortunate we were to be there when we had just also attended the NGO meetings at the U N Conference on Women. Love and Blessings, Deena
Ah, the Elephants of Tanzania. We met the ones we call the Delegate and then Spirit Sister in the Ruaha. Later I dreamed her again and again. I am looking forward to our meeting whenever it occurs. Being human, and so being entangled in our complex lives, it may be more difficult to arrange than this encounter with the Elephant People. But I am hopeful …!
Joey: I have posted an enalred copy of the rainbow image. Now I see orbs I didn’t see before. What do you see? D