It is a great honor to be asked to give the convocation speech, to call us together, to invoke the heart that can guide us in this visionary and terrible work which began with an intervention on behalf of eight, now five, Elephants in the Oregon Zoo, extended toward ending Elephant captivity of all kinds, nationally and internationally, and will, certainly reverberate far beyond these goals.
TO WATCH THE VIDEO GO HERE
To think of ending captivity for Elephants (and by extension other non-human beings) is to recognize that the individuals of non-human species are persons. This challenges conventional and imperialist theories of domination and hierarchy and seeks compassionate and respectful relations with all beings. We are engaging in a profound change of mind.
Photo by Cynthia Travis
Last year, preparing to visit the Elephants in the wild in Africa for the 9th time, I started writing about visiting the Elephant People. I could no longer avoid asserting what Indigenous people on all continents have always known: we are kin with all life. Shortly afterwards, when teaching the Literature of Restoration, an effort to revision Western literature and language, changing basic but often invisible assumptions, so that the survival of the Earth is implicit rather than undermined by how we speak and think, it became evident that the phrase Elephant People required the capitalization of Elephant – and, consequently Whale, Gorilla, Chimpanzee, Wolf, Turtle, etc as we capitalize French or English. Such a simple shift asserts that we are peers, co-participants in the life and activity of this world.
On April 7, 2018, the article in the NY Times on the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project reminded me of sitting with friends in a living room in 1972, reading Christopher Stone’s argument in the California Law Review aloud: Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. We were electrified. We knew that an original and revolutionary way of thinking had entered the public discourse, and everything would change. In 2017, four Rivers were given the status of legal persons and Mount Taranaki in New Zealand also received legal status.
Even as the natural world and all its beings are violated, mutilated and murdered as never before, we are within another wave of radical recognition and revisioning of the status and relationships between homo-sapiens and all others. There will be encouraging and substantial consequences of this gathering, that we cannot imagine or design. The Elephant People know this and have gathered us to recognize the enormity of their pain and the greatness of their being and wisdom.
The following words are from Intimate Nature: Women’s Bond with Animals, which I edited with Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson in 1998. The words were prescient.
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. To honor intimacy across the seeming boundaries of species is to return the sacred to the world.
Let me dare say at the outset that the Elephant People have spiritual agency and are articulate if invisible presences here. Over the last twenty years, friends, colleagues, some of you in this room, and I have heard calls to meet “the others”, have experienced mysterious, unfathomable, incomprehensible, but true and irrefutable connections with non-humans. I will tell some stories about the Elephant People here so that we may wonder together at the nature of our kin relationships. These stories are about Elephants sending out calls, about Elephants having agency and our willingness to follow.
In 1998, I had had a dream of a Matriarch performing a mourning ritual over a dead bull whose tusks had been hacked away. I did not think my psyche had created the dream. I thought that the dream had been sent and began to feel a disquieting and baffling longing to “sit in Council with the Elephants.” I could not explain what this meant.
On epiphany 1999, five of us were at Chobe Wild Animal Park in Botswana. At the last hour of our last day in the park, a bull elephant was grazing a half-mile away on a strip of green that bordered the muddy river. I called to him in my mind. He began to walk steadily and determinedly toward the open bed of the truck where I was watching not without a kind of holy terror of what was occurring. The Elephant stopped, twisted his trunk in an impossible knot and approached.
We stared in each other’s eyes. Silently, I said, “I know something of who you are. You are from a holocausted people and so am I.” In about ten minutes he moved to the back of the truck and then the other side. A least 30 minutes. Then in a flash, he was gone. We were all overwhelmed. Because the park was closing, we had to make our way against our better judgment along the road as cows and calves came down the incline in a landslide of Elephants. But rather than being hostile, they lined up along the river bowing their heads and flapping their ears as we bowed back. Had I not been with four other people, I never would have believed this. We were shaken to our core. We recognized the Elephant as an Ambassador.
I’m often asked, “What did the Ambassador say?” Elephants have never ‘spoken’ to me in words in my mind except in 2017 when Frankie, the junior Matriarch of the herd given sanctuary at Thula Thula by the “Elephant Whisperer” Lawrence Anthony, asked, “Can you imagine what it is like to be a Matriarch to a herd when I cannot find water for my little ones? Confined on this preserve, I am helpless.”
Although other exchanges were not in human language, precise communication arose through the circumstances of our meetings. Time and time again, narratives emerged that could not be dismissed.
From Chobe, I visited wildlife activist Gillian van Houten at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. She and her partner, wildlife filmmaker J. Varty were intending to bring Angus, an Elephant captured after a brutal cull, back to South Africa before he went into musth. Going to Toronto, I wanted to visit Angus at Bowmanville, and the director, Michael Hackenberger, who was ignoring their correspondence, to speak of his return. Though I had made an appointment, confirmed many times, Angus, was not there. However, I did see an agonized bull elephant in musth, chained to a wall. This image has haunted me since. Ultimately Hackenberger agreed to return Angus to South Africa, but not to Varty and van Houten, publicly asserting that the prospective return was not inspired by conservation reasons. Angus died of a trial sedative before being placed on a plane. Hackenberger, the Life of Pi trainer, was later accused of animal cruelty based on a PETA video of him whipping a tiger. Public outrage caused attendance to drop drastically and the zoo was closed down.
In 2005, I was at Chobe with Cynthia Travis of Everyday Gandhis, several peacekeepers from Liberia, two San people from the Kalahari and various others from the US and South Africa. Each year that I returned to Chobe I was scrupulous about spending the last hours of the last day in the park at the Chapungo (Fisher Eagle) tree where we had met the Ambassador. Though we had other encounters at different times, there were always significant meetings in this window of time and space. This time, a Bull Elephant came near and stopped.
Photo by Cynthia Travis
Then a Cow descended to the river, approaching him with her two calves. She and the Ambassador twisted their trunks together. While the two cows re-ascended the hill, the little bull lingered until he was dismissed, rapped on his butt by the Ambassador as a human father might.
Minutes later, the Ambassador led us forward some hundred feet, stopped, poked at something in the ground and threw us a weathered Elephant thigh bone. The gesture was deliberate. He turned, twisted his trunk as he had in 1999, went down on his knees, rose up, and disappeared into the bush.
In 2011, Krystyna Jurzykowski, Founder and Chairperson of the Board of Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Texas, and I returned to Chobe. We were parked at the Chapungo Tree at the last hours of the last day. Suddenly, we were alarmed when a very small Elephant came down to the water hole alone.
We watched carefully, concerned that we could not protect it from a predator as humans must not interfere in the life of the wild. All we could do is pray. After about twenty minutes, a herd began descending. A bull elephant and a cow, seemingly the dominant ones, approached the little one together and all began crossing the shallow river. For a while, the area was deserted, but in the last hour the herd returned, including the Bull, the Cow and the little one. Then a car pulled up to the water hole and the driver jumped out with his camera, causing great agitation. He obstinately ignored our warnings as some members of the herd went to the rise on the road and blocked it. Returning to the car, he revved the engine and started up aggressively. When he reached the Elephants, he did not slow down and one of them rose up and trumpeted with clear anger. We did not know if they would part in time or smash the car. They parted. The Elephants returned to the river. Now, it was time for us to go. I turned the key and began moving very slowly but the Elephants returned to their former station and blocked our way.
So I turned off the engine, accepting that we might have to stay in the park. But when our acquiescence was clear, the Elephants parted and let us on our way.
Cynthia Travis and I traveled to Tanzania in 2008 with a team including ex-child soldiers, an ex-rebel general and peacebuilders. We wondered if we would have equivalent encounters when traveling with a guide in unfamiliar areas. We did.
Then she and I returned to Africa in 2016 and 2017 and were on Safari with both our own guide and local guides who could well be skeptical of our pursuit of such connections. There are so many stories to tell, but in 2017, in Damaraland, Namibia with the Desert Elephants, at the end of a three-week Safari, Cyndie, Matt Meyers, former Chief Ranger at Mala Mala game reserve, and I were following a Bull Elephant who, we realized only on our departure, was the same Bull who had greeted us at the threshold of the last day of our earlier safari in 2016. Although, we had been with him the last three days, this last day was yet far different. He was leading and we were following. After an hour or more, he went up on a rise and began battling a little sapling until it was broken off. Then to our astonishment, he went down on his knees, turned his back to us and went to sleep. Neither we, nor Matt had ever been with an Elephant when he lay down. We waited for twenty minutes and departed.
Later in the day, the last hours, we came upon him again, or he came upon us, and we followed him respectfully, his actions and direction clearly intentional. At the time we had to return to the Lodge, the Bull hid himself in dense shrubbery. Were we to leave or wait? We felt tested. We were ready to depart when he trumpeted, emerged and proceeded in the direction we would go as well, stopping so frequently to piss and defecate, which Elephants do when happily greeting each other, we noted it. The he set out from the sand rivers toward a watering hole filled by local people in return for receiving water from the government for themselves. He was headed north and so were we. With timing that could not have been planned and could not have been casual, he emerged out of the shadow of a shale ridge and was illuminated by the last light of the setting sun.
We were undone by awe. He continued his parallel way across the desert, his footsteps illuminated by a light from an invisible source.
As we pursue this most demanding, essential and sacred work together, let us keep this question in our hearts: Who are these sacred beings who have gathered us here? May we free them from sacrilege and violation, restore old, old wise ways while creating new relationships among all beings.
I am closing with a poem of mine:
Suddenly, I am of a single mind extended
across an unknown geography,
imprinted, as if by a river, on the moment.
A mind held in unison by a large gray tribe
meandering in reverent concert
among trees, feasting on leaves.
One great eye reflecting blue
from the turn inward
toward the hidden sky that, again,
like an underground stream
what will appear after the dawn
bleaches away the mystery in which we rock
through the endless green dark.
I am drawn forward by the lattice,
by a concordance of light and intelligence
constituted from the unceasing and consonant
hum of cows and the inaudible bellow of bulls,
a web thrumming and gliding
along the pathways we remember
miles later or ages past.
I am, we are—
who can distinguish us?—
a gathering of souls, hulking and muddied,
large enough—if there is a purpose—
to carry the accumulated joy of centuries,
walking thus within each other’s
particular knowing and delight.
This is our grace: To be a note
in the exact chord that animates creation,
the dissolve of all the rivers
that are both place and moment,
an ocean of mind moving
forward and back,
outside of any motion
contained within it.
This is particle and wave. How simple
The merest conversation between us
becoming the essential drone
into which we gladly disappear.
A common music, a singular heavy tread,
ceaselessly carving a path,
for the waters tumbling invisibly
I have always wanted to be with them, with you, so.
I have always wanted to be with them,