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


Speaking with Elephants

by: Deena Metzger

never 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 of them.
     Entering into an alliance with elephants, or with any other animal, was not what was difficult.  Becoming the person who could engage with the natural world in such a way was another matter.  It took place over a long period of time and only in retrospect do I recognize that this occurred: Now that I am here, how did I get here?
     This story is about a meeting.  An unexpected meeting.  An unprecedented meeting.  I had prepared for it and I had been prepared for it.  But when the elephants entered my imagination and my life they called me forth to meet them in ways I do not yet fully understand.  Some of what came before the meeting was part of the event, which cannot be limited to a single moment, and so will be told here briefly.  I don't intend this as either an apocalyptic text nor an exotic narrative about strange experiences, signs, omens and portents; I tell this story so that we may probe it together.

     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.
     One night, quite unexpectedly, though I had been thinking about the relationship between humans and animals quite intensely, elephants entered my dream life much as if dreams came from elsewhere rather than originating within ourselves.  Afterwards, I felt as if I had begun to be on intimate terms with these beings whom I had only, until then, known from a great distance.

     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....ii
     The 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 Gillianís life.  I was anxious to meet this courageous woman who had crossed the barrier between human and animal with such sensitivity and intelligence.
     I also had the hope of meeting up with elephants.  On two occasions when we went on game drives, we came upon bull elephants.  The first was largely indifferent to us but the second, so irritated by the appearance of yet another land rover, stomped deeper and deeper into the bush in order to escape us until I urged the driver to back up and leave the animal to himself.
     Some months later, I learned that this same driver/tracker had been caught driving between an elephant with a small calf and a pride of lions.  The mother elephant, agitated by the lions she couldn't see and the interference of the land rover, carefully overturned the vehicle with the tourists in it.  No one was hurt although the elephant could have trampled them all.  She was meticulous in her behavior, issuing a warning not a punishment.  I have been told twice whether the elephant was shot or not and I cannot remember the outcome.  I stubbornly believe she is alive but it is more likely that she was shot.

     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.
     So there was much on my mind when I returned to Africa in 1998.  Poverty and disruption in Zimbabwe were central, as was the assault on native traditions, but also in the forefront of my mind was also the plight of the elephant and other endangered species.

     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 years old.
     The hunters Gillian spoke of would pray a long time before they set out, envisioning or dreaming the animal they hoped would be given to them.  They then searched for it, days perhaps, passing by this animal and that one until the one who had appeared in their vision was actually before their eyes. They tracked it, again for days, keeping it in sight, praying to it, waiting for it to tire, and finally only when it was exhausted and faced them conveying itself to them did they move in for the kill, the holy sacrifice.

     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 Gillianís 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":

       I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river      Is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable,      Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;      Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;      Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.      The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten      By the dwellers in cities - ever, however, implacable,      Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder      Of what men chose to forget.

       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.
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