Speaking with Elephants – Addendum


As Speaking With Elephants was originally edited with an eye to publishing it in a national journal, it was necessary to reduce its length considerably. What follows is a compilation of the sections that were removed for the sake of brevity.


In the last years, I have been opening to the lives and presences of animals in ways that my culture forbids, and that western culture regards as superstitious, naïve , even heretical, entering into a healing idiom and language that involves the animals. Timber Wolf, who came into my life as if to enact this series of miraculous events first taught me that language during the fourteen years we lived together. As he aged, I began to call Timber the Buddha wolf because I saw that he was the bearer of great presence and wisdom and had found ways to communicate it to human beings who did not speak his language.

There are many different ways to tell a life and now I can tell my life story from the perspective of a woman affiliated with animals. It would not be a lie to say that everything in my life has led to this moment even though I have never fully told my story in this way and even though I did not realize what I was being prepared for. Suffice it to say that obscured as this theme has been, it is, nevertheless, a great subterranean river underlying and shaping my life.

The old ways of knowing, which I have taken to call original wisdom, are essential to us at this time. Unless we find ways to align ourselves with these ways of knowing and live our lives within the natural law and the cosmic order we may not be able to stop our downward cycle toward self and global destruction.

A series of dreams and experiences led up to the meeting with the Ambassador elephant at Chobe not all of which I was able to include in "Speaking With Elephants."

When we were in Africa, Patricia Langer, a healer from Canada gave me a silver ring with the head of an elephant that was crafted by a Native American. We were marveling that she was able to find an elephant icon in Toronto when Gillian van Houten, the writer and wild life photographer we were visiting at Londolozi, told us the story of an elephant, Angus, at Bowmanville Zoo in the Toronto area . The coincidence alerted us.

As a young bull, Angus had been captured during a cull at Kruger National Park and transported to a circus in Quebec and then to Bowmanville. He has spent his days in the company of a small group of female elephants and has developed the reputation of being very amiable and friendly to children. Indeed, a friend has told me that her children spent many hours riding on his back and these have been high points in their childhood.

Elephant & MamaGillian and her husband, J.V. [John Varty] a wildlife photographer and co-owner of Londolozi have the dream of bringing Angus home before he goes into musth for the first time and has to be confined. Of course, there are many complications including the concern of a psychic who has told Gillian that Angus is very reluctant to return. While in North America, he can manage his memories, she said, but he is afraid that he will be completely traumatized by remembering the cull when he returns to Africa ñ the cull, that as it happens, John Varty filmed. Gillian, a journalist, forced herself recently to watch a cull and write about it. She had to see for herself what the elephants were suffering.

I had a wild idea. I was going to Toronto. I determined to see Angus. I wanted to speak to him about the pilgrimage I had made in 1987 to ten Death Camps in Eastern Europe. I wanted to speak with him about bearing witness, about what we are increasingly called to do on behalf of our peoples and our tribes. Though I have not myself been a victim of a holocaust, and Angus has, I thought we had a common ground of understanding.

When I came to Toronto in the spring of 1998, the appointment that Patricia had made was not honored by the zoo keeper. We had called several times to confirm but our calls were not returned and when we did come to Bowmanville at the agreed upon time, Angus was elsewhere. When we tried to re schedule, it became clear that the schedule being established for him would not accord with ours in any way. Angus would not return to Bowmanville until I left the country.

In the cold barn like structure we stood in front of the elephants who were there. Some females and a great bull in musth, chained to the wall, his legs akimbo, spread outward, as if in great physical pain. He might be confined in this way for months. "A bull in musth is uncontrollable," the keeper said.

I thought of prisoners in solitary confinement. I remembered listening to poet Carolyn Forche speak of visiting a political prison in El Salvador on behalf of Amnesty International. There she was allowed to inspect a torture chamber where there were shelves of people confined in boxes smaller than themselves. She had been cautioned not to indicate a single response, not to allow a single twitch or alteration in her facial expression or her life, also, would be endangered and nothing would come to light of this visit. Later, in private, she vomited and when she was safely out of the country she spoke out.

Before these beings I prayed to be informed by elephant intelligence. "We cannot heal it, cannot change ourselves even on your behalf without the benefit of your intelligence," I said silently. I heard nothing inside myself but a deep and cold emptiness, the rumble of implacable silence.

Patricia and I were traveling north to spend a few days in the snow at a small lake before I was to lead a workshop regarding the role of the healer in the 21st century. All the time we were traveling, I was trying to imagine Angus [Angamello] of Kruger National Park. South Africa in the snow. Thirsty, we stopped in a small town, Lynsie, and came upon a curio shop displaying small elephant figurines from Asia. There on the wall was a photograph: the eye of an elephant. The eye from my dream journey, a gift Patricia later bought for me. "You needed to see her eye again in order to remember her wisdom," she said.

That night, I meditated upon Angus, clearly, it seemed, feeling his fear and distress. Understanding. which did not feel like mine, entered me and I understood that the company of a matriarch who lived on the land to which he would be returning could ease him from his fear and reorient him to a new but original life. In elephant society, it is the matriarch who carries the wisdom of the tribe including the nature and geography of the land. Gathering this knowledge, holding it and teaching it is her role. A young bull elephant detached from the herd is forever undeveloped without this knowledge and often exhibits the scars and distortions of trauma. The consequences are severe. These young ones, are now called rogue elephants for the ways in which they attack species with whom, traditionally, they have lived peaceably. We do not have to look further than to the rise of gangs and crime among displaced, homeless, rootless exiles and immigrants to understand the shock and aftermath of disconnection from the land, oneís tribe and oneís culture..

I conjecture that land is to the elephant as language is to us; it carries meaning, history and culture. It is the ground. Therefore, if Angus is to return to Africa, it might be easier for him he should be in the company of one who carries the map, the living geography, history and culture within her mind. He may need knowledge we humans cannot imagine and to have the landscape imprinted upon his heart by a wise one. "Because everything is where it is," Patricia said, "It is what it is."

Deena--and-Elephant-AngusReturning to Toronto, we studied the photographs that Patricia had taken at Londolozi months before, remembering how we had been mesmerized by a leopard in a tree after it was dark. This leopard was the granddaughter of a great matriarch who had first let herself be filmed by J.V. The daughter had been, as leopards usually are, most shy and aloof and had never allowed herself to be seen while the grandmother had, with what can only be described as will, invited or inveigled J.V. to tell her story. There is no other way to describe the relationship that developed between this man and this animal, the shyest of cats. After allowing his friendship and observation for twelve years she allowed him, perhaps invited him, to be close to her and witness her death.

In the photograph, the granddaughter leopard was staring into the distance at something past anything we could see but I remembered the moments before she looked away. I had found her eyes and they had locked into mine for a long time. Five, ten minutes, I think. ëTransmission,í is what Patricia had been thinking as she observed us. Driving back to our room that night after being with the leopard, it had seemed to me that I could smell the wildlife in the preserve. Particular, pungent, acrid, sweet, intoxicating mammalian smells pierced the air like shafts of light striking darker areas of vegetation. Elephants were here, I noted, not knowing if I was picking up the sweet smell of dung, their dark bodies hidden close by in the brush, or whether it was their earlier presence lingering in the air, on the leaves they had brushed, the grasses they had trampled. Dark as it was, I closed my eyes, giving momentary credence to the possibility that I could sense wart hog, impala, baboon, could smell the water holes and the dry earth, the different foliage, vines and trees. Perception or fantasy, it lasted a brief time and then vanished as soon as we entered the lodge. Human habitation has its own sensory language but is careful to eliminate or overwhelm the organic. In this atmosphere, my momentary olfactory intelligence disappeared. But for that hour, it was as if I were moving across the land like a predator, alert and informed through senses, smell, predominantly, then sound, that had never been primary before. But it was not only the predator, that the leopard transmitted, I was connected with a vast world, informed under and beyond language.

"I think they can see beyond us," Gillian had said later. "They see realities we cannot see."

Deena-Elephant2When we had been eye to eye, I had not lifted my camera to take a picture but afterwards when she was staring out into the distance, I did. In my own photographs, the leopardís eyes are bisected horizontally by a beam of light from the land rover. Dark above and light below. She stares, oblivious or inured, resigned to us, to the intrusion of light; she stares out into the distance, unmoving, removed, unblinking. It was the leopard at the threshold of the dream/journey when I first encountered the elephants. I had also forgotten her.

In the interim between Toronto and my return to Africa in December 1998, I began reading Joyce Pooleís, Coming of Age with Elephants chronicling her life as a researcher and continued with two novels about elephants published in Canada by Toronto authors both based upon the research of Katy Payne whose remarkable book. Silent Thunder, was published later that summer of 98. Elephant Winter, by Kim Echlin, chronicles the story of a woman who, by default, became an elephant keeper in a zoo that can only be Bowmanville. More interesting than the human story is Echlinís dictionary of elephant language based on Katy Payneís and ëJoyce Pooleís research.

Barbara Gowdyís novel The White Bone took my breath away. A book written purely from the internal experience of elephants, this novel renders ëthe otherí in language humans can understand but as if spoken directly from the elephant to their human interlocutor. This is elephant speaking not a human confabulation. Not anthropomorphic imaginings but the rendering of the unfathomable consciousness and awareness, profound interconnection, unbearable tenderness, and awesome grief of elephants, who have developed a culture based upon empathy and compassion, living out the horror of the lives imposed upon them at the end of this all too human-centered century. The coincidence of the books, the wisdom and insights in them, worked deeply into my own consciousness and the elephants became figures in my daily life upon whose existence I meditated in the ways that we occasionally meditate upon the lives and hearts of those we love, particularly when they are endangered at a distance and we are helpless to assist them.

In the journey, I came upon pale red, brown, gray sandstone cliffs rising up steeply from a warm river bed. The first thought in my mind was: Where are the elephants? Then as if the earth has spoken: "We are the elephants." Cliff and elephant were indistinguishable. I was longing to touch it / them, to stroke the entire height of the 200 foot cliffs. I moved toward and the elephants came forth out of the earth.

I was aware of intense intimacy between us. It was everything I have ever hoped for and feared. There was great danger involved and it had to be met with trust. It was possible, as people have always maintained, that all elephants are wild animals, inferior beings, intrinsically dangerous. Or that these elephants like others had been driven mad by humans taking their territory, hunting them, amputating their tusks and feet. If either of these possibilities were true, I was not only endangering my own life, I was endangering the elephants. If I were to be injured, they would surely be killed. I had so far neglected, despite the example of my friend and colleague, Beverly Antaeus, to leave a note in my will protecting the life of any animal that might happen to kill me.

But if I didnít trust that the elephants have been in communication with us, that they are the profound beings I think they are, then all was lost. It was necessary that I trust even at the risk of my life. An elephant reached out and wrapped me in his trunk. This was the essential moment. Could I trust him? Overwhelmed with fear, I yielded to him. Embracing and embraced by the trunk, that was fully animal and fully earthen, I was taken into a domain of love where flesh, clay, and heart dissolved one into the other and I couldnít distinguish the love which I felt from the soft skin of the elephant or the mud from which all being has emerged. Fear, which had been great, disappeared as I implored the elephant wrapped about me: "Imprint me with your sound as I was once imprinted by the whales. Pass on your wisdom so we will know how to walk among you."

It was the same prayer I had uttered before but it felt original to the moment. When I awakened from the journey, I did not dwell on the ecstatic moment of connection and embrace. I was more aware of the dance between terror and trust, what it took to submit to the animal, to a force and intelligence beyond my understanding.

It was this journey that prepared me deeply to encounter the Ambassador. When he approached me so closely, I was not afraid because I had, in the real, but distinct, realm of the imagination, confronted the inevitable human terrors and was able to yield to the sacred event that was occurring between us.

A month later, I had the following dream:

I was on a roof garden atop a skyscraper. Elephants appeared. They came out in a rush, wanting the children. Reluctant to indulge fear, I felt it nevertheless. An elephant ran by me so close and so fast I assumed he didnít see me between him and the stone walls of the roof garden. Unaware of my presence, he could have easily crushed me. But he didnít. I noted this and calmed myself.

Meanwhile, I heard the silent elephant demand. They wanted the children. I decided not to be afraid and reminded myself that I had been waiting for and it was necessary to trust them. It was essential; this much I knew. I held my granddaughter Sarah, who is a tiny one, up to them. Others were offering their children to the bull elephants who were growing breasts to nurse the human children. One came by me and stood up on two legs. A voice whispered ëhermit.í I gave Sarah to this one who took her gently and happily with his trunk and she snuggled into his chest with great delight. I didnít need to be told the hermitís name but I was clearly informed that he was Chiron, king of the centaurs, hierophant, great teacher of all the mythic heroes, most renowned as the wounded healer. The elephants disappeared with our children. The roof garden was empty. I dimly perceived that I have offered up my granddaughter to the sacred.

Mama & babyThen a blonde, carefully coifed woman entered dressed in a Broadway showgirl version of Annie Oakley with short skirt and petticoats, fringed red and white leather vest, cowboy boots and pistols, a lariat, making nervous figure-eights. She was panicked about the safety of her child but pretending that she was trusting. Her anxiety and determination were apparent, they exuded from her like a strong and noxious odor. It was certain that the elephants would smell her fear and also her determination to exercise her will. Now I could smell will; it had an caustic metallic odor. However she approached them, she was certain to provoke the elephants. They would stampede. The children would be killed. The elephants would all be shot. And the woman would never know that it was her action which had caused the tragedy.

I took her aside, insisting that she give me the lariat, the pistols, that she leave the area and allow me to get the child. I was, myself, apprehensive because of the stink of her anxiety and anger. Finally, she relinquished the lariat and departed. It was my task to get all the children back before the humans panicked., I couldnít accomplish this unless I had full trust in and of the elephants. How it occurred, I do not know, but the task was accomplished and everything was saved.

It was this dream that alerted me to the dangers of human will and self-centeredness, to the ways in which we do not take responsibility for our emotions or actions in regard to the natural world. It was this dream which echoed in my mind when the group Michael had brought to Chobe encroached upon elephant territory.

These were some of the other experiences that prepared me for meeting the Ambassador. Returning to Londolozi after Chobe in 1999, Amanda Foulger, a shamanic practitioner and I considered with Gillian on the meanings of the meeting that had, it was becoming clear, been orchestrated by the elephants. Gillian speculated also the meaning of the moment when she, J.V. and Elmon Mhlongo were surrounded by the bull elephants. She wondered if the elephants were trying to determine if the three of them would be serving the elephants by bringing Angus back to Africa. The bulls may have wanted to know exactly who they were and what were their deepest intentions. As we discussed this, I was aware that we were accepting the possibility that elephants could determine such information about us as human beings, even by telepathic means. Also that within the network of all life, Angusí fate and the fate of all elephants are understood as intimately related. What we as humans have not yet come to acknowledge is that other species beside human beings, elephants being only one example, are informed and shaped by the intelligence of such interconnections.

These events offered the three of us a basis from which we could speak to each other about the elephants, about Gillianís work with lions, leopards, cheetahs, about our different experiences with animals and about crossing the borders between the known and the unknown. Towards the end of our time together, Amanda led us on a journey so that we could come to an even deeper understanding of what was occurring and how we might respond. Following Amandaís drumming, Gillian and I journeyed and came upon the very same images.

homeWe found ourselves within a circle of animals. Many of the same animals were in both of our circles. In the dream/journey I was eye to eye with a woolly mammoth. I was startled. I didnít remember even thinking about wooly mammoths before; they were not figures of my imagination. Gillian was startled as well, but for other reasons: When she had been in Toronto filming Angus, she had been overcome with the necessity, despite great difficulty, to film the bones of the woolly mammoth in the museum. We did not know how to respond to this coincidence. "The ancestors are calling us," Amanda said quietly.

Yes. It seemed so. Many bridges were being made. The skeletons of woolly mammoths can also be found in Los Angeles, preserved in the La Brea Tar Pits, not ten miles from my house. When I returned to Los Angeles, I came upon an article in Wild Earth, Spring 1999 by Paul S. Martin and David A. Burney, "Bring Back the Elephants!"

"In the fall 1998 issue of Wild Earth, Michael Soulé and Reed Noss proposed rewilding as the foundation of a continental conservation strategy. Central to this proposition is the recovery of existing top predators such as grizzlies, cougars, and wolves to large parts of their native ranges. Here we consider the ultimate in rewilding. While the diversity of Americaís charismatic megafauna was severely impoverished in the late Pleistocene we can turn to Africa and India for surrogates for restoration. We suggest that the project begin by restarting the evolution of the most influential of the missing species, the extinct animals most likely to have exerted the greatest influence on their natural environment. Based on what is know of living megaherbivores in Africa and Asia, and based on the fossil record of the New World, there is one clear choice, animals as potent as fire in their dynamic influence on ecosystems. If we want the "superkeystone species" (Shoshani and Tassy 1996), second only to our own capability for altering habitats and faunas (Buss 1990, Sukumar 1994) we should start with the restoration of living proboscideans ñ with African and Asian elephants.

I had in some sense come home.

In April of this year, 1999, I returned to Toronto and this time I did meet Angus and spent several hours with him in the meadow next to the Zoo enclosures. [See photographs this website taken by Patricia Langer.] I will not speculate if anything occurred for him with our meeting, but I know the ease I felt with him, the hope I have that he will return to Africa and the comfort of embracing this one who is, for me at least, a member of the family.

Here are the last two dreams, as of August, 1999 that I have had of elephants. Each occurred within days of my return from Africa.

I returned from a journey to Africa and was living among elephants and other wild animals. It was like Londolozi in a suburban area. I took a walk keeping an eye out, as one does, for the animals. Of course, I wanted to see the elephants. Down the street I saw the huge form of elephant head and ears against the sky. I called my granddaughters Jamie, age 7 and Sarah, age four and insisted that they hold my hand as the elephant approached. At first, we were approached by a strange flying beast more like a dinosaur, but then I saw another dark shape and knew that in a moment we would be in the company of the elephant who was walking down the street.

This is the last dream:

I was teaching a major workshop in a theatre. Several hours were required to communicate the material on dreams. One of the students became restless. She did not want to hear what I had to say but wanted a directect experience, one, she clearly intimated, that would be interesting but not too challenging. She wanted to be certain she would not have to consider changing her life in any way. I wondered how I might accommodate her when it was clear she not ready for the experiential work. A great deal had to be known and understood in order to see what was to be seen. Also the experience would be dangerous to anyone who was not prepared.

The dream work was about meeting the elephants. In the dream, it was made plain to me that more than any other animal, the elephant is fully other. When one moves across a field and comes, suddenly, upon the elephant, one confronts the other absolutely. To confront the elephant is to confront absolute nakedness; it is that shocking.

It was my intention to return to Africa in September 1999. I wanted to meet with the Zimbabwean trance medium who had come out on behalf of the elephants. But shortly before I was ready to leave, I learned that seeking her out might put her in danger with those authorities who are dismayed by her outspokenness. I learned this the same day that "Speaking With Elephants" was published in Earthlight and mounted on this website. I wondered whether I should return to Africa. Was I being called or was I seeking an adventure?

A few days later, I was with my granddaughters at the Wild Animal park near San Diego. Jamie and I were standing before two female Indian elephants. Jamie was wondering what it means to be elephant totem. We are ndzou [Shona] or mandlovu [Ndebele] I was telling her. "What does it mean?" she was asking. "It means we and the elephants are one family," I answered.

"I wonder," she speculated, "if I can organize the children in my school to send peanuts to the elephant so they only have this dry hay to eat. I wonder how we can free all the elephants so they can go back to their land."

At that moment, one of the elephants took a trunk full of hay and threw it in the air with a snort.

We laughed. It is a common gesture for elephants to cover their backs with hay against sunburn but it was the only time she did it during the fifteen minutes we were with her. Jamie thought the elephant understood and applauded her intention and so did I.

In that moment, I knew that I had one more task to do — to write this piece. And then I would know that my work, at this point, is done. I am not returning to Africa this fall. I have heard the call and have responded as deeply as I know how. If there is another call, I will answer it. In the meantime, I know that many of you who have been reading these pieces are dreaming of elephants. Be attentive to what they are calling you to do. They are our family.

Thursday, August 05, 1999