Speaking with Elephants-short

Short Version:


I 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 Papen Daniel.


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."

* * *

Elephant & MamaIn the course of co-editing an anthology, Intimate Nature: Women’s Bond with Animals 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 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, it ís gone….

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 Gillian’s 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 Gillian’s 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.

* * *


From the moment we enter the park, we are in the presence of elephants. There is a bull in the brush along the road and two females and a baby splashing on the other side of the river bank and further out, more elephants, and further out what seem at first to be small hillocks or large hay bales turn out to be isolated elephants grazing on the flat plain. Just before we descend toward the river, we see a small breeding herd, six or seven elephants in a line. I do homage silently. I am relieved to see them and grateful. Their size and number testify to the endurance of life. So quickly I find my desire met. The elephants are here. I have been in their presence. I am satisfied.

As we approach the river and the vast muddy fields we see the dignified secretary bird, several water buffalo, herds of impala with their comrades the baboons, hippos walking along the bottom of the river and rising up in pink, wide-mouthed ecstatic roars. It is early summer and most of the animals are with young; there is something joyous and benevolent in the air.

Some people maintain that an animal’s life is only fear, that all of our psychology develops from the terror of being eaten and there is nothing to life but fight or flight. Here the young amble in what can only be called delight, their elders alert but equally jubilant. Being alert has its own aesthetic – the beauty of focus, awareness, concentration. This is and is not an eat and be eaten world; alongside the necessities and the dangers is the exuberant animation of the life force. Augustine sees this immediately and cries out happily as we encounter one family after another: the wart hog family, the mongoose family – oh how tiny and sweet are these little ones – the eland, water bok, monkey, zebra and rhinoceri, some within their own little unit or organized in a social group but all lovingly mindful of the little ones. How visibly tender their feelings are for each other, and tenderness, we perceive, is a significant intelligence.

I am not a utopian or a romantic but I do recognize that it was once different. Human population growth, the development of agriculture, corporate interests and urban needs have sacked the earth and devastated it. Now, if only through artificial maintenance of the way it was, the open and visible co-existence of different species, we are in the presence of original beauty. And this is, thankfully, not Disneyland, not Lion Country Safari, not virtual reality. Something of the way it was remains and is being lived and we are able to witness it.
As we prepare to leave in the light of an astonishing brilliant orange and coral African sunset, we come upon two fisher eagles in a tree and pause for Augustine to pay them homage. They are his sacred bird. He calls them the peacemakers. We have shared such moments with each other before when the sacred eagle, Chapungu, has come during a ceremony, and the barrier between this world and the spirit world has thinned enough to be virtually transparent. And as I have had such moments in my own life, even in North America, and certainly lived it out for twelve years with the wolf companion I called Timber Wolf, I feel confirmed in the virtue of this journey we have made to the preserve and so, recognizing, that we were called and that we followed, or that we prayed and we were being answered, I let myself fold into the beauty of the evening and the camaraderie of the presences around me and the company of my companions.

We arise in the dark the next day to go out on an official early morning game ride. My desire is to see the extent of the park and become a bit familiar with its layout and roads so that we can determine how to spend the afternoon when we will go out once again in our own car. Though we have been led to believe that dawn and early morning are the best times for viewing animals, we see relatively few animals. But Augustine, who is Lion totem [Shumba] does see a family of lions, at least the ears of some lions sequestered in the tall grasses. It is summer in Africa and the rainy season and everything is overgrown. The terrible drought of last year has been alleviated though now, in some places, there is the danger of flooding. What we notice more than anything on this ride is the camaraderie of the animals.


And now it is the afternoon and we are going out ourselves into the park. I feel the necessity to prepare for something, although I do not know what it is. What I do know is what I don’t know: what my dreams have meant; why the elephants have become so important to me; what it can possibly mean to sit in Council with the elephants or with other animals; why I imagine that I who have lived a fairly urban life and who have never fully lived among the animals, might come into such a relationship with them.
As my companions pile into the 4 x 4, I rush back to my room to sit by myself in silence. The now familiar petition rises up into my heart and I say it aloud. There is a great longing in me for the restoration of the natural world. There is a great longing for a reconciliation between the human and the natural world and the spirit world. Again, I am not thinking about the return to Eden, or untroubled lives, but something else. Lives that are sustainable and respectful of each other. I have been equally impatient with those who have blithely assured me that nature will survive even if humans won’t as nature will always recreate itself, as I am with those who as blithely assure me that humans will find a technological solution to the problems we have created and that we are truly making progress. I am yearning for lives that have a future to them, a sense before I die that the earth will continue. I have a passion for a world truly based upon a council of all beings.

And so I speak of this aloud and silently, and offer myself up again. If it is possible for us to meet in council, I am here, I whisper and then jump into the open back of the 4×4. My husband, Michael, is with me; Amanda and Michele are in the cab with Augustine, who is driving. I have begun and continue praying.
We have been respectful of each other’s spiritual needs. We have been beside Augustine in what will be a two-week initiation. This afternoon has been set aside for me to follow my own inclinations and these companions have offered to accompany and sustain me.

We stop at a small market where I must pass a wart hog guarding the entrance in order to buy oranges having read that elephants love oranges so much they will break open any car for them. I don’t find oranges but I do find a ruby red grapefruit, and this will be my offering.

At the gatehouse, Michael and Amanda explain that we are to enter for a reduced fee as we paid an entry fee in the morning. We have the papers but the gatekeeper is adamant that we must pay the full fee. Amanda returns to the car for more pulas, cheerfully assuring the man that we will pay anything to get in. But, by the time she returns, he has decided, for no reason Michael can discern, that we are to enter free. "You are good people," he says. We enter the park.

There in the distance are the two females and the baby elephant who were across the river yesterday. This time they are entering the water and are immediately approached by two tourist boats. I climb out of the back of the truck and kneel on the ground, making my offering to the elephants. First, I must apologize to them for my species. "We have made a deal," I say, "that you can live in this land if we have the right to observe you in all your intimate activities. And I admit that I have come for the same reason. To see you. To be near you. To observe you. I, too, would like to be close to you. And I don’t honor it, I wish there were ways for it to be otherwise, I wish we were coming to each other with pure volition. I wish you had the land you need and were permitted to live on it in the old ways when humans did not own land. So I come to you with these hopes in my heart and in this spirit make an offering to you, honoring who you are."

Getting back into the truck, I am aware that the bull elephant we saw yesterday is there again in the same place. We watch him as we did yesterday only we seem more closely aligned as I am not enclosed in the cab. As he moves slowly along the hill we follow until he ambles down toward us, preceded by two other bulls. All three pause on the road and look at us for a long time. We can see them clearly. Yes, they are aware of our presence. But are they interested in us in any way? I doubt it.
They go down toward the river and we go on. I ask Augustine to drive toward the river and tell him that I have no need for anything more to occur. There is so much beauty here, to ask for more would be unconscionable.

When we come to the river, we see a water buffalo fully immersed in the mud so that only his head is visible. I have seen water buffalo before but never one who is so imposing. He is so patient, I say. and someone corrects me. Patience is such a human quality. He has presence. Yes.
Driving most slowly, greeting the birds and the impala, we follow a turn in the road that opens to vista with a large bull elephant around three-fourths of a mile away, eating grasses alongside the river. There are two land rovers next to him and I ask Augustine to drive toward him, but not too close, as I would like to avoid the humans. There is something compelling about him. Perhaps it is only that he is so close to the road and there is no brush obscuring him. It is as if, even at this distance, there is nothing between us.
Augustine begins driving toward him, but just then a fisher eagle flies over the car and lands on a branch of a neighboring tree. Of course Augustine parks beside the tree and though the eagle flies away immediately, we stay here.

Yes we stay here, and I begin chanting aloud, an ancient kabbalistic chant which has been my prayer and meditation for two years; now it bursts out of me. I know the elephant can hear it.

Slowly the elephant lifts his head from the grasses and begins walking along the river. He does not stop to graze nor does he look around but walks with clear determination and intention. I want to say the words again because they carry what must be communicated here: focused, deliberate, determined, conscious, aware intention.

And he stops directly in front of the truck. The two other cars have followed him but when he raises his trunk they turn around and leave. Fear? Perhaps. Whatever their motivation, I am grateful for it.

The elephant has raised his trunk and is curving it over itself and under itself and up and over again. That is, he ties his trunk into an impossible knot. I have never even seen photographs of such a movement, of such a mudra. I am on my knees and I don’t know what Michael is doing because I am completely taken by the elephant. Actually, Michael tells me later that he was sitting cross-legged and slightly behind me for the entire time. My hands are open on the edge of the truck so that the elephant knows that I am empty-handed and that I have no weapons.

Then the elephant bows his head. There is no other way of describing it. He bows his head and unfurls his trunk.
In my mind, I am speaking to him. And this is approximately what I say:

I know who you are and what kind of beings your people are. I have some sense of the extent and depth of your intelligence and development. And I know that you are a holocausted people. I know something of what this means because I also come from a holocausted people and I have studied other holocausts on the planet in this century. I apologize to you for my species and that we are doing this to you. I cannot tell you the extent of my shame and grief. If there is any way for you to imprint me with your wisdom so that we can form an alliance, so that we can, together, accomplish something on behalf of the earth, I am here and I am not afraid.

Then, I silence my mind. I have said enough. Humans have said enough. I want to be empty and to listen. The elephant moves toward me with the same grace and determination as he moved down the river. It does not take a long time for him to cross the road. He is less than a trunk’s distance from me. Four feet perhaps. He can, if he wishes, wrap his trunk about me without moving closer. Later Augustine will tell me that his hand moved twice to start the car but each time he stopped. He decided even if it came to it to allow me my chosen death.

The elephant stops at this distance and looks me in the eye. We stay this way a long time. Ten minutes perhaps. At least ten minutes. He is a great bull. He is one of the old ones.
Then he turns and moves to the back of the truck and faces it. I turn to him and put my hands out again. We look at each other eye to eye. There is a meditation practice called trespasso where people look into each other’s eyes. The task is to be as naked as possible, to allow oneself to be seen as well as to try to see the other. We are doing trespasso.
Another ten minutes or so pass. Just before the elephant turns again, I realize that I am in my dream. This is the moment in the dream when the old matriarch looked into my eye and I was altered forever. And this is the moment in a later dream when a bull elephant wrapped his trunk about me and I was not afraid. I recognize that I am not afraid.
I hear words in my mind and I let them be spoken silently. "I promise you…" is what I hear myself say.
And he turns and goes behind the truck as if to disappear up the hill into the brush, but turns again and faces the truck and so I turn also and on my knees again acknowledge him. I place my hands together before my heart, the way one does to bow and honor a holy person. It occurs to me that I am in the presence of God.

Another ten minutes pass. You cannot imagine the silence that has descended. The elephant departs, climbing slowly up the hill, and disappears into the trees. We all leap out of the car and throw ourselves on the ground in full prostration. Augustine makes an offering of snuff and prays.
When I have words, I ask what must be asked. Did you see this? Did this happen? So on and so forth. Recounting the moments, verifying them, remaining astonished.
Then we quiet down. We do not explain or understand anything except that Amanda says: "You are an ambassador and they sent their ambassador and you have made a covenant with each other."

It is getting late and we must be out of the park by 7:30. We make our way slowly, stopping to watch the sunset and the different creatures. The secretive hippos and their little ones are coming out of the water, small birds are landing on their heads and backs to eat the parasites. We watch them but time tugs at us, and reluctantly we head back to the entrance.
But now we cannot believe our eyes. Elephants are coming down the hill and crossing the road to the river. At first only a few females and their babies, but now more of them are coming. Waves of elephants. Waves upon waves. Augustine stops the car and we jump out and kneel again. I can hear Amanda sobbing behind me. Even now as I write these words, I am crying. The elephants continue to come. We watch for about ten minutes. There are dozens of them lined up alongside the river and still more are coming. Bulls and cows, old ones and young ones, babies and adolescents. It is like … I do not know… I think… it is like the world ended and then it was saved and the animals are coming forth into the new dawn. That is what it is like. There are no other words for it.

Now we have no choice but to get back into the car again. Someone suggests that we find another road back so that we won’t have to cross between the elephants descending the hill and those on the river; we do not want to come between a mother and her calf. But I know that we must go along the road. They know we are here. We must show up for whatever it is they are calling us to do. And so Augustine drives very slowly and very carefully along the river. The elephants are lined up for at least a quarter of a mile, as if for a parade. Now it is Amanda and Michele and myself in the back of the truck. We are passing by them. They are bowing their heads and flapping their ears at us. And we are bowing and waving and saying, "Thank you. And bless you. And thank you. And bless you."

And now we have reached the entrance to the park, and the man who interrogated us so fiercely last night and insisted that we show him all our papers and receipts waves us through with a great flourish.

I am aware of the date. It is January sixth. It is Epiphany, the festival commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi. Thankfully, we had the wisdom to recognize and so do gasho before the sacred.

* * *

Mama & baby

When we arrived at Londolozi some days later, Amanda and I waited for the right time to speak to Gillian about the elephants. She was not surprised by the story and told us one of her own. She, J.V. and Elmon Mhlongo were filming at Shingalana dam where she and the lion cub Shingi used to walk when Shingi was alive. The three of them were in a land rover and behind them was another car with a film crew. As they prepared to leave, they saw a bull elephant coming onto the field and they decided to stay and film him as he approached the car. Soon he was joined by another bull and then another. In time they were surrounded by twenty-six bulls. In all of J. V.’s and Elmon’s history, they had never seen twenty-six bulls together. At some point, J. V. tried to start the car, but the car didn’t start. He tried another time, unsuccessfully, and they were forced to sit silently, not without considerable anxiety, in the bulls’ presence. Then as mysteriously as they arrived, the bulls left. "Something important has happened," J. V. mused, but he wouldn’t venture what it might have been.
Soon after our arrival, we were given the opportunity to go to Kruger National Park so that we, together with Gillian might meet elephants who are not so common among the wildlife in Londolozi. Gillian called a colleague, Ian White, who is empowered to make the decision regarding future culls, which have been temporarily suspended. He was gracious when she called but advised her that the elephants had made themselves scarce and had not been seen lately in the park. However, he invited us to watch a rhino being transported from the park elsewhere. It would be the same, Gillian told us, as watching a cull: There would be a hunt and the rhino would be isolated through the use of the helicopter; then it would be immobilized by a stun gun and carted off in a truck. Ian White offered an enticement: we could go up in the helicopter afterwards and see if we could locate the elephants, though even if we were successful, it was not a given that we would be able encounter them, as one cannot go off-road in Kruger. We thought about this a long time. I was not certain I could refuse it; I felt the necessity to bear witness. But also I felt the necessity to stay where we were and allow fate to unfold itself.

Ultimately, we decided not to take the many hour drive to Kruger but went out in the land rover with Gillian and her daughter. On our drive we came across three lionesses after a kill. There was no one else around and, uncharacteristically, the lionesses left the kill after eating only a small portion. As we approached, one of them and then the other got up and walked away. We followed them, noting that the vultures were not descending from the trees. One of the lionesses stopped to rest under a tiny bush, scarcely higher than her head and no more than four or five feet from the road, and so we were able to stop in front of her. Soon the other lioness returned and lay down next to her and then after a while the third came along as well. Gillian recognized them as from the original pride of Shingalana. We sat with them in silence, eye to eye, for half an hour. Then Gillian’s four year-old became restless just as another land rover was approaching and so we left.

It is not that anything was clearly communicated in the moment that we were eye to eye. It is as I discovered earlier that a passageway can be opened up between one being and another and once opened it can remain open.

Here are more of the details that came to me in that first experience or dream of elephants.

I was in a circle of elephants in the Serengeti perhaps. There were females, grandmothers, little ones and before them on the ground there was a dead bull, his tusks amputated. They were mourning and I felt the hum of their grief enter into me and then I was mourning with them. It was as if I was one of them.

Then I was taken to the dry plains at the foot of Kilimanjaro to witness – this time with the possibility of understanding — what I had witnessed there in 1984. I traveled across familiar dusty roads to a water hole surrounded by reeds and entered the watchfulness of the mother elephant whose small calf behind her, not as large as her haunch, was munching on the tall grasses. And while I saw, once again, the adolescent lion stalk and crouch ready to spring, feeling more his pride and daring than his hunger, I was, this time, within the awareness of the elephant mother, who was so accustomed to his presence and his timing that she seemed scarcely to follow his movements because she knew the stone ledge behind her and how long it would take him to circle on it, how deeply he would slouch and how long he would pause, waiting, silent, until — Then, as if pricked by a thorn, she turned, and facing him, flapped her ears as at an insect as he retreated hurriedly and she returned to her meditation on grass. I was learning the wisdom of the senses and the depth of maternal watchfulness.
And again I was taken back to where I had first met the elephants and was passed, as if on currents of air, through all their bodies all at once, through many stories of persecution and captivity, undergoing the uncomprehending despair of the circus performers who, given as joke, a small stool upon which to balance their great bulk, still attempt to communicate something to the puny excited creatures seated so peculiarly in concentric rows before them. But, alas, the creatures receive nothing of it and make sharp noises that grate on the great flairs of the elephants’ ears. So if sometimes the elephants rage, if sometimes they hurl a log they are hauling uselessly from one place to another or break their keeper’s bones in the frustrated twist of their trunks, it is because their lives and nature are perverted beyond endurance. We stayed here a long time. I was involved in the activity of observation but it did not feel the same as being at a circus or a zoo. We stayed here until I feel the totality of their despair.

Then once again I was brought into the dance across the savanna, extended into the tree toward the far leaf and the rapture of the fluid beauty of the blooming earth. And back to the death of the bull and the grief of the matriarch of which I cannot speak.

Then before the time was up, I said, "Thank you" and "Thank you" and "Thank you for taking me into your bodies.
And said "Thank you," again as she looked me in the eye and I shuddered from the light that passed through her to me. They said, "We will teach you the intelligence of beauty." I looked into their eyes, and understood that I knew nothing. "I will remember this," I said. "Of course," they said, "Because we never forget." An inevitable phrase, you say, one that comes glibly to the imagination. Yes, but I glimpsed something of its meaning.

True, it is not the elephant who forgets. I forgot. The dream faded and I began to doubt. The elephant had come in a stunning vision and I had allowed myself to be dazzled and then I turned away. Other dreams came, other events occurred and then I was in Africa because I had stopped forgetting.

What happens when we communicate across species lines? There are many theories and assertions – that we think to each other in pictures, that we can read each other’s minds in language. I am skeptical of all of these because I don’t think we know anything yet. Nevertheless I have, it seems, experienced something that sometimes feels like a transmission of mind or the opening of a channel of communication.

When I returned to Topanga after being with the bull elephant, I awakened with the following dream image:

The head of an animal. Like the water buffalo at Chobe. It is a head clearly separated from the body but it isn’t beheaded. It is somewhat like a water buffalo and somewhat like a rhino. Massive, impressive. It reminds me of Augustine; it carries power.

The dream asked to be addressed:

Something remarkable happened in Chobe and Londolozi. Isnít it true that the animals came forth to meet us? That we prayed for this and prepared ourselves and they trusted us enough to let us see their faces free of the disguises we insist upon, the fur and the teeth through which we assure ourselves that we are superior or through which we diminish who they are.

Now this creature comes to me in a dream. A head. A spirit allying itself with me or a spirit with whom I am making an alliance. The world is new. It is not the world I was born into but it is a world I have been looking toward from the time I was a child. The unexpected and inexplicable affiliation with the natural world.

Then these words appeared on the page, the echo of unspoken words from the dream world:

"Humans will heal nothing in themselves or between themselves, they will not heal the world in any form if they do not fully re-integrate themselves into the natural world. Humans will heal nothing if they persist in seeing themselves outside the natural order, whether for reasons of their putative development or frailty. Arrogance and fear are a dreadful admixture, and humans are possessed by it. Only by entering into the network of interconnection and alliance, into the natural order, yielding to the implicit law, is healing even remotely possible."

When I told the story of the elephants to my friend, the poet Peter Levitt, I said, "I can only come to two conclusions: God exists and the elephants are exactly who I have come to see they are: conscious, spiritual beings that we are destroying."

"I would not say it that way," Peter responded.
"How would you say it?"
"I don’t find it necessary to offer proofs of God’s existence. I would say this: You were in God’s world. In God’s world such things exist. You and the elephant are two sides of a single wave."
"That is how some physicists speak of reality," I said.

I began to try to put words to this insight: There is a wave between us manifesting as elephant on one side and I on another, connected by longing, prayer, hope, insight, vision. We are distinct, but one and the same, partaking equally of God’s universe. In this universe, there is no dualism; we are each a manifestation of a single source, one consciousness walking toward each other in one shape and in another.

Now the elephants do not leave me. They are before me all the time. It is as if the old bull is continuing to look into my eyes. The world in which I live is radically changed. This is another world altogether in which such events can occur, a world we are obliged to learn to understand.

In the past six months, I have been engaged in studying the Holy Letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In six months, I have not yet studied all the letters. In truth it takes years to fathom the meaning of any one of them. Meditating one day after returning, I dared to ask: What does all of this mean?

The card that fell out of the deck was the letter , Lamed. It is a card I have studied before and so I knew before I turned to any texts that which looks so much like an elephant’s trunk is, in fact, associated with the elephant.

Of the path associated with this letter, Madonna Compton says:

The 22nd Path is called the Faithful Intelligence … because we have a responsibility – if we want to have a relationship with it – to increase our own faith.iv

I then turned to another source, which has guided me for these months in my study of the letters:

The form of the represents the aspiration of the truly devoted pupil to learn from the mouth of the teacher. The literal meaning of the letter is "to learn or to teach." A seed of wisdom descends to impregnate the full consciousness of the heart. The heart ascends to receive this point of wisdom.

The … characterizes the desire and aspiration to understand the nature of the world we live in. This … instinct in the heart to strive to know "mother nature."v

As I sat down to write these pages, I asked the letters again: How do I proceed? This time I received the letter , Kuf, a letter I had not studied before. I came upon the following:

In Sefer Yetzirah, the letters of Adar, , Kuf and its sense, is that of laughter. "The strength of the miracle makes all ëturn overí even until the ëworld of deceití turns into ëthe world of truth.í The miracle of Purim is the secret of the ëelephant entering the eye of a needle,í which even in the vivid, often wild imagination of a dream is ëimpossible,í unless explicitly thought of by day. The word, ëElephantí relates to the word ëturned over,í or ëwonder,í [as it is said, "One who sees an elephant in his dream, wonders of wonders shall happen to him"]. The ësongí of the elephant in Perek Shirah is ëHow great are Your deeds, G-d; your thoughts are very deep.í"vi

Momentarily following one other lead, I came across this:

In Mishnah and Talmud the elephant is called pil. Jastrow suggests that it was originally naphil, [plural nephilim] meaning ëgiant.í … The Talmud offers a different interpretation for the word pil. The Rabbis declare that if one sees an elephant in a dream, wonders [pelaíim] will be wrought for him; If several elephants are seen, wonder of wonders will ensue. [Berachot 56b, 57b].

Within the sacred order, there is an ongoing conversation between all beings. In the face of it, our understanding of influence and also cause and effect is naïve, mechanistic and overly simple. It should be no surprise that the sacred texts I was researching reconnected me directly with the phenomenon of elephant presence, intelligence and wisdom. The sacred texts are not outside the natural order. They are of the natural order for they are one of the languages that Spirit speaks, one of the forms through which Spirit manifests. What we look at as signs are the glimpses we manage of the way of the sacred. The natural world is not outside of this; we are. But we are outside only by our own choice. We have not been exiled; we have exiled ourselves. Within the sacred order, creation is on-going, all beings are involved in its dynamic and the world emerges originally each moment from these distinct and beautiful interactions. The experience I had with the elephants was a momentary return from exile. The texts I consulted confirm this. So many possibilities exist now. We can come home; we can live within the sacred order.

* * *

Soon after I returned from Africa, I visited my granddaughter Jamie and described the meeting with the elephants. "The elephant spoke to me," I said.
"What did the elephant say?" she asked.
"The elephant said, "We are from the same family."

The same night I had a dream and it reminded me of sacred animal funerary rites. I am haunted by the stories of elephants mourning their dead. And I am haunted by this story told to me by Christine Jurzykowski, Director of Fossil Rim Wildlife Center of a vigil of giraffes, circling and circling the old one among them who is dying:viii

He knew I knew he would die soon – I knew he knew too.
… Meanwhile, the herd had gathered on the other side of the barn. The giraffes began what looked like gestures of acknowledgment of Old Nick; arching their long necks and throwing their heads back, then dropping their heads forward. Arching back, then lunging forward. This gesture continued as they paced methodically in a circle. Then in unison, they stopped.
As we entered the early morning hours, the bull’s gestures became more dramatic and pronounced. As if they were learning choreographed dance movements, the females matched the gestures of the bull exactly. The dance became more animated and the herd moved toward frenzy. We weren’t sure we could contain them, so we moved the bull to a room where Old Nick was out of his view, hoping this would restore quiet.
Alone, the bull continued his movements. The females, who could not see the bull, began moving with him. In unison and in silence they continued to bow and arch their necks, pacing themselves to the stamina of the dying giraffe.

Who are these beings who attend the lives of their kin with so much respect and dignity?

This was the dream I had:

We were walking in the bush in a sacred circle. The circle belonged to the animals who have walked it again and again. We walked around twice. Perhaps we saw the elephants. The man who was teaching me the way to walk this circle revealed that someone had just died as he walked the circle a second time with the group. The dead man was offered to the animals. But this was not the important focus. What was important was the circle that was walked and the presence of the animals, in particular, the elephants.

* * *


When Michael came home from Africa in late January, we realized that I dreamed something of what happened to him. After we left, seven people arrived from the United States and Europe to work with Michael and Augustine. Because of our experience with the elephants, Michael and Augustine decided to incorporate a trip to Chobe into their initiatory work. As they descended to the river, they saw the bull elephant in the place where he had approached us. It was as if he had been waiting for them. They drove to him and sat in his presence. Michael noticed his own desire for the experience to repeat itself, for the people he had brought to have a vision. He meditated fiercely, recognizing his hunger, trying to release it. The elephant left and they drove on. In a dense area, they came upon a few elephants with several newborns at the side of a pond. A giraffe was browsing at the far end of the water. Everyone climbed out of the vehicle to stretch their legs and look upon this scene. The elephants did not seem to mind the intrusion. Slowly, approximately three dozen elephants came silently out of the bush and walked to the edge of the water. Swept up by the beauty of this, one of the participants took his camera and ran toward them in ecstatic jubilation. The bulls began to trumpet and stamp their feet. Michael yelled for the man to return but he was lost in his passion. More trumpeting and flapping of ears in what appeared to be great anger and apprehension. After some insistence, Michael was able to get the resistant man back into the truck, but by now they were surrounded by elephants and more were appearing on all sides. It was as if elephants had called for re-enforcement. The people started to drive down the road but their way was blocked and turning around they saw yet another herd appearing. Deeply shaken and frightened, they drove cautiously, seemingly making their escape, and so ventured to pause at the side of a large meadow to watch the sunset in sight of another large herd of elephants that was browsing in the distance. But after a few minutes they noticed that these, too, were drifting in their direction. Cautioned, they made their way toward the exit and finally found a way to leave the park.

It was inevitable that this occurred. As Aldous Huxley once warned us: "The Greeks…knew very well that hubris against the essentially divine order of Nature would be followed by its appropriate nemesis."ix
Of course, we were busted. We. Yes, we, for I will not presume this would not have happened if I were there. After such a singular moment of exchange, it is almost given that we would presume that the elephants would be overjoyed at our presence, would recognize our good-heartedness and open themselves fully to us. Deflation, therefore, is equally inevitable and it was fortunate that it occurred quickly and precisely and without obvious harm.
Originally, we had come to Chobe on behalf of the elephants, but such a purpose is easily obscured. Without thought, we privilege the human, give primacy to our own needs and desires. Sometimes it takes a lifetime of practice and meditation to set aside the individual ego. How long will it take us to set aside the species ego?
Naturally, the elephants felt endangered. Michael was dismayed afterwards at how persistently the participants focused on their own danger and not the danger to the elephants, a species that fiercely protects its young no matter what the danger to themselves which is considerable as human beings systematically kill any elephants who attack them no matter what the provocation. Ultimately the group sat in council and undertook the difficult task of seeing the consequences of their behavior.

While they were contemplating this in Africa, I was thinking about what we, with some disparagement, call group mind and that this train of thought requires me to undo many cultural assumptions. Group mind, herd mind, following like sheep, these imply a lesser form of intelligence, without individuality, creative innovation or personal will. Having watched the elephants and other animals, even for such a relatively short time, I would like to suggest other possibilities:
What if will is not as exalted a quality as we assume and what if imposing our will, our individual wills, upon the world is the factor that is destroying us and the environment? What if being a carrier of group mind means that one is keenly aware of oneself, one’s place and circumstances and one’s relationship to all the others? What if, simultaneously, one is as precisely and compassionately aware of the individual place and circumstances of each one of all the others and their relationships to the whole? What if one is as aware of the others as one is of oneself? And what if this awareness extends beyond the reciprocal awareness of each member of the herd or flock also to other animals, perhaps even other creatures. If this approximates the natural order, then each individual member is a repository of exquisite awareness, approaching close to what I think we mean when we say Buddha mind: an awareness of the field of relationships that is, by its nature, compassionate and empathetic. I would like to suggest that to live within the natural world is to engage in a complex and sensitive conversation, a veritable on-going council of all beings, the very council and living net from which we have willfully separated ourselves.

For a long time, I have been contemplating what the etiquette might be between human and animal if we ever enter into reciprocal relationships with each other. It will require, in the deepest sense, a change of mind. Perhaps it is not that we need to see that humans are also animals. Perhaps we also need to see that some animals, at least, are more than human. Coming into some recognition of the true face of the others we call animals, what will be the polite and respectful conventions, the procedures, ceremonies, formalities, unwritten codes of honor by which we will approach these beings?
There is a final story I must tell. Simakuhle, Augustine"s wife, is a dreamer and trance medium. Just before Michael left Africa, she came into the living room and turned on the television. A newscaster was recounting the unprecedented appearance of two elephants in a village or suburb of Harare that faces open bush. It seems that a trance medium from that area has been dreaming the elephants. She has said that they have been coming to her, that they were reaching out across the borders from their world to ours and that they must not be killed. "The elephants are the wise ones," she said, "and they have much to teach us." When the elephants appeared in the streets, a few people goaded them and the elephants attacked, injuring, but not killing, one of the people. An air force helicopter was called into to scare the elephants away but rangers said they were forced to shoot the animals before the helicopter arrived because of the danger to human lives. Much to the officials’ surprise, the villagers came out in great numbers in an unprecedented protest against the slaughter of the elephants.

I do not think I called the elephants to me. I think they are coming to us, calling us. I think they are consciously transmitting cries of anguish and grief, and some of us are hearing them and are responding. When we come forth in that way we are re-united with them in a single wave of consciousness. Peter Levitt is right: Those of us who want to live in God’s world can be part of the same wave.

i Intimate Nature, Womenís Bond with Animals, co-edited by Deena Metzger, Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson, Ballentine, New York, 1998
ii "Coming Home," by Deena Metzger in Intimate Nature, Womenís Bond with Animals, co-edited by Deena Metzger, Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson, Ballentine, New York, 1998
iii A film, Shingalana, The Little Hunter, was made from the same story. Londolozi Productions
iv Archetypes on the Tree of Life: The Tarot as Pathwork, Madonna Compton, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1991, p.157
v The Alef-Beit: Jewish Thought Revealed through the Hebrew Letters, Rabbit Yitzchak Ginsburgh, Jason Aronson, Inc., New Jersey, 1995, p. 181-183
vi The Alef-Beit: Jewish Thought Revealed through the Hebrew Letters, Rabbit Yitzchak Ginsburgh, Jason Aronson, Inc., New Jersey, 1995, p.289
vii The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought, Shlomo Pesach Toperoff, Jason Aronson, Inc., New Jersey, 1995, p.64
viii "Dance With a Giraffe," by Christine Jurzykowski, Intimate Nature: Womenís Bond with Animals, Fawcett Columbine, pp. 393-396, Christine Jurzykowski is Director and Chairman of the Board, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, Glen Rose, Texas
ix Old English Dictionary 1950 A. Huxley Themes & Variations 259