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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 6.2 (2004) 25-34

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A Creature of Many Parts

It was six men of Hindustan
To learning much inclined
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind)
That each by observation
Might satisfy the mind.
—John Godfrey Saxe,
The Blind Men and the Elephant: A Hindu Tale

[End Page 25]

In an atlas on my bookshelves at home, there's a satellite photograph that shows a giant bird footprint pressed into the southern part of Africa. Several years ago I lived between two of its toes, in one of the last wild places left on earth, a river delta the size of Massachusetts.

Swollen by April rains, the Okavango floods southward from Angola, crosses into Botswana in May or June, fans out, and eventually evaporates or sinks into the Kalahari sands. It's an ambiguous river, one without a definitive ending or a dependable course, like the ebb and flow of our lives. Half the time the river is there, half the time it is not. Yet its delta, at 5,500 square miles, is the largest in the world, an unparalleled ecosystem with an arkful of animals. If Angola builds a dam on the Okavango, as they threaten to, the huge bird footprint that can be seen from space will dry out and blow away.

I lived in the Okavango Delta with three elephants: Jabu, Morula, Thembi—and their herdmates Doug and Sandi Groves.

Like the six blind men of Hindustan, I struggle to know a creature by its many parts.

* * *
The first approached the Elephant
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side
At once began to bawl:
"Bless me, it seems the Elephant
Is very like a wall."

[End Page 26]

In the shadow of an elephant, the climate cools. The topography of Jabu's body holds immense landscapes. I glance up past his eyes and get dizzy with vertigo. From certain angles his head is cloud-capped. Entire flocks of birds live closer to the ground than its summit.

Jabu is one hundred times larger than I am. His trunk is larger than I am. A single leg is larger than I am. Upland from Jabu's ear, the ridgeline of his back divides into rills that score both sides of his belly, tributaries of wrinkles. Spiky strands of hair stick out from the magma of his skin, ashen trees on the flanks of a volcano. We take a step together and I realize I am walking with a mountain.

At home, on the volcanic Pacific Rim, mountains walk with tiny steps and an occasional earthshaking leap. Here in the Delta, mountains range freely among the trees. Morula, Thembi, and Jabu crush entire ecosystems with a single step.

When the shadow of a mountain blocks out the sun, when the climate cools, I can be certain that there's an elephant standing behind me.

* * *
The second, feeling of his tusk,
Cried, "Ho! What have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear."

Carved ivory thrones are mentioned in the Bible. Tutankhamen's casket were inlaid with forty thousand pieces of ivory. In the Roman era Cicero wrote of rich houses filled with ivory birdcages, brooches, combs, book covers, doors, and floors. Even chariots were made of ivory.

In the 1800s ton after ton of tusks were carried thousands of miles to Zanzibar and Khartoum, transported on the backs of slaves. Elephant ivory was carved into bagpipe joints, [End Page 27] piano keys, billiard balls, fans, buttons, brush handles, letter openers, figurines, rosary beads, bookends, tiny elephant statuettes, pistol grips, bracelets, hairbrushes, fans, chess pieces, crucifixes, necklaces, perfume bottles, furniture, tankards, umbrella stands, champagne buckets, vases, wastepaper baskets, chessboards, dice, cigarette holds, ad nauseam.

Elephants are right- and left-tusked. One is always shorter and more rounded at the end from wear. In Amboseli National Park, in Kenya, a recessive gene is becoming dominant, occurring in 50 years instead of thousands, selected by...


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