Elephants on Parade
by Sherri Harvey
The South African, drought-plagued, post-apocalyptic landscape spreads out in muted tones of brown, grey gold and dirt green, and as the horses in front of me move, the dust from their hooves sends a smoky filter of light over the landscape. I can taste the earth on my lips. Sunlight streams out from behind a thin veil of morning clouds. Our guide blames the elephants for the twenty-foot barrel-diameter trees that lay sideways. Apparently, elephants tumble the trees as they scrounge for hidden puddles because they instinctively know that the trees know where the water lives. We are all looking for something.
As we ride out and pick up a light canter, a tower of six adult giraffe glide along with us for sixty yards, looking down their necks through the scant dry leaves clinging to the trees in hopes of better days. Although the giraffes amaze us with grace, I want to see the real kings of the jungle: the elephants. The shakers of trees and the movers of seeds. The forest cannot survive without the elephants. And I am convinced that I can’t either.
Out in the bush, our guide, Rusty, teaches us the art of tracking. Immediately, we spot elephant prints. To determine their direction, Rusty points out the shape and drag marks of the toe and judges their recentness by the pattern of depth the foot leaves in the sand. Rusty asks if anyone wants to feel the dung for more information. I eagerly dismount and pick up the poo to check the temperature and moisture with my bare hand. The warm, soft pile tells us the elephants have passed this spot in the last fifteen minutes. Although we search for a few hours, we have no luck, but we have hope.
After lunch and a leisurely siesta, we grab an additional layer of clothes and camera gear and head out for a game drive in the roofless, doorless Landcruiser. When the sun starts to dip away, the cold, hushed breath of the Drakensberg Mountains chills our cheeks, and on we press. Although animal sightings are never guaranteed but we are on a mission.
As we drive along the dirt roads with thick groves of trees that ambassador both sides of the road, we spot movement through the grey brush in the golden hour of the day, and our guide, Rusty, points out the shadows stomping through the bramble. We can’t yet make out a single body, but every now and again, the dwindling sun catches a tusk and a brilliant white light sparks through the nothingness.
Out of the trees fifty feet in front of us, a bull emerges like a skyscraper appearing out of the fog and crosses the path in front of us. Fifteen feet tall and fifteen thousand pounds, his mysticism stuns, flesh and metaphor together. He stops and looks directly at all of us, acting as a sentry as his herd crosses behind him and creeps back into the bush as quiet as the b in subtle. Remarkably sentient beings, the herd touches each other, trunk to tail. As they move, the ground softly, quietly rumbles. The precision and shape of their giant feet mute their steps. Big ballerinas. They pass before us and disappear, all except the massive bull. He waits for everyone to cross before he follows his herd back into the trees. And right before our eyes, all of them fold into the grey-green tree line to become indiscernible, leaving us hungry for more.
Rusty makes a judgment call as to where they will cross next, and as we drive on the road parallel to the moving brush, we see their occasional penumbra and catch glimpses of ivory tusks catching and reflecting the waning afternoon sunlight. Never before, in my small domestic life, have I understood, or really even cared, about ivory rights, but I feel something in me change.
Up the road, we stop again in another clearing and wait. This time, they come out through the break of brush and instead of simply crossing the road and disappearing into thin air, they head directly toward our jeep in a meandering, steady, unhurried and deliberate pace. Their trunks sway and their ears flap, but we hear only the mechanical sounds of the snapping of our cameras. They don’t notice the intrusion of the man-made sounds. They seem to know that we need to document their peaceful procession. We sit in veneration as they come within five feet of the jeep and watch us as we watch them. They swing their trunks to and fro as they pass so close to us. If we stick our leg out the side of the open-air jeep, we could kick them. They curiously sniff and reach their snake-like organ out to the air around our bodies, seeing with their snouts, as they pass us—so close I can feel the hairs on their trunk with my arm.
One elephant, a younger male perhaps around twenty and weighing maybe twelve thousand pounds, looks right at me as he passes, tusks alight with the sun and a face full of nicks and battle scars, and he smiles at me, a squinty-eyed, knowing smile. There is a hole in his ear, and I wonder what branch has the power to pierce that South-African, sun-hardened skin. He knows his power, and I fall in love with the total sum of his being. Not just with him, but with what he represents, what he has lived through, why he allows me this moment. They pass around the Jeep, granting permission to take photo after photo. They move around us, quietly and sniffing, before they head back into the brush.
Looking at their wrinkled wisdom, their fierce tusks, their friendly trunks, the vortex of emotion in their almost-human eyes, my soul aches. There is a knowing there on the part of the elephant—a tete-a-tete of species acknowledgment that suggests unexplainable erudition and mindfulness, so full of emotion and expression. Why did they make the choice to move so close to a Jeep full of humans?
As we start to make our way back to camp for dinner, they grant us one more visit. As the sun is setting in the distance, and the night coolness starts to creep in, Rusty stops the Jeep in their path. Silently we gaze at them as they come out of the brush, parading first in a parallel line, then slowly shifting horizontally toward us, trunk-to-tail, eight abreast but staggered like they want to play a game of Red Rover, marching steadily on a mission. All nineteen elephants swarm around the Jeep at various angles and distances as they pass to the other side of the road in order to get to where they are headed, less interactive this time, but still so present. We are simply in their way.
I collect my thoughts, feeling my humanness, collectively paying homage to the gentle beasts. I reach to my eyes for a second and realize that I am crying. Somehow, I am no longer a single person, but a part of them. I think about the honor they have awarded us by their presence. I want to shout out “I love you” but I restrain myself, but still I am convinced that all of us have been assigned the task of sharing their message: We come in peace. We come in peace.
We stare as they sink back into the brush, thunderstruck by the nearness. There is mystery behind their masked gray visage, beneath those flapping ears, a delicate yet expansive power, commanding the wordlessness ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, roaring fires, and magical sunsets. I am reminded by these elephants of my duty of compassionate attention, of my responsibility to the supreme art of bearing witness, and my heart is full.
About Sherri Harvey
Sherri Harvey teaches, writes, and photographs in the San Francisco Bay Area. She spends her days pouring over words, galloping her horses, hiking with her dog, scaring her husband and drinking vodka, sometimes all at once. She has published in Eventing Nation, Dime Show Review, daCunha, Light Space and Air, Sunday Night Stories and 3Elements Literary Review. @sherricoyote www.sherriharvey.com