“The concept of conservation is a far truer sign of civilization than that spoilation of a continent which we once confused with progress,” the late naturalist Peter Matthiessen once wrote. “We have outsmarted ourselves, like greedy monkeys, and now we are full of dread.”
Matthiessen, as might be expected, was an admirer of elephants.
That’s worth remembering on this World Elephant Day — today, more than most days.
“Of all African animals, the elephant is the most difficult for man to live with, yet its passing — if this must come — seems the most tragic of all,” Matthiessen wrote in his 1972 classic of Africa, The Tree Where Man Was Born.
“I can watch elephants, and elephants alone, for hours at a time, for sooner or later the elephant will do something very strange such as mow grass with its toenails or draw the tusks from the rotted carcass of another elephant and carry them off into the bush. There is mystery behind that masked grey visage, and ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted, commanding the silence ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, great fires, and the sea.”
It is one of my favourite quotes, of which there are many, and others of which Matthiessen can claim pride of place.
“This world is painted on a wild dark metal,” he wrote in Shadow Country.
And this, from The Snow Leopard, but which can just as easily apply to elephants and their facility for memory:
“Only the enlightened can recall their former lives; for the rest of us, the memories of past existences are but glints of light, twinges of longing, passing shadows, disturbingly familiar, that are gone before they can be grasped:
“Figures dark beneath their loads pass down the far bank of the river, rendered immortal by the streak of sunset upon their shoulders.”
“The equatorial monsoons which brought a rainy season to the coasts had small effect here in the highlands, from moon to moon, the rainfall varied little,” Matthiessen wrote in Under the Mountain Wall. “Winter, summer, autumn, spring were involuted, turning in upon themselves, a slow circling of time.”
Only time will tell how many more years elephants will live in the wild to see World Elephant Day.
Elephant numbers are estimated to have dropped by 62% during the past decade. Roughly 400,000 remain — a very rough figure — and 100 a day killed each day, today and every day, by illegal hunters to feed the insatiable ivory trade.
“Days and months are the travellers of eternity,” Matthiessen once said. “So. . . .”
Images courtesy of Pixabay/COO Creative Commons.