Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Guest Blogger Dave Schwartz: Hootenanny

I'm obsessed with elephants.

Well, perhaps obsessed is a little strong. I don't follow elephants home from work or schedule my vacations around theirs. I don't dream about elephants. (At least, not often.) I don't have pictures of elephants, cut out of glossy celebrity magazines, assembled into a collage on the wall of my attic bedroom. Funny, isn't it, how me telling you about the ways in which I am not obsessed is almost as creepy as if I were?

A friend of mine asked me the other day, Why elephants? The fact that I think this particular friend has asked me this question before makes me think that my friends are worried about me. It's a valid question, sure: Why elephants and not, say, pandas? Or otters?

It's true that I do have a tendency to, um, lecture when the topic of elephants comes up. Did you know that they communicate via ultrasonic rumbles which they can sense for miles through the pads of their feet? Did you know that they ignore all animal bones except for their own (and sometimes humans), and when they come upon the remains of a family member they often pause as a group and handle the bones with their trunks as if remembering? Did you know that some elephants live in the desert and dig wells, or live in forests and are rarely seen? DID YOU KNOW DID YOU KNOW DID YOU KNOW.

It's true. I can be tiresome on the subject, which is probably why "obsessed" is as good a word as any. As an obsessive, I offer you my list of the five best books I've read about elephants:

1. The Fate of the Elephant by Douglas H. Chadwick. An exhaustive travelogue on elephants by a noted wildlife author. Chadwick visits just about every place elephants live, traces the movement of the illegal ivory trade, and talks about the politics of elephant conservation in an accessible way. Smart and reverent and worried.

2. The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy. Fiction, told from the point of view of a small family of elephants struggling to survive a drought. Gowdy walks a line between anthropomorphizing and an educated guess at how elephants might think: with compassion, and intelligence, and sometimes desperation.

3. Coming of Age With Elephants by Joyce Poole. Poole, one of the original researchers on the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya (along with Cynthia Moss, below), mixes personal memoir with scientific biography here. She traces the lives of the local herds, chronicling death, birth, mating, and the direct impact of poaching.

4. Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family by Cynthia Moss. Less personal than Poole's book, Moss covers the characteristics, behavior and life cycle of elephants through stories of the Amboseli families.

5. Love, War, and Circuses by Eric Scigliano. More focused on Asian elephants than the previous three books, Scigliano looks at elephants in relation to human culture, from theories of how the clearing of the plains by mammoths made it possible for humans to thrive, to Ganesh and other elephant signifiers in religion, and the problem of elephants in captivity.


David Moles said...

The question they should be asking themselves is: why not elephants?

becka said...

Dave Schwartz:

I just read your posts for Common Good Books (and then I read your "alphabet of me") - I think I have a bit of a blog crush on you now, if such a thing is even possible.

And I'm sure you've seen this already, but just in case (and for anyone else):

It's quite an extraordinary video of an elephant painting.

Dave said...


This is what I'm saying! You ought to talk to Karen.


I have been raised to believe that the only appropriate response to such compliments is to kick at the ground and say "Aw, shucks." Consider this to have been done.

As to the elephant paintings, I have seen that. I'm of two minds on these things, because apparently trainers teach them to paint certain shapes, guiding their trunks until they have a muscle memory of it. On the other hand, that in itself is impressive. Some elephants do abstract paintings on their own, too, while some prefer making music of the sort that Philip Glass might compose.

becka said...

I have my concerns about the elephant painting video as well. But the hopeful side of me wants to put them aside and just choose to be completely awed and humbled instead.