Thursday, March 18, 2010

An elephant in the room

What is it about elephants that speaks so ardently to my soul, that triggers some curious latent memory of support and friendship, that makes me want to sit endlessly and savour their presence? Is it their lumbering grace, that heavy sure-footed gait which, seemingly against all odds, guides their bulk in such a dignified way. I’m reminded of a comfortable, dark-chocolate coloured, dilapidated old leather couch I once had years ago. I see myself collapsing into an elephants folds, warm in her embrace, like a mother protecting me from harm. Is it their immense girth, a girth that appears to defy nature’s ability to sustain them, given their impressive appetite for 300 kgs of vegetable matter a day. Holy cow, that’s equal to the produce on the shelves at the greengrocers, surely. Is it the footage I’ve seen of displays of their wrath, that stampeding, trumpeting fury channelled from the bowels of their being, a knowing fury, a fury that says I told you so but you didn’t listen. Is it my recollection at seeing elephants displaying what scientists believe is a state of grief, the way they surround the remains of the bones of their kind, brushing their trunks up against them, picking them up, fondling, respectful. Or is it all these things.

Recently I attended the National Elephant Day celebrations outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. This was no ordinary worldly celebration of the kind us humans engage in, the kind that sees us gorge greedily on nature’s harvest, often without a moments thought for its origins. This instead was a heavenly feast for the elephants - sugar cane, watermelon, bananas, pineapple, sugar melons and acres upon acres of grass, tied into convenient great clumps, arranged high on trestle tables snaking the length and breadth of the showgrounds at the camp. This was a celebration to honour and give thanks and blessings to a revered national symbol, an animal who once aided kings in battle, and one who is noted for his hard work, intelligence, memory, and power. Thai legend has it that a marriage is like an elephant - the husband is the front legs, the direction, and the wife the back legs, providing the power! I’ll buy that!

But it seemed the best was yet to come. I’d heard about elephant art but ignorantly thought it was some quaint experiment/exercise, probably with the mahout (trainer) leading the elephant through the motions, that eventually yielded a canvas something akin to a 5 year-olds expression. Mmmm.

Elephant art was the brainchild of two provocative Russians artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who saw it as a way for the elephants and their trainers to raise awareness and funds for conservation following the ban on logging. The artists set about teaching the elephants to paint, with surprising results. Seeing it I was shocked. Shocked not at the concept nor the movement of the brush on canvas which is held so deftly by the elephant in its trunk, but at the clear pleasure the elephant seemed to gain, the obvious mindfulness when the brush needed re-dipping, the way it moved excitedly when it handed it back, the way it swayed its trunk in eager anticipation of its return, the way it stood back after each stroke or splash of colour, observed it, and moved in closer for another go. The method of this apparent madness beggars belief. I think I want to be an elephant when I come back!

“The beast which passeth all others in wit and mind” Aristotle

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