June 16, 2009
Elephants are among the first exotic animals of which kids have some knowledge. Every Noah''s Ark set has a pair, and children are able to draw elephants almost as soon as they can draw any recognizable animal. We love Babar and we love Horton. But most westerners see real elephants only in zoos and circuses, where they are among the favorite attractions.
In zoos, they don''t do a whole lot besides stand around, but they are still a big draw. Why this should be so is not answered by the book "Elephant Reflections" (University of California Press) with photographs by Karl Ammann and text by Dale Peterson. In fact, although there is much understanding promoted by Peterson''s text, even he can''t account for what he calls "the almost inexplicable sense of elephant otherness." This lovely, large-size book of 150 photographs of different aspects of the African elephant has enough dramatic, anatomical or endearing pictures to increase anyone''s appreciation for the mysteries of this largest of land animals.
The book is not a biology text, but more a coffee-table art book, and is entirely successful in this realm. The photos are not categorized by species or age, but by themes, like "Textures" or "Behaviors" or "Colors." Colors? Elephants are gray. But here they are not limited to gray. Ammann has taken advantage of different shades of sunlight to show an orange-shaded elephant, for instance, but usually the colors come from the exteriors of the elephants themselves.
Elephants take on the color of the earth around them, not from any chameleon change of hue, but from the earth itself. Elephants roll in the dust, or wallow in mud and spray themselves with dirt. They seem to enjoy such activities because they inherently feel good, but by such means they reduce skin parasites or apply a sort of sunscreen. "The result is as if the elephant has decided to put some color into that gray, to dab on a little makeup for the camera, and you see a golden adolescent passing through the gold-colored mud wallow of a Central African baï or a tan-toned matriarch tossing clouds of tan dust as she showers herself in public." Having splashed themselves with dirt from a new source, some of the elephants look startlingly like they have been used as canvases by artists with kinetic drip brushwork.
The gorgeous section of textures show that this is a category to which a whole larger book might be devoted. Certainly here are the smooth hard tusks, or the strange toenails that look like half a goose egg. But the elephant has the most varied skin texture of any animal. This is true especially of the elders, but baby elephants (and there are plenty of "Awwwww!" pictures here of babies) are wrinkled bundles, too. A lovely picture of a baby suckling from the mother that overarches her shows not only the creases of the mother''s rear leg and abdominal area (looking just like the bark of an old tree), but also the horizontal lines of the baby''s upraised trunk and back of the head.
Then there are foreheads which are like lichen-covered stones, or ears with fancy dendriform patterns of veins beneath (patterns some researchers use to identify one individual from another). Some of the pictures of skin and wrinkle patterns are here in close-up without context of other body parts, and are stunning in their abstract complexity.
There are plenty of pictures of elephants doing things together. They are appealingly social, standing together with foreheads touching, or flopping a trunk over a neighbor''s tusks, or using a trunk to sniff around specific areas of friends, children or mates.
Ammann has obviously spent long times in the field to bring back some intimate shots; there is, of course, one of a male elephant about to mount a female with obvious excitement. There are no pictures of birthing because almost no one has ever seen birthing in the wild. One of the few researchers to have seen such a thing described how the mother prodded the newborn gently to get it into a standing position, while the females of her family gathered around "expressing tremendous excitement with a steady chorus of screams, rumbles and trumpets, while fluids from their temporal glands drizzled down their cheeks." The output of these temporal glands is visible in many of the pictures here, but they must be some sort of olfactory signal.
As Peterson points out, part of the strangeness of an elephant is how its huge body has an inertia of stillness, but that trunk "is the single part of their body that appears perpetually animated, constantly sniffing, testing, assessing."
Peterson explains that with all our experience of elephants since we were savanna hunters, using them for food, display, warfare and labor, we ought to know them well, but by the middle of the 20th century, we did not have scientific sureness of basic issues of how they sleep or migrate or socialize.
We do know much more after a few decades of intensive research. We have a good idea about gestures the elephants use for greeting, for instance, or their use of infrasound -- signals too low for us to hear but which they send through the ground and sense through their footpads.
We know much more about their matriarchal society and how females support each other in herds while males tend to be loners. Unfortunately, we also know how much damage ivory hunters have caused (though in a commentary from the photographer, Ammann explains that elephants are being killed now for meat, not for teeth).
Here is a gorgeous collection of photographs to incite your wonder at this strangest and most inexplicably lovable of exotic beasts, and to make you care about what comes of them.
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.