Listen With Your Feet

Prior to colonization, African elephant consciousness mirrored the unfenced expanse of the continent. Elephant civilization was a dense, intricate, multi-dimensional network of millions upon millions who were comparably bound to all other creatures and Nature’s rhythms. Experience occurred in tandem, embedded in the space-time matrix of infinite relationships… Each elephant was a self-similar fractal who embodied all elephant consciousness…
The way forward is the way back – by returning to a way of life modeled on elephant ethics and values. Restore our consciousness to that of elephants of old. Renewal will come.

Elephants, Us and Other Kin, G. A. Bradshaw

The way we treat land, and the ghosts of our land, is the way we will treat everything, including ourselves.

Leaving Before the Rains Come, Alexandra Fuller

We have subjected ourselves to a holocaust of the personal, the subjective, and the intuitive, becoming objects, even to ourselves. And that has made us lonely. No wonder we stay up late and keep the lights on all night long. A little more darkness and we might awaken to the question suppressed by virtually every aspect of our light-drunk lives: What on Earth have I done?

Waking Up In the Dark, Clark Strand

I really must get to sleep, and soon, because by 3 a.m. the logging trucks will resume their ceaseless clatter. Tie-down chains bounce against the long, empty metal platforms of the trailers – long as a tree, as the trucks judder and clang along the narrow haul road across the river from my usually night-silent land. Well, almost silent, except for the all-night barking of my neighbors’ dogs as they patrol their small flock of sheep, an irresistible buffet loitering just out of reach of the mountain lions that have been hemmed out by fences, and bears driven mad with hunger because the logging companies have cleared the acorned oaks that are normally interspersed among the redwoods. In desperation, the bears scrape and eat redwood bark. The trees ooze a sweet sap to repair themselves. Bees that feed on this sap are immune to colony collapse disorder.1Brock Dolman, OAEC (Occidental Arts and Ecology Center), Species in distress seem to have built-in mechanisms for protecting each other. Let us bear this in mind. At least the distant barking is an animal sound that blends with the calls of the owls and the booming rush of the ocean that echoes up the canyon from the dunes. But it is not possible to become inured to the logging trucks, not possible to sleep to the jarring lullaby of metal against metal. I turn out the light. I turn it back on again. Shit. In Mexico, they have a saying, se me espantó el sueño: sleep got frightened away from me. I find myself flipping through Facebook, looking for hope. (I don’t own a television. This is my version of numbing distraction.) With luck, the blue-light-blocker pasted to my laptop screen will allow sleep to find me if it decides to return.

Here are baby elephants piling into the laps of delighted humans who are visiting an elephant orphanage. The little elephants gently knock the humans down and curl up in their laps. It’s so cute that I almost forget to wonder: What has happened to their mothers and fathers? Were they machine-gunned for ivory? Culled because the herd outgrew its impossibly small range, reduced by human encroachment? Or were the elephant parents enslaved by loggers, or perhaps stolen for a circus or a zoo? The Facebook clip makes it all seem like a day at the petting zoo.

I dreamed once of a long line of baby elephants ambling by, and awoke with the words, our nearest orphans. Martín Prechtel says that in early times, when hunters killed an animal mother, they understood that they were now responsible for its orphaned young. This is how we came to have pets.2The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise, by Martín Prechtel How many, many orphans have we created?

An unexpected memory swims to the surface. When I was a little girl, my grandparents used to vacation in Hawaii. On one of those trips, my grandfather went sport fishing and caught a Marlin. A few weeks later, it arrived in Los Angeles, stuffed and lacquered in a permanent, exuberant arc. For years it hung above the louvered doors of the His and Hers changing rooms by my grandparents’ swimming pool. I always hated walking beneath it, always felt ashamed and vulnerable, as if it might crash down on my head, as if any one of us would have deserved to be crushed by the obscenity of its ignominious end. Years later, my friend Tom told me that Marlins mate for life. I thought of her then, the swimming widow spawned by my grandfather.

Tom worked as a termite inspector. In his early forties, he contracted pancreatic cancer from exposure to Chlordane, a pesticide developed and manufactured by Monsanto and used from 1948 to 1988 for fumigation of corn and citrus crops and for termite eradication in over 30 million homes. It has a half-life of 30 years.3Wikipedia Tom died in our arms the year before Chlordane was banned. The notion that ‘pest control’ is necessary and can only be accomplished by eradicating entire species of insects is identical to the thinking template of the Nazis’ ‘final solution’, identical to the justification of every genocide. Are humans the host for greed? Is greed the intermediate host for Death?

Just as each life has its personal snapshots of mayhem and suffering, every era has its wars, it seems, and its public icons of madness. I was born after the concentration camps with their emaciated prisoners in striped pajamas; after the boxcars and the impossible mounds of children’s shoes; after the mushroom clouds and the indelible, scorched shadows etched onto the sidewalks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In elementary school, in the 1950’s, we used to practice ‘drop drills’ — a sudden shout from the teacher to DROP! and we’d throw down our pencils and dive under our desks, covering our heads with our hands. It was a surreal enactment of the illusion of Western invincibility, as if our spindly arms and a piece of Formica could protect us from an atomic bomb. It reinforced what we already intuitively knew: that, like everyone and everything else, we, too were expendable. At best, the adults in our lives would shout a warning, but it was up to us children to protect ourselves. The fact of nuclear weapons meant that, like us, the future was expendable. By the early 1960’s, this sent us, like lemmings, over the edge of our known world, in search of a better way. Our drugged hedonism and political fury gave momentary expression to our desperate longing (and there are some beautiful experiments that have taken root). Yet, fifty years on, we are still running, faster than ever. Running away, always running way. But what are we running toward?

I came of age during the Viet Nam war, watching Watergate on TV at dinnertime, stoned, with my roommates, the whole surreal drama unfolding as if real-time war and Nixon’s crumbling presidency were just another sitcom. For me, the overarching image of that time was Kim Phuc, the napalmed girl running toward us, naked and screaming, with outstretched arms. Now we have Alan Kurdi, the drowned toddler from Syria who washed up on a Turkish beach.

In the media, human suffering, though terrible, is nonetheless privileged over the suffering of the natural world. Images of the devastated Earth and her beleaguered animals are comparatively few and hidden, reinforcing the illusion that we are separate. One must look more deeply to get to the truth. Few among us can escape the expanding library of horror lodged in our minds, whose images we can play at will like a slideshow. Each one is unbearable. With each one I think, That does it! That toddler, those baby elephants, that melting ice. This cannot continue! But how? How can I contribute to wholeness with the shape of my life?

And so, and now, how shall we live?

The Wild is sanity. Darkness. Silence. The great knowing of Nature’s rhythmic wisdom. In the wild is contained the dignity of intactness, authenticity, and the congruence of original design. Earth’s relentless enfolding of each thing into another keeps life going. It is a terrifying comfort to remember that nothing, no thing, is outside it. Every thing, everything, is contained within her eternal cycling. All of the murdered and all of the murderers. Policemen shooting unarmed black men, and those who, in turn, shoot policemen. Revelers. Travelers. Suicide bombers and drone-makers. The fracked earth, pitted and paved, and politicians justifying torture as they parse ‘collateral damage’. Even the mines with their unspeakable chemicals, and the desperate gouging for gold, silver, copper, platinum and ‘rare earths’ to put in our smartphones. Each and all of it deemed by someone’s mad calculus to be a necessary sacrifice in the pursuit of righteousness, pleasure or profit.

Last night, I saw a huge, black mound lying motionless in the middle of the road. I realized it was a black bear that had been hit by a car. It was past midnight, and with no houses nearby, and no other cars on the road, I could neither attend to it nor move it by myself, and so I guiltily drove on, nauseous and in tears. I remembered the afternoon in 2006 when I saw a pair of courting blue jays. As I slowed my car to watch them, the male hurtled into my front bumper and dropped from sight. The female alighted on a patch of curbside grass, wings spread wide as she flitted and paced in alarm. The male lay motionless by the curb. I grabbed a towel from the back seat, scooped him up and held him in my lap as I drove the rest of the way home. His body was warm against my belly. When I opened the towel and bent my head to look at him, my exhale gently lifted the feathers on his neck.

The dogs slunk over and lay down at my feet. I explained what had happened, telling the story in every way I could think of: It was an accident. It was Fate. Something spooked the jays. I was driving too fast, or too slow. We shouldn’t have cars in the first place. It was an offering that I don’t understand. Up close, the jay was iridescent. Even the gray feathers glowed. I hadn’t known that gray could be so luminous. I called my friend Deena Metzger, who advised me to return the bird to the site of his death so that the female might know what became of him. I took him back to the little patch of grass by the curb and tucked him under a nearby bush.

A few weeks later, a fledgling jay lay dead on the flagstone by the guest room, a plump young bird on my doorstep. A tiny gray feather was stuck to the sliding glass door. This jay, too, was still warm. I left it there for a few hours then buried it near the place it had died. The following spring, I found a dead jay at our cabin in the mountains, a whole bird, cool and hollow, its desiccated body perfectly preserved by the dry mountain air. All that was left was a shell of feathers.

Fistfuls of blue jay feathers appeared on hiking trails and at camping spots. When I walked the dogs, blue jays flitted from branch to branch ahead of us. It occurred to me that I was a host. My task was to tend to the guest that was this story and to the jays. I began leaving peanuts in my patio. I learned to throw them onto the roof so that they didn’t roll back down into the rain gutter. Most days, four jays came, two that would eat from my hand. One intrepid bird in particular would peck at the little window in the front door if the peanut dish was empty. If I left the slider open in back, he would hop into the house in spite of our two dogs and two cats, calling with his hopeful, shrill reminder until I came with peanuts in my outstretched hand. Have you ever felt a wild bird’s talons wrap around your fingers, or his smooth pointed beak gently pecking at the soft flesh of your palm? It is an honor, thrilling and primal, this meeting of talon and skin. He turns his head sideways, as do I, and we gaze into each other’s eyes.

One day, my friend B calls from Liberia. He is an ex-combatant who had joined the Liberian army when he was a teenager because the recruitment ads said that if he joined he would get an education. He became a model soldier, and, eventually, a presidential bodyguard to the infamous Sam Doe. He was sent for anti-terrorism training in Israel, weapons training in Lebanon and interrogation training in Romania, all of it paid for by the CIA. When Doe was overthrown by Charles Taylor, B was imprisoned and tortured. Upon his release, he joined anti-government rebels. When the war ended in 2004, he became a traveling salesman for bloodshed, recruiting child soldiers to go fight in neighboring Ivory Coast. Around the time we met him, he was overcome by remorse and vowed to work for peace. He was now visiting the hidden encampments of former fighters, trying to convince them to lay down arms and come home. We worked together from 2005-2009 in peacebuilding and community reconciliation. On the phone that day, he sounded excited.

I was driving to Sarkonedu, where the ex-combatants were waiting. On the way going, I saw a little boy netting a blue jay. I said, ‘Stop the car!’ and got out. The little boy said he wanted the blue jay to cook for his soup. He told me that the people gather grasshoppers and cockroaches and put them out to lure the birds. Then they throw nets over them to catch and eat them. So I asked the boy, ‘How much for that blue jay?’ He said, ‘250 Liberian dollars’ (about $4 US at the time). I bought the bird and told the little boy to use the money to go buy a chicken. Then I released the bird. I cannot describe the feeling in my heart when I freed that blue jay and watched him fly away! And you know why I did it? It was because of that blue jay that ate from my hand at your house. It was so sweet! I remembered the feeling of that blue jay sitting on my hand. A few weeks later B called again: Today I took my plate of rice outside to sit and eat. I had forgotten my glass of water, so I went in the house to get it. When I got back outside, there was a flock of blue jays eating my rice. I have never before seen blue jays in Monrovia!

A bird in hand: What is it truly worth?

The keystone species4“A keystone species is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance… The role that a keystone species plays in its ecosystem is analogous to the role of a keystone in an arch… which collapses without it. Similarly, an ecosystem may experience a dramatic shift if a keystone species is removed, even though that species was a small part of the ecosystem by measures of biomass or productivity.” Wikipedia that sustain entire ecosystems are under siege as never before: beavers, whose wetland engineering protects endangered salmon; wolves whose presence keeps rivers alive; sharks, who, as apex predators, keep the oceanic food chain in balance; bees, whose pollination we depend on for food; and elephants, especially elephants, with their huge range that benefits countless other species who depend on their journey, that also protects the land itself. Every life prepares the way for those that will follow, whether consciously or not. Are we humans a reverse keystone?

A tracker friend once told me that when a species goes extinct, the last individuals step into a world that is invisible to us, a parallel reality enfolded in a corner of the space-time continuum beyond our reach, awaiting the day when it is safe to return. I imagine a shimmering curtain, a barely discernible ripple in the air. Beyond it there are grizzlies, great auks, and northern white rhinos, all thriving. There are tribes of Native Peoples from all over the world, speaking their lost languages. It is comforting to think that so much beauty and irreplaceable wisdom remain intact somewhere.

It used to be that elephants migrated over thousands of miles in cycles lasting 200 years or more. The elephants’ long memories made it possible to find water, food, and refuge along the way and to honor their dead. Unerring navigation over vast distances remains encoded in their DNA. By the time the elephants had come full circle, many generations later, the trees their forebears had pulled down had regrown, and countless plants and animals had been sustained in the interim.

Elephants communicate through infrasonic rumbles and seismic vibrations across hundreds of square miles. When they stand on the tips of their massive feet, they are listening. The fatty tissue that cushions their footpads also transmits sound waves to their brain. With their trunks, they can discern scent particles of one part per 100 million. They are matriarchal and communal. They mourn their dead, remembering the identity and location of those that have perished.5Lawrence Anthony, The Last Rhinos, and The Elephant Whisperer Elephants have an unerring, psychic intuition. The morning that legendary conservationist and ‘elephant whisperer’ Lawrence Anthony died of a heart attack in 2012, the two herds of rescued elephants that live at Thula Thula, his private game reserve in South Africa, gathered in the predawn light in front of his house. Each year, on the anniversary of his death, they and In both Sudan and Liberia, when peace came at last after protracted war, elephants returned that had fled into neighboring countries.

Male elephant elders keep young males in check. Like humans, when juvenile males are not properly eldered, they go berserk, raping and killing. (Elephants attack not only their own species but others as well.)7G.A. Bradshaw, Elephants on the Edge Elephants, humans, and dozens of other species (including birds, reptiles, dogs, and many others) currently suffer from PTSD. Elephants, like humans and other animals, are able to heal once they find safety, kindness, and the opportunity to devote themselves to helping others.8G.A. Bradshaw, Elephants, Us and Other Kin,

It used to be that elephant hunting was a gory colonial sport, and modern poaching was the province of hungry villagers or resentful farmers. Now elephants (and rhinos) are being gunned down from helicopters by criminal gangs armed with automatic weapons and night-vision scopes. Rangers who attempt to protect the animals are often executed. The numbers are staggering: it is estimated that in 1900, there were 10 million elephants in Africa. In 1980, 1.2 million. In 2013, 450, Each day, about 100 elephants are killed in Africa -– one every 15 minutes, 35,000 or more per, & At this rate, viable populations of elephants in the wild will be gone within our lifetime. The situation for rhinos is even worse. Yet, despite hundreds of years of torture, enslavement and genocide at human hands, elephants remain miraculously steadfast in their willingness to connect with us. They are a keystone species and then some. In the refined complexity of their social behavior as well as in their physiology, elephants are deeply, exquisitely sane.

When I search my mental Rolodex for icons of human sanity, Mother Theresa comes to mind. I read an interview once in which she said that, as a young woman, she had felt the presence of God, but only briefly. She never felt it again, but lived her life in hopes that it/He would return if only she could make herself sufficiently hospitable to God’s presence as she understood it. And so, she is reputed to have picked maggots from the infected wounds of the forgotten. It seems that even the radical kindness of Mother Theresa was mostly hype. She was more in love with suffering than with the sufferers. Apparently her Missionaries of Charity did not spend the millions of dollars they raised on medical care, pain relief, or sterilized needles. She said, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor” But even if all the publicity were all true, it would have been compromised because salvation is not external. Charity, in general, is unidirectional rather than reciprocal, and, therefore, can neither address the plight of the less fortunate nor fill the void inside those that wish to give. Western charity is by its nature an anomalous, palliative generosity enacted within a social milieu whose axiomatic illusion holds that it is not only possible but acceptable for whole segments of the larger community to languish, unattended, without causing damage to the whole. This is why most aid programs, NGO’s, charities, philanthropy and, in the long run, most businesses are doomed: They consider themselves separate from those they seek to assist, and separate from the rhythms of the Earth. They are fragmented rather than fractal. They are non-elephantine.

I knew a man in Liberia whom we called Uncle Robert. One day he grabbed my arm and said, I want to ask you a question. When I go home to my village, I know everyone there. I know their children, the people they married and all their relatives on both sides. I know their grandparents, their aunts and their uncles. I know their clans and their taboos (totem animals). I know where they make their farms and what they grow, or what business they are in. In the same way, I know all the people in all the villages around us. I have heard that in America, people sometimes don’t even know the people who live next door or across the street. Is this really true? How can this be possible?

In September of 2006, I went to Botswana with my friend Deena Metzger to visit the Elephant Ambassador, so named for a bull elephant with whom she had had a life-changing encounter a few years before, and had pledged to live in alliance with the elephants as a result.12Entering the Ghost River: Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing, Deena Metzger We had returned in hopes that the elephants might wish to continue the connection. Whenever we were with them, we practiced, as best we could, a sustained heart and mind-opening, allowing our awareness to melt into theirs and vice versa. In the course of our silent conversations, we mentioned that we were on our way to Liberia, where the presence of elephants was known to be a sign of peace. We told them that peace was deeply needed there, both for their elephant kin, the beleaguered forest elephants of West Africa, and for humans.

As we sat under the tree that was our elephant meeting place, an elephant family of four crossed to the nearby river to drink and to play. As with Deena’s first encounter with the elephants in that place, we had been waiting all afternoon and, on the last day, at the last moment of the last hour, they came. When it was time for the elephants to go home, the youngest didn’t want to leave and the adults had to insist, gently pushing it out of the deliciously cool mud and back up the riverbank. The parents stood close to our truck and affectionately entwined their trunks before the mother left with the youngsters. When they had disappeared into the bush, the male began pulling at something in the low grass, eventually picking it up and tossing it toward our truck. He came closer. Stopping about ten yards away, he turned to face us and got down on one knee. After a few moments, he stood up again, twisted his trunk into a figure eight – a sort of elephant-trunk infinity, and ambled away. What he had thrown to us turned out to be an elephant thighbone. Surely he must have known whose. The deliberateness of his actions was unmistakable. It took our breath away.

And so, and now, how shall we live?

While in Liberia some weeks later, we made offerings to the elephants in the forest and told them of our visit to their cousins in Botswana. The following year, just before Thanksgiving, I received a call from Liberia that elephants had arrived in all of the villages where offerings to the elephants had been made. I rushed back to hear the stories in person, wondering whether the Botswana elephants had, indeed, put out the call to their Liberian kin.

In the village of Womanor, when the elephants came, the elders fanned out into the forest and read certain passages from the Koran out loud. They explained that this had been customary in the old times, to let the elephants know that the people recognized their presence as a sacred event. Since the appearance of the elephants the village had not been troubled by poisonous insects or snakes. The elephants had come in a small group, led by a large and very old bull. It was thought that this individual had escaped from a zoo during the war, and had walked several hundred kilometers to safety in neighboring Guinea, and recently returned. One day, a woman met him while farming her small plot, coming face to face with the huge old bull elephant just as he was about to pull up one of her cassava plants. She looked him in the eye and said: I’m a woman and I grow this food for my children. My husband was killed in the war. Please, be sorry for me, and leave us something to eat! The elephant unwound his trunk from the cassava stalk and disappeared into the forest. A short time later, that elephant died. The people brought out his massive skull to show us.

We accompanied our friend Karmah Jallah, an elder from the Lorma tribe, to the Mandingo village of Kuluka. Though the Mandingos and the Lormas were historically very close, during the Liberian civil war they were, literally, at each other’s throats. Now, two years after the war had ended, there was still much bitterness and animosity between them. Because the elephants had come, Karmah Jallah convened a council at Kuluka, which was held at the gravesite of the founding elder of the village. There, Karmah Jallah recounted the history of their two peoples and the deep and loving connection they once enjoyed. The Mandingo elders wept openly and peace was restored. A few weeks later, Karmah Jallah died.

In the village of Barkedu, we met a man whose elephant dreams had flowed into daytime reality. Other villagers corroborated that when the elephants told him, for example, Meet me at the pond on Thursday at noon, he would go there at the appointed time and find an elephant waiting for him. Soon, the elephants instructed him where to plant his crops. He did as he was told. The elephants ate the other farmers’ harvest, but left the dreamer’s plot undisturbed. When he asked them why, they replied, The others have forgotten their manners. They are cutting down too many trees, and killing too many animals for no reason.

One of the elders there told us that, before the war, the people and the animals used to speak freely with each other and communicated well. He remembered when, as a young boy, there had been trouble in the river nearby. Crocodiles were attacking humans, and humans were killing the crocodiles in self-defense. The head elder of the village summoned the crocodile elder. The man telling us the story said he remembered seeing the old croc walking slowly up to the old man’s hut. There, the two leaders sat together all afternoon, discussing their shared dilemma. They came to an agreement that each group would have its own special bend in the river where they would each be safe. The agreement was still in force at the time we were told the story. People said they bathed, washed their clothes and swam freely in their designated area, without a crocodile in sight. A short distance away, the crocodiles basked in the mud undisturbed.

At the end of our meeting, an ex-combatant recounted a dream: He is pounding on his neighbor’s door and shouting, Is there Mercy enough for me? A question like that burrows deep in our soul and lays its eggs. It feeds on our unshed tears.

Intuition, dreams, and synchronicities are the language of the liminal world where human and non-human meet. Logic cannot take us there. This past January (2016), inspired by a mysterious dream that had come to Deena, we returned to the site of our previous meeting with the Elephant Ambassador, and visited two other preserves where we hoped to find elephants whose communities were relatively intact. Everywhere we went the elephants seemed to deliberately come meet us. The desert elephants of Damaraland, in Namibia, reached their trunks into our vehicle to sniff us.

Stories make images, images make memories, memories feed questions. What does it mean to inhabit a question? To invite the questions, the images—and the elephants themselves—to inhabit us, and to notice where they take up residence in our bodies and in our lives? That blue jay. Those elephants. That soldier. Is there Mercy enough for me? Enough for us all? Not God’s mercy, but our own. They’re one and the same. That’s the point.

Back in the U.S., Deena and I sit together to ponder what the elephants might want from us now. In our minds, we journey to meet them. At first all is darkness and chaos. Fleeting images, none that are clear. But at the last moment, I hear them say, Learn to listen with your feet. Then you will know what to do.

It behooves us to consider that the elephants realize that our species has gone rogue – that our trauma is driving us to rape and destroy; that we are in dire need of some serious cross-species eldering and matriarchal leadership; that they are calling us back into the life-and-death alliances that are our birthright if we are to reweave the threads of ourselves back into the tapestry of Life. It is the last hour of the last afternoon of the last day — the hour of the elephants. It is time to quiet ourselves in order to receive them. And so, and now, how shall we live?

About the Author

Cynthis Travis is a writer and documentary filmmaker, and is Founder & President of the non–profit peacebuilding organization everyday gandhis ( Since 2004, peacebuilders from everyday gandhis have been working with traditional communities, women and ex-combatants in Liberia, West Africa, and with selected schools and communities in the US. All projects arise from dreams and community dialogue. She recently launched the new blog, Borders and Edges ( In a former life she was a teacher and mediation trainer for children in California and New Mexico. She lives in a small intentional community on the Mendocino Coast.


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