Friday, May 02, 2008

Another Canary Dies

The current issue of Orion Magazine includes an article entitled “Gray Thunder: Listening to Elephants.” It is a brief look at ancient myths and more modern stories of interaction and empathy that cut through the biology and psychology of species, crossing lines of harmony between species in a far distant past.

It is also a story with all too many similarities to what happened to Native North American tribes as European settlers and their descendents pushed across the American continent.

Black Elk Speaks is the life story of a shaman of the Oglala Sioux as told to John Neihardt, a successful author and poet who was composing a five-part epic of the American west. The narrative moves on many levels and with numerous reversals as Black Elk recognizes his calling, runs from it and its empowering vision but finds himself unable to hold back the onslaught of land speculators and miners seeking gold. Treaties signed one month were violated the next, leaving the Oglala to make do with the barren, dry Dakota Badlands. Worse, they were cut off from their traditional source of food and shelter – the bison – by the deliberate and systemic slaughter of once great herds. All that remained of a once rich culture and way of life lived in harmony with the natural world were memories, and even these crumbled as dust on dry land.

In the end, Black Elk returns to the place where he experienced his first vision to communicate one last time with the thunder spirits who were the messengers of the Great Spirit. As he chanted, clouds formed overhead, a few drops of rain fell, and those present said they heard in the distance what sounded like thunder – perhaps the final farewell, the end of the vision.

In the hunting-gathering tribal cultures of northern and central Kenya, the elephant plays an iconic role similar to that of the bison for the Sioux. When Satan challenged God for control of creation, God required a material being to be his surrogate. Since Satan “spoke” in thunder (God used lightning), the surrogate needed to “drown out” thunder – something the elephant could do with its mighty trumpeting.

Humans and elephants were depicted as living in harmony, sharing in the earth’s bounty in good times and enduring together when lean times came. And when drought ruled the land, tribes believed that the appearance of the elephant was a sign from the spirit world that rain was on the way.

But the fate of the great herds of elephants in Africa was to mirror that of the bison only taking another century before the slaughter started in the 1970s and continued through 1980s. These herds were slaughtered by poachers eager to sell ivory tusks and carved pieces for coffee tables of the rich. If it had truly survived earlier depredations, the mythic bond between elephant and human virtually dissolved in the 1970s and 1980s.
For many who remember what happened in those years, the fact that droughts are longer .
and come more often reflects the absence of the elephant.

One perhaps can dismiss any linkage between drought and the absence of elephants wandering in the animal preserves. But the authors of the Orion article point to an increase in aberrant behavior toward humans, human habitats, and even toward other animal species.

It is as if when humans wreak havoc on a species, Nature will be avenged one way or another.

Just something to ponder.


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