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In South Africa: Elephant October 29, 2010

Posted by Jenny in memoir, nature, travel, wildlife.
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I am awfully cute

For an introduction about my recent trip to South Africa, go here.

My title for this post is “Elephant” (singular), not “Elephants” (plural). But surely I didn’t see just one? I’m only following the example of my friends Arnold and Sonja, Klaas and Carol.  “If we go at dusk, we may see leopard,” one of them would say, or “The dam is a good place to see hippo.” I don’t even remember what the grammatical term is, but the word is being used as an abstraction, a concept, an essence. “We will see laziness there” instead of “We will see lazy individuals there.” And, around Kruger, I definitely experienced elephant!

I’ve always thought that elephants were one of the most preposterous animals (well, maybe I should save that word for the hippo, and turn it into a hippoposterous). Can you remember back to when you were a child and were first introduced to these remarkable creatures? How wonderful, how delightful, it seemed that such an animal could exist? Really, you say? It splashes itself with water that it lifts up with its nose? It reaches up to the very top of the tree for the freshest, tastiest leaves? It has ivory tusks? It is huge and has feet as big as wastebaskets? (And, unfortunately, the Victorians actually made wastebaskets out of elephant feet.)

Oldster crossing the road

For me, visiting Kruger was a truly magical experience of seeing the animals that I had read about, dreamed about, as a child. When I was flying home from Johannesburg, the woman in the seat next to me said she wasn’t very interested in game reserves: “I’ve always felt that  I could see them in zoos,” she commented. She was not trying to diminish my experience—she was a thoughtful person with whom I enjoyed a long and interesting conversation—but I knew without a doubt that on this particular subject, she was missing something important.

How could she possibly understand the way I felt when I saw my first elephant? That occurred on the night drive we took, a tour at dusk in one of the park’s big open-sided vehicles, driven by a very knowledgeable and entertaining guide.  The light was starting to dim as we drove through the dry, monochromatic savannah. Then someone called out, “Elephant!” And there it was, just a few feet away, a huge gray beast calmly pulling down the leaves from a thorn tree. I could look into its eye. It was looking back at me! And it was in its own home, nearly hidden away, a somewhat drab-colored piece in a huge and complicated jigsaw puzzle, blending in beautifully with the background.

Even the next day, in daylight, the elephants blended in awfully well.

Elephant blending in

It was fun to see them among the trees, and it was also fun to see them creating a traffic jam.

Somehow I don't mind a traffic jam caused by baby elephants

I enjoyed picking out those remarkable shapes in the distance.

Ruler of the watering hole

And…very strange to think that it was a certain ugly, irascible man, a certain president of the Transvaal Republic, who had the foresight to set aside a huge area as a game preserve…to actually protect it from his fellow Boers, who loved more than anything else to hunt…to begin what would eventually become, after various stages, the crown jewel of South Africa and one of the most famous parks in the world.

Paul Kruger watches over the entrance to the park

Wild animals in the Iliad November 6, 2008

Posted by Jenny in classical studies, Homer, literature, nature.
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My kind once lived in GreeceAs the Achaians fought desperately on the shore beside their ships, wielding their spears against furious advances by the Trojans, Zeus decided from his perch on Mount Ida that the Achaians must retreat.  Ajax, the big man, slow-witted but brave, glared at the raging Trojans.  He was “like a dun lion from a stable yard / driven by hounds and farmhands: all night long / they watch and will not let him take his prey, / his chosen fat one.  Prowling, craving meat, / he cannot make a breakthrough.”*

These words from the Iliad do not speak of a lion as a symbol abstracted from its surroundings, but a real-life lion, a nuisance to the farmers of the day.  Not until the second century A.D. would lions be gone from Europe and the Middle East.

All through the Iliad, the poet we call Homer used small luminous scenes of everyday life to describe aspects of the battle.  The troops turned out “thick as bees / that issue from some crevice in a rock face, / endlessly pouring forth, to make a cluster / and swarm on blooms of summer here and there, / glinting and droning, bright in busy air.”  Soldiers could be “timorous as greenwood deer, light fare / for jackals, leopards, wolves….”  An army gathers “Like a dark cloud / a shepherd from a hilltop sees, a storm, a gloom over the ocean, traveling shoreward / under the west wind; distant from his eyes / more black than pitch it seems, though far at sea, / with lightning squalls driven along its front.”

These extended similes run parallel to the events of the battle, and in them we see a world of woodcutters in mountain glens, hunters with dogs who encounter a “whiskered lion” as they chase a wild stag, boys and girls harvesting grapes in woven baskets, “while on a resonant harp a boy among them / played a tune of longing, singing low / with delicate voice a summer dirge….”

Poseidon lived here in golden glimmering chambers

Poseidon lived here in golden glimmering chambers

The “tumbling clamorous whispering sea” washes the shores of the islands and nourishes these lives.  This “cold, fish-breeding sea” is roofed over with “pure space,” the realm of the ideal that seems a foreseeing of Plato: “As when in heaven / principal stars shine out around the moon / when the night sky is limpid, with no wind, / and all the lookout points, headlands, and mountain / clearings are distinctly seen, as though / pure space had broken through, downward from heaven, / and all the stars are out, and in his heart / the shepherd sings….”

*Translation by Robert Fitzgerald.