Elephants and Peacemakers

The Earth and Her creatures are so exquisitely alive. It’s wondrous to consider. 

For example …

  • Underground, there are blind microorganisms that can sense their prey from a distance of 2 miles away.
  • Water in the soil rises and falls with the moon twice a day, like the tides.
  • At the time of first contact, Native Americans lived in such complete balance with the natural world that disease was unknown.
  • In Hawaii, summoning the weather and manipulating clouds was literally child’s play.  
  • Even now, there are ocean-going people who can navigate with the help of women who lie down on their bellies in the bottom of the canoe so they can sense the currents and the tides. 
  • In Colombia, the people known as the Kogi can see distant stars with the naked eye – no telescopes needed. 

In the long ago, when the world was intact, we and the elephants lived in a very rich environment, closely connected to each other and to other animals. Our intuition, our senses of hearing and smell, were finely tuned. They had to be. 

Our food was fully alive, too, and contained the wisdom of millennia in how to thrive in the place where they grew. In particular, the microbial world – external and internal, was much more vibrant than it is today, giving us finely-attuned sensory awareness. 

And, in that exquisitely alive and vibrant world, don’t you think that humans and elephants must have noticed each other and that we must have had a relationship? That we communicated in waking life and in the dreamtime, and told each other stories? For thousands of years, this was very likely our and the elephants’ reality.

Elephants are considered wise, with a reputation for long memories, in part because they once roamed vast distances in 200-year cycles. As they went, they pulled down trees that provided fodder for antelopes and other small animals; they pooped out seeds and microbes as they walked, which spread plants and microbes across the savannah. And the elephants remembered where to find water, food, and safety, and they taught their young to remember, too, so that the great, long cycle could continue. 

[Today we worry because elephant habitat is so severely reduced. Their historic range is much diminished. But they’re not the only ones. Our human range has been diminished as well, especially our sensory and intuitive range. Our natural cycles have been supplanted by machines, along with all the ways we once knew of how to relate to the Earth and her animals.]  

For the past twelve years, my non-profit peacebuilding organization, everyday gandhis, has been working with traditional communities in Liberia, West Africa. In the fall of 2005, Deena and I traveled there. The civil war had just ended the year before. The people and the land were still devastated, including large swaths of Liberia’s magnificent closed-canopy rainforest. There were very few animals of any kind – birds, dogs and monkeys as well as other animals had all been eaten or had fled to neighboring countries. In particular, the forest elephants had disappeared. We were surprised to learn that, in traditional tribal culture, elephants were considered to be a sign of peace. 

The following year, in the fall of 2006, to celebrate Deena’s birthday, we went to see the elephants at Chobe national park, in Botswana. Each day, we spent the afternoon under the Chapungu Tree – the perch of the local fish eagle, who had indicated to Deena that this was the place to meet the elephants. We have a running joke that has proven to be very accurate: the most exciting and intense elephant encounters always happen in the last hour of the last afternoon of the last day. 

On that last day, we explained to the elephants of Chobe that the Liberian elephants had disappeared, and that the people needed them now because the war had ended but peace was not yet secure. From Chobe, we went to Liberia. People were anxious that the elephants hadn’t returned even though the war was over. So we went with the local diviner and several elders and made special offerings in the forest for the elephants, with all of their favorite foods: pumpkins, bananas, rice flour, and honey. 

Three months later, right before Thanksgiving, we received a phone call from Liberia, saying that the elephants had returned to all the villages where we had made offerings. We went back, cameras in hand, to hear what had happened. 

The first person we talked to was the man who had told us in the first place that elephants were a sign of peace. His name is Master General and he was a high-ranking rebel commander. 

[The next person we met was the ‘Elephant Dreamer’, from a village called Barkedu. He was known for this because in his dreams, the elephants would come and tell him to meet them, say, on a Tuesday afternoon at 4, at the edge of town, by the pond. When he went, he would find the elephants waiting for him there, as promised. They also told him where to plant his crops. He faithfully followed their instructions. The elephants destroyed his neighbors’ crops but left his farm untouched. When he asked them why, they told him in the dreamtime that the other farmers were not showing proper respect to the animals. They were shooting too many wild animals for no reason.] 

The third place we went was the village of Womanor. The whole village gathered to tell their elephant stories. One of the things they said was that, since the elephants had returned, there were no poisonous snakes or insects in the village. Being a Muslim village, the elders would go into the forest to read out loud to the elephants from the Koran. 

What to make of these extraordinary events? The only explanation that Deena and I have found is that, although we humans may not remember how things once were, the elephants do, and they are eager for us to join with them to repair and restore the world. 

Only 10% of our cells are uniquely human. 90% are made up of microbes that are found in countless other life forms. We literally are elephants… and we are whales, and snakes and clouds and eagles and soil.

It’s the last hour of the last afternoon of the last day. That’s what time it is – time to resume our conversations with the elephants so we can follow their lead to make peace.