Elephant Memories!

Our book today is Elephant Memories by Cynthia Moss, a 1988 masterpiece of natural history that I’ve handed to dozens of people over the years but have barely even mentioned here on Stevereads, despite it being one of my favorite nature-books (and despite having had some extremely memorable encounters with elephants myself). Moss studied the elephants of the Amboseli National Game Park for many years, and right at the start of her warm and passionate book, she’s frank about how her work moved her: “Elephants are very special animals: intelligent, complicated, intense, tender, powerful, and funny,” she writes. “I consider myself immensely fortunate to have spent so much time with them.” The straightforward simplicity of such a declaration is, in fact, quite elephantine, and Moss follows it up throughout Elephant Memories with encounter after encounter with the extended families (ruled by matriarchs) she came to know so well, every observation based on countless hours of careful observation:

The social bonds among family-unit members were obviously very strong, and one of their manifestations was the frequent greeting of one another. Often after they had been spread out feeding and the group coalesced, individuals would greet one another with a special posture and rumble. The greeters would first raise their heads, lift their ears and spread them, tuck their chins in, and then rumble loudly and throatily while flapping their ears.

Moss was among the first animal behaviorists to document and fully explain the nature of those family-unit social bonds among elephants, and one of the most pleasant aspects of reading and re-reading Elephant Memories is how the constant accumulation of all this eye-witness empirical data makes the reader thoroughly trust Moss. Her deductions are always grounded in solid fact, and her suppositions are never fanciful. And just as important, her prose is clear and compelling. You feel like you’re in the jeep with her, watching scenes unfold:

By now Slit Ear and Teresia were about 50 yards away, coming down to the water’s edge for a drink. Lions cannot kill an adult elephant, but they can kill a baby, and in general elephants are intolerant of lions. Teresia in particular was antagonistic toward lions, probably because of an unpleasant experience somewhere in her long life. The elephants had seen the running wildebeests and zebras at the edge of their vision but had not yet seen or smelled the lions. When they got closer, the wind shifted slightly and they picked up the lions’ scent. Under certain circumstances the elephants might have just altered their path and drunk at another spot, but their choice of drinking places was limited by the Maasai, and in any case Teresia was not in the habit of letting lions change her plans. She came forward from her usual position at the rear and walked directly and quickly toward the lions, with her head held high and ears spread. The lions were busy feeding, growling and slurping and in general making a considerable amount of noise. Teresia was almost upon them before they noticed her. They took one look and scattered in every direction, and then skulked into the reeds to hid. Teresia swung her trunk at them as they ran away and blew down through her nose. Her family came up behind her. Less self-possessed than she in the face of five lions, they, especially the younger females, were clearly excited. They flapped their ears, gave sharp shakes of their heads, and let out shrill trumpets. They all milled about, rumbling and greeting and reassuring one another with trunk touches.

Throughout the book, she reproduces the jottings she made in her field notebooks and then elaborates with her later observations and reactions, as when she observes a normally-reserved female elephant suddenly take part in some of the weird and often elaborate goofing off that elephants so often do. First she includes her notes of the moment:

Even Grace is playing now. It’s an amazing sight. Grace comes racing out, frightens herself when she almost runs into me, really trumpets and scares everyone into running off. Gloria and Gladys and others ran toward her when she trumpeted, then they go tearing off running and play trumpeting all across the open stretch of the arm of the swamp.

Then she expands along whatever lines move her:

I knew elephants well enough to by then to realize that this was not true fear or aggression. When elephants are frightened they are usually silent. Everything about their postures, gestures, and vocalizations on this afternoon indicated high spirits and playfulness. I drove home smiling and feeling lucky that I had witnessed such a scene.

Elephant Memories has dozens and dozens of such recounted moments (and of course its share of sadness – stories of poachers or local Maasai teenagers hurling spears into these animals to prove their ‘mahood’ are ten times harder to read once you feel like you know the elephants involved), and the after-effect of all of them is the same: we, too, feel lucky. Moss has written an immortal book about an all-too-mortal species. Her elephants are stranger and more wonderful than we had ever guessed.

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