Linda Hogan, BEI Emeritus Fellow, newest essay, “Ancient Root” was recently published in Emergence Magazine. Click here for the original essay or read below!
For Linda Hogan, hope lives where faith has fallen away. During an encounter with caged elephants, she experiences a wave of profound and startling love in the presence of beings so very different from—and so very like—ourselves.
Hope lives deeper in my heart than faith. It is with hope that I work each day, and at night I curve myself into a quilt of hope’s many designs stitched together. It is hope that keeps my spirit alive, intact, and searching for the right work to follow what I feel from this earth.
In these days, more of us are moving toward a wholeness in relationship with the land and other living beings. In that relationship is meaning and hope that all will survive. For this one woman, faith doesn’t seem enough to sustain the life around me.
Maybe it walked away from me, as a Native woman, as it has betrayed our nations. Faith isn’t solid enough for me in the world of spirit or the lost ecosystems we once cared for. While I see its value to others, I also see that it says, I can believe anything I want to believe no matter if it is truth or reality. Too often this is lacking in knowledge about our world. Instead, I work toward the future, the ongoing creation of our natural world, and for future generations.
With animals I have trust, a sense of love. I know from experience that I need silence and an inner peace if I walk into their presence. They have their own intelligence, one that completes us when taken altogether. When a human animal stands in the presence of another, hopefully trust takes place. When I entered the world of elephants, it was love that allowed me to be fearless. It was trust. It never occurred to me that there could be danger. I stepped into their world with trust, love, and the greatest hope that their species will survive into the future, despite our violent times. Perhaps altogether that equaled faith, or maybe they were the ones with faith. Faith that I would not harm them.
- —Linda Hogan
Long ago I read of an elder in a village who spoke with elephants. If a group of elephants had damaged a garden or part of a village or if—in the usually silent, star-filled darkness of the African night as people slept—one or more members of a herd entered their village, causing destruction, the residents did not seek to kill the elephant. Instead, the elder went to the elephants to speak with them. He asked the reason for their unusual behavior. Always there was a reason. Perhaps a villager had injured an elephant or in some other way transgressed, causing problems for the herd or for one of them. He needed to know what had been done to create this unusual revenge or why it had torn down a fence or damaged a home. Perhaps machinery was in the way of the animals’ usual narrow path to salt, which is necessary to their survival, or boys may have destroyed a water hole where the elephants drank and rolled.
To discover what old agreement had been broken between them, the man who spoke with elephant people listened. The elephants spoke and it was his work to make things right between the two kinds of people.
This man was a peacemaker, the kind necessary in an unpredictable world where humans break laws that were made with the animals at the beginning of creation. In that time and place, this elder was the one who worked out problems between the herd and the humans of the village.
This may seem so far away from our own lives and seemingly unrelated ways, but through his work at understanding, he brought peace between two species: a herd of great lives and small human beings. He calmed the circle of fear or anger that might easily have escalated into violence.
I THINK OF ELEPHANTS as those with the ancient mind. They are the old root of intelligent life. Their brains are known to be more convoluted than ours, implying minds with a greater knowledge. Their animal being and presence is old and intelligent.
Some of this intelligence takes the form of love and kinship, even with other species, a care we may someday learn. They are loving with one another, and even with other animals they care for, including our own species. They have learned much more than our own systems of knowledge.
With skin old as history, these enormous creations are maps of ancient worlds and other ways, not those with boundaries drawn tight as our contemporary minds. They are not those with notions of powerful ownership and with borders such as the fences or walls that keep them from traveling to places they’ve known from the long past, locations they need for survival, locations for often-used water, food, shade, or the medicine plants they have used for centuries. All these are now in territories no longer available to them. Yet their presence is necessary in these places. In thick forests, for example, elephants create openings that allow smaller animals to find sustenance where the light has entered.
Old root of our lives, they are solid-footed, unhurried travelers with destinations recalled from their blood memory. At different times they have been on other continents in numerous forms and shapes, as mammoths, mastodons, pygmy mammoths, but always living amiably with other animals, until recent attacks by humans.
These old animals have been our teachers, with their special knowledge of land, and with the strength of compassion and the tender care they have for their young and one another. Tribal people in the past were shaped by this empathy.
With skin old as history, these enormous creations are maps of ancient worlds and other ways, not those with boundaries drawn tight as our contemporary minds.
I CAN’T BEGIN TO ADDRESS the intelligence of elephants, except through a few examples. They know where to dig into dry desert earth for water, as if able to sense the location, then make a piece of bark into a round plug to stop up the hole and keep the water from evaporating into the dry heat.
These non-human animals also have a complex vocabulary and way of speaking to one another across distances as far as a hundred miles with a language so deep we cannot hear it (except sometimes as a low rumble), although their heads can be seen to vibrate with the sound, the song, or the distress call they use to communicate with related herds, relatives far away. This was only learned in our recent lifetimes because of the way one herd reacted so strongly to the “culling” of another a long distance away.
In some studies, the parts of the brain that indicate intelligence in humans excel in them, as does the experience of memory—the reason they are, like us, prone to post-traumatic stress and even the imitation of violence they have witnessed by humans.
I DIDN’T THINK of this the day I walked into the elephant world. The only thing I felt was the pull of my whole self toward the elephants as if to gravity, although perhaps somewhere in my memory I might have remembered information about how they deeply grieve their losses, even placing leaves and twigs over the bones of their dead, returning to places where the dead have fallen in the past, and remaining in a silent state at that location, and also the way they stay with their dying kindred, gently touching them with their trunk in a show of affection and care.
I didn’t think about how they’d been captured, under what trauma, or what they might have thought about humans from that experience, how they might feel about us. I didn’t consider how they may have been treated in the place where they lived, even after I noticed chains cemented into the floor of their night-time habitat.
The only thing I felt was the pull of my whole self toward the elephants as if to gravity.