On Being a Mammal ...

I have been around the world this summer, it feels like, and have returned to my comfortable little nest on White Street a changed person.  I not only looked into hundreds of weathered elephant faces, but have had the remarkable opportunity to look a mountain gorilla in the eyes. Today is World Elephant Day, they say, and to honor these most wise and remarkable mammals, I want to try to describe what it feels like to feel the boundaries between man and beast fade away.  My family and I journeyed to Africa, specifically to Rwanda  and Kenya.  In Rwanda we trekked ever upward through bamboo forests to witness the gorilla family of Pablo.  It was a grueling journey, wet and misty and slippery and steep.  I was carried in a stretcher because I couldn't manage the rigors of the climb.  I struggled with my self image and my pride and all that, and I soon figured out that a wildly unique experience lay ahead of me if I could just forget my frailties for a day.  After hours of marching uphill, we met up with our three trackers who took us to the secluded grove where the family of about 8 black mountain gorillas was spending their morning.  Mothers, young ones, a tiny baby clutching her mother, and two huge silverback males who strutted, grunted, and stayed ever watchful.  We were within about eight feet of these formidable yet gentle animals, and they paid us no mind.  We took picture after picture, we silently "oohed" and "aahed" as we watched them eat the beautiful bright green leaves, groom one another, and take a morning siesta. There was a moment when I pointed my 600 mm zoom at one large female - she was looking right at me - and when I put my eyes to the camera, her face took my breath away.  She was staring me down, calmly and peacefully.  I took away the camera and looked again.  What I saw in front of me was a human face, giant and soft and black and soulful.  Just looking.  My heart pounded.  Not from fear, but a sort of joy that the layers of defense between myself and those wild beings had temporarily fallen away.  Our beloved guide, Julius, when I asked him just what these animals feel and think when they stare back at our faces, said, "they see something very familiar."

The first time I had that kind of experience was my first visit to Kenya in the late 90's when I stood in a Land Rover having a staring contest with a huge elephant matriarch.  She had approached our vehicle, and then stood her ground, simply watching us.  Curious, and wary.  When I caught her gaze I felt witnessed by another living being, and I ceased to feel definitively or uniquely human.  There was a lightness in my body, a transparency, and a wildly beating heart that kept affirming that we were all safe and sound, that we were all really in the same place with nothing to fear.  The eyes of an elephant are framed by exquisite feathery lashes and they look timeless, so ancient and so in the moment.  As I write in my memoir, appropriately titles Bowing to Elephants, this single moment of recognition marked the beginning of my lifelong romance with the elephant.

I have returned to Kenya twice since that time, always to be witness to the elephant.  You see, I have feared for this animal's survival -- and rightly so.  This ancient beast has been brutally murdered in obscene numbers over the decades so that certain people can carve their tusks and create precious marketable objects.  There was talk earlier on that the elephant might become truly endangered, that there might be a time when this wisest of mammals wouldn't walk the earth anymore.  The outcry against this has been powerful and passionate, with people and organizations from all over the world working hard to bring this travesty to people's consciousness, and there is now the sense, I believe, that some profound lesson has been learned.  The ivory market may very well collapse, and with that the killing...

Something else happened to me this summer in Africa that is quite beautiful.  I began to witness the living beings around me more fully, looking people whom I didn't know in the eye and extending my goodwill.  When I saw this unfolding, I saw I was being changed in a subtle way.  I could touch people with my eyes and my voice, and I no longer felt the ache of isolation that had plagued me in recent months.  When I came home I continued this practice of connecting -- talking to drivers, to people in restaurants, to those who served me my food, who bagged my groceries, those who swept the floors and cleaned bathrooms.  I no longer want to be in the habit of making my fellow human beings invisible.

I bow to the gorillas and to the magnificent elephants of Africa for showing me how much a part of the mammal family I am.  We need one another in order to understand safety and to co-regulate.  In Rwanda and in Kenya I felt this deeply, and the memory of those wise faces remains in my mind and heart now in urban San Francisco, as I greet other beings and hopefully remind them that we are in this struggle of being alive together.

Mag Dimond