Stories & History


Opening The Mind Trunk Full of Tales

[Opening The Mind] [The Impact of Elephants in Tsavo] [Elephant Emotion]

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Opening The Mind
By: Paul MacKenzie

Sitting by a campfire I pick up Steppenwolf and am once again caught within the grasps of the book that Hermann Hesse skilfully created. The sounds around me are finally becoming a little familiar after being away from home for more than two weeks. The brightness of the afternoon sun leaves body with a taste of life. Over the past few days, It has been covered with new experiences only seen by the sweat caked sand that I am covered in. In particular, I find that in not wearing shoes for the past few days at certain times I reached a boiling point in which I just had to wash my feet; a desperate desire to feel clean, dry and comfortable. If you have ever gone camping for days in a sandy area you will know exactly what I mean? The world seems so much brighter when my feet are clean. Why is this? At this moment I am in a resting stage; nothing is planned but dinner and then sleep. As the sun begins to drift off in the sky, the book that I started not that long ago seems to be reaching a conclusion. What is it that makes reality seem so pliable in moments of extreme change? The far off call of an African fish eagle draws my attention to a warning I could not ignore. A warning I created for myself when I was caught within an argument that I fought for to the degree that my existence was at stake: "Be careful! You might fall through one of the holes opened before you and discover that what you relied upon for self-existence could just have been a veil clouding your vision."

I find that I devour the books that reflect the world in a novel way—something I am always looking for I suppose. The way we see the world seems to be highly dependent on our mind state. So much of our outlook seems to be dependent on our perspective. At this moment, the questioning of the foundation of our precious realities feels right. Specifically, I am focusing on the existence of object outside our awareness. Obviously, the world continues to turn despite our frame of reference. But, the definition of value does not seem to be so straightforward. The infinite nature of experience has left us with the need to break down the world into something digestible; something that we can grab hold of and manipulate with our minds. Inseparable with this heuristic is our incredible ability to close our minds: the narrowing of vision in which the world as a whole no longer really exists. In these moments, all that seems to exist is the focused--all encompassing—opinion. Doesn't the world seem darker and rigid in this state? Any interruption becomes an annoyance that tends to be further alienating. Also, It just seems so much easier to get angry in this state.

Thousands of miles away from my home, I find the ability to remove my self from usual patterns an easy task; travelling opens our minds to judgements that we previously held about life that we were not aware of. This is one of the most amazing parts for me. In an instant, an area that was just a dark unknown within my mind is suddenly opened up and revealed. It is as though a light is turned on inside and the pictures and stories told in geography class many years ago about some far off distant land come to life. Although, even if accurately represented in class the difference is startling. The more I travel, the more I realize how connected we all are in the "human" condition. Botswana, a country located north of South Africa, is not all that different from Canada. A realization that seems ridiculous given the disparity between the two countries, but is very real.

The crack of a tree branch fifteen feet away from where I sit distracts me from my thoughts. Looking over my shoulder, I find an inquisitive elephant with two very large ears watching me intently. I wanted to ask how long he had been watching, but the futility of this question was all too real.  He was about ten feet tall and filled the pathway that meanders from the campsite into a small forest of acacia trees. I could not believe my eyes. In my mind the possibility of this happening did not exist. A hole opened up before me in the appearance of this elephant; as the sky became suddenly brighter, light was quickly flooding in. The actual expression on his face made me laugh; it was as though his interest in studying me was greater than my desire to study him. I quickly forgot the book that was my world only a brief moment ago, and diverted my full attention to this beautiful being in front of me. In the past I have heard several third-hand stories of families of elephants walking though campsites, but I never imagined that it would happen to me. I also never realized the impact that these majestic intelligent fellow animals would have on me. I called to a good friend to come over. As we moved closer we found that an entire family of elephants were visiting the woods right behind our campsite. For half an hour of quietly watching the communication that took place between these huge animals; the degree of reassurance left me feeling peaceful all over. I could not help but consider the separation most of us form between animals and humans; the formation of a moral house around humanity seems to block the way to discovering that we are not alone. In a sense of awe for these wonderful animals, I became acutely aware of the degree that these beings feel and the importance of family and friends to their well being. Also, I understood the degree of suffering these beings are capable of experiencing: a universal condition of suffering that we all as living beings seem to share with the rest of the world. With this realization, the world no longer seemed such a small and alone place in my one corner of the world.

At one point in the interaction, my friend and I were getting physically close to a young elephant. Despite his young age he was huge. Hiding behind a tree, we watched as the elephant was making an attempt in having a snack of grass torn from the ground. He was having a very difficult time of it I am afraid. Young elephants are very awkward in their use of their trunks and have a troublesome time until they have had sufficient practice. In humans, this could be likened to a child learning to walk. The hilarity of this situation was unbearable. We laughed so hard that his focus of frustration started to shift towards us; he would not hear anything of this mockery from these bipedal invaders and promptly shook his head in warning. Clearly the bigger animal in this showdown, this elephant--with the greatest confidence--made us very aware who was in control. Incidentally, we did not have to be warned twice, given that both his size and his mother's proximity we backed off. With this experience and many more over the past few weeks, I was left with an indelible impression of elephants. I could not help, but consider our relationships with the largest land mammal.

A strong desire has been growing within me to not be so complacent with the actions of others as though I am not part of them. Our silence and our consumer attitude play a large role in influencing what is accepted. Left with mixed emotions about the world we have created, I was confronted with happiness and sadness that could not seem to be pried apart. Where were these conflicting emotions coming from? To meet face to face with some of the biggest, caring, and intelligent mammals in the world was stunning. Watching the communication that was going on between each individual, and the fact that there was so much that I could not understand, or hear left me reticent (Please See: Coming of Age With Elephant by Joyce Poole). Yet, the most profound aspect was the clearly seen displays of affection shared between family members. It filled my heart with joy and sadness. The joy goes without saying, but the sadness seemed to increase over the next few weeks. We, as humans, have murdered millions of these animals for their tusks. For a select few, we have beaten them to perform tricks for our amusement.  As a part of society, I must share in the shame that lies behind all the suffering that we have directly caused because of our ignorance. I simply can not separate myself from these deeds, even though I would never do anything like that. Ironically, while visiting a local curio shop in Francistown in Botswana I picked up an ivory carving while visiting a local curio shop and was admiring the beauty of this carving. Without realizing this was ivory and the possible horror that could have led to this object being there, I was stunned to think how easily it is for me to forget. As part of society, it seems clear that it is mainly because of our greed that so many of these creatures have been murdered: greed for money or in this case for the ivory and other "valued" parts. A problem is created when the closure of the mind leads to the suffering of countless beings. This is where we as a collective people must make a stand by, once again, connecting our minds to our hearts. The objective closure of the mind seems to be the focus of a number of different philosophies; both Buddhism and Taoism stress the need to open our minds from their typical closed state of contraction. In the opening of our minds, the world becomes new from moment to moment and life becomes more vivid. Yet, along with this comes an awareness of injustice that is not thought of in states of contraction. This realization certainly didn't exist within me when I was younger.

I was also shackled with the implicit understanding of the most probable future for these animals; a future in which the economics of preservation seems the only hope to these beings. Seeing one of the last "wildernesses" in the world by visiting Botswana this summer was amazing! However, knowing that with the current trends, it seems unlikely that it will remain in its totality with the expansion of the economy. Thus, I am left with mixed feelings for the people and beings that share such a beautiful country and briefly grasped for the romantic notion of a wilderness that would remain for countless generations to appreciate and learn from. And, I think lastly the whole discussion on the culling of animals so that they don't destroy the habitat, is fraught with misunderstanding, not enough knowledge, and is filled with the never ending desire to play God. Hearing people speculate and prophesize the necessity of such actions without really understanding the true consequences of their beliefs was hard to swallow. In midst of these incredible creatures before me, I was shocked. Would we kill ourselves if numbers became too large in any one place? I kept asking myself this question. I don't really have to look far for an answer. However, past action seems to contradict this "obvious" answer. I look forward to the day in which our moral circle is expanded to include the rights of other beings on this planet. Starting first with the caring, highly social, rudimentary tool using and family oriented species that still exist within this world. I will never forget the embrace the mother gave her young son after a frightening bout with our big truck. Next time you are asked to support the "sad" zoos and carnivals where life is pathetic for these individuals please remember. These tend to be places where animals lead pathetic lives and where elephants are often chained most of the day, are held in small cages, and are beaten and tortured with sharp hooks all for our entertainment. Is it worth it?

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