Naturalist Watson (Dark Nature, 1996, etc.) recounts his experiences among the elephants of southern Africa with wonderful freshness and enthusiasm, even though some of the most important encounters depicted here took place decades ago.
Elephants haven't changed a whole lot since their distant ancestors the Primelephas evolved from the gomphotheres (“the beasts that are bolted together”) during the Pliocene Period. That may, suggests Watson, explain their fascination for humans; they are literally out of time. Elephants have become symbols of might and memory, of harmony, patience, power, and compassion. But they also have an ambivalent relationship with humans: they are not cooed over, but respected; they keep their distance, they provoke fear and awe; but they have been hunted, harried, and fenced nearly out of existence. While humans’ deplorable treatment of the elephant occupies Watson, he is more concerned with the creature's otherworldly existence on the fringes of our experience, the host of intuitive responses it triggers in us when in the wild we feel its reverberant presence, even (perhaps especially) at times we can't see it. Three major episodes frame the study: a superbly rendered account of 12-year-old Lyall and his friends spending some days on the beach with a Khoi man and a spectral white elephant; his immersion a decade later in the elephants' environment (where he had some close encounters with a raging bull) under the guidance of an old hand at tracking; and his use as a mature author/researcher of insights gained during his time with the elephants in books he has written on evil and the paranormal.
Much more evocatively than any zoologist has ever managed, Watson makes the elephant a force of nature, accessible even to the reader with no personal exposure to the mighty creature. (Line drawings)