Saturday, November 14, 2009

Venturing into a World of Heartache

I finally finished Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants.

I started it in the last millennium, started it again some years ago, and started over during the Lull. I bought it as a companion piece to Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone, a work of fiction about an elephant society. I thought I'd read them together: get lost in Gowdy’s artful tale while learning bioacoustic researcher Katy Payne’s latest discoveries about African elephants.

My Start Attempts for White Bone mirror those of Silent Thunder, but I never finished the novel.

In a testimonial for White Bone, author Joy Williams writes: “This sorrowful novel does holy work because it engages us in that holiest of acts—empathy.”

Sorrowful is a good description of White Bone. But for someone (like me) who isn’t lacking in the empathy department, excruciating might well be the better word choice.

I’d read a number of Gowdy’s other novels over the years and thoroughly enjoyed her characters, her plots, and the quirkiness of both. So this last time that I started The White Bone, I decided to approach it as a student of writing might—to clinically consider the world she’d created. It helped, but not for long. I never made it to the 4th chapter. I connect to animals too much.

But I still recommend the book, whether you read it to hone your empathy or to study masterful writing. Gowdy did a lot of homework for it, even going so far as to create a lexicon for elephant communications.

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
John Muir

As for Katy Payne’s Silent Thunder, it was painful too. But it also contained stretches of Payne’s reflections on her experiences and her thoughts about the future of conservation and the African populations affected by it. There was breathing space between the sorrows.

Toward the end, I read only a bit at a time because I didn’t want to leave the world Payne had introduced to me. I will no doubt mention this book in future Lull postings because it was rich with ideas. I was fascinated by the language structure of the Zimbabweans, how it connected to the societal structure of the elephants, and how this in turn related to the larger global environmental crisis we battle today—nesting dolls of an ecosystem, of one planet.

So take a trip to Africa, with Gowdy or Payne or both. If you’ve been unemployed for long, you could probably use the vacation. I guarantee that you will see your own world differently.

[Elephant photo courtesy of]

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