In 1967 Romain Gary wrote an article that LIFE magazine described as “a love letter to an old companion”. The piece was entitled “Dear Elephant, Sir”. Almost half a century later I, with great nervousness, have attempted a reply on behalf of the elephant. Romain Gary signed off his letter to the elephant with the words “Your very devoted friend” and then his name.
Dear Devoted Friend,
Should you ever read this letter you may wonder what took me so long to reply. I trust that you did not think that I would forget.
The reason for my letter is of course self-preservation. I, like you, know that our destinies are linked.
Dear devoted friend, your bold and individual heart gave me great hope. It reminded me that all is never lost however towering the threat.
It’s now clear to me that us elephants, quiet and with big needs, are always going to be vulnerable. We can do little to resist fire, or drought, or man with his sudden fanatical whims.
I was touched to read that I was a symbol of purity for you, of paradise lost. I wish I could return the compliment but I can’t. I have to say that to me your people are a tiny, trunkless complication – less predictable even than the crocodile. You used to be quiet, barefoot hunters, but you, for instance, fell from the sky.
Not that I blame any of this change on you personally. No, this mess has evolved over the life of at least six grand elephants. Quite a time perhaps but looking back it all happened so quickly – the noise, the roads, the vehicles, the buildings, the fences, the killings. Possibly the change frustrated all of you as much as us because the great matriarchs tell us that the more crowded it’s got the more bad-tempered you’ve become.
First the violence was only at a distance, an occasional incident such as your plane crash. Most of us just got whiffs of such news on the wind … and then we began to feel it more often. It came in the air, through the ground, and then in the bones that we touched with our trunks as we paid our respects.
Today the trauma is even closer, it’s all around – we see it, like your kind do, in our stressed and fractured families.
You described me in your letter as “life in its hugest and most cumbersome form”. At first when I read this I thought: “Huh!” … but now I take it as a celebration of our genius for camouflage and silence, of our care for our own.
I grant that our size, our need for space, food and fellow elephants, makes us vulnerable and a touch hard to live alongside, but, incredibly, we’re still here and I think that’s what you liked about us – that our huge strangeness is still here in amongst all that is manmade and modern.
I am flattered that you put it so strongly:
“your presence among us carries a resonance that cannot be accounted for in terms of science or reason, but only in terms of awe, wonder and reverence.”
I’m not complacent though – the odds are steep. How can we, huge and cumbersome as you pointed out, survive your weaponry and appetites?
Dear devoted friend, with your spindly limbs and toenails for ears, in your letter you wrote of the suffering of man in concentration camps during wars and you mentioned the brutality of totalitarian regimes. You said that you personally were helped in your captivity by dreams of the freedom of elephants – is there any way now, that in your freedom, you might help us?
Man alone of the species has the power to keep us free. We cannot match you for intellect but we know love of family, respect for the dead, and have at least some sense of self.
I don’t consider you discourteous for having written that “my size, strength and craving for unrestricted existence” make me “quite obviously anachronistic” for it’s true but, as I also know, it’s because we’re so wrong that there’s hope. You yourself said as much:
“your colossal presence and the fact of your survival against all odds, acts as a God-sent reassurance”.
I’ll always hold on to that.
Thank you for your words dear, very devoted friend. Friendship like yours remains our truest hope.
May you rest in peace.
Your very vulnerable companion
To complete the picture here are some details on the elephant.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018