Somewhere in my carbon copied files, tucked away with my memories in corners of the attic as a concession to the demands of the here and now, is the letter I wrote at Christmastime in 1997 about the death of a baby elephant. It was a moment when it seemed as if the world was too small a place not to be shaken by the loss of such a creature. Someone living out in the semi desert of Damaraland had walked into camp with the news that there was a little elephant up the dry riverbed that had lost its mother. Our Namibian father Elias Xoagub piled us and several of his other dependents into and old land rover and we headed East,up the Aba-Huab, among the riparian lead wood trees and camel thorns whose thirsty roots tapped what they could sense and the elephants smell six feet beneath the sand.
We found it,so newly born and newly dead that it had not yet been scavenged. So heavy that it took four grown men to lift into the bed of the land rover. The baby hairs on its quilted skin were finely detailed beside those on the back of my resting hand, as one of my color slides from that day records.
Sometimes a young elephant mother has a difficult birth. 22 months is a long gestation time, and even in the caring matriarchy of a breeding herd it can happen that birth happens alone. Perhaps she abandoned the new life that had frightened and hurt her. Perhaps, as the authorities from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism suspected but which seems to me now quite unlikely, it had contracted a.disease like hoof and mouth - and indeed they later burned the carcass lest it pose a threat to livestock. Who can divine the patterns that bring such life to an end just as it begins? How can this big old planet contain such enormities?
That week there were elephants walking quietly past our bedrolls as we slept. I found the tracks of solitary bulls not 15 feet from our tent. An elephant's hoofprint has a signature pattern that with open eyes even an amateur tracker can discern. Over the coming days I learned which tracks belonged to which bull, and took another photograph of my bare footprint next to theirs.
During that year of living with elephants, their undeniable intelligence and the complexities of sharing living space with such complex beings, the breeding herds always drew my eye. I could never approach them in safety, the way it often occurred with the old tuskers, those gentle old men. But once I was witness to the fact of the brief life of a baby elephant, and so I know the answer to that old chestnut about whether the unobserved tree makes a sound as it falls. The fact of its being, just being on this earth, is there to be felt whether audible or not. Its being does not depend on me, though feeling does.