Tags: elephants


Caldecott Monday: Noah's Ark

We've reached another Caldecott book that I'm familiar with from childhood! (And in fact we'll run into quite a few of them for the next twenty years of Caldecott books or so.) My parents actually owned Peter Spier's Noah's Ark, so I was quite familiar with it, although I must say it never was a favorite: the ark gets awfully dirty from having so many animals in it, which is only reasonable, but I thought all the piles of dung were gross.

I also found the Noah's ark story itself a bit upsetting - particularly the bit at the beginning where alllll the animals are gathering around the ark, but Noah's only letting them on two by two so you've got, say, a bunch of elephants standing around, dolefully waiting to drown. Why do the elephants deserve to drown because humans were horrible? It seems so unfair.

It occurs to me, rather gloomily, that at this point we might see the Noah's ark story as something like a prophecy: the elephants etc. still don't deserve to suffer, but human activity is slowly killing them off anyway - not with a literal flood, but from poachers servicing the rising tide of human greed. It is often the innocents who suffer most.

This is rather gloomy, especially considering the book itself is about as cheery as a retelling of Noah's ark can be. There are all sorts of fun animal vignettes (the elephant who doesn't fit out of the ark; the flood of rabbits coming out, because the two beginning rabbits have bred a four score and seven baby bunnies), all of which is very cute.

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Reading Meme on Thursday Again, Maybe I Should Just Call It Mid-Week Reading Meme

What I've Just Finished Reading

Laurel Braitman's Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves. It might also be subtitled "How Humans Drive Animals to Madness," because while some of the animals in the book seemed to have an underlying tendency toward instability, most of them seem to have been driven to their compulsions or anxieties by human abuse or neglect or captivity.

As you might imagine, this makes it a hard book to read, but interesting and thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed the elephant sections.

What I'm Reading Now

Still Unmade, mostly out of sheer cussedness, because goddamnit but I want to know what happens to these characters. Unless the reviews on Sarah Rees Brennan's next book are phenomenal, I probably won't read it.

I've also just begun Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia, which I think I'm going to enjoy.

What I Plan to Read Next

Mary Stewart's Rose Cottage. I waffled a while between that and her book The Stormy Petrel, but Rose Cottage looks like something my mother might enjoy too so I decided to read it first.

More Elephants

More elephants! I’ve got kind of an elephant thing going here. Most recently I’ve been reading Katy Payne’s Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants, which is good but frustrating.

On the one hand, there’s a lot of interesting information here - elephants can coordinate their movements with other elephant groups from over four miles away, for instance, communicating through sounds too low for humans to hear. (Humans can feel the sounds, though, like the deep reverberations of a church organ.) And much that’s horrifying: when hunters cull elephant herds, they always take care to kill all the elephants they find in one place. Out of kindness. So the elephants left behind aren’t traumatized.

I suppose from a certain point of view that is kind. Which makes it horrifying.

What I find frustrating - and I realize this is as much a result of my own rationalist biases as anything else - is that the book is sprinkled with dreams and general mysticism. A lot of animal writing has this streak of mysticism, which is one thing in a memoir about a pet cockatiel or whatever. But this memoir is supposed to be more or less scientific, so what are the dreams doing there?

Especially given that Payne doesn’t seem to take them entirely seriously. One of the earliest dreams, just after Payne realizes that elephants communicate through infrasound, features the elephants telling her that they didn’t tell her about their secret communication method so she could tell just anybody.

And then Payne...proceeds to tell everybody about the elephants’ secret communication method, and never refers to the dream again. No sense of guilt for breaking faith with the dream elephants? Why even bring the dream up if she didn’t think it mattered? Her forward suggests that she included these dreams out of a desire for completeness, but the book would have been stronger without them. Good books are created as much by leaving things out as by putting things in.

Fossils and Cowboys and Elephants, Oh My

A couple of books I’ve been reading, about fossils and England and elephants and Rome.

The Dragon Seekers: How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaur and Paved the Way for Darwin, by Christopher McGowan

This book has the most misleading title ever. If the fossilists were ever seeking dragons, they’d certainly gotten over it by the early 19th century; but for the title page, the word dragon never appears in the book.

Tragic lack of dragons aside, this is actually a pretty good book. I mean, it’s got DINOSAURS. Which are not dragons, but still, a good consolation prize. Plus, nineteenth century scientists are a marvelously eccentric bunch. McGowan does a great job conveying their personalities, kindly but without sentimentality toward their flaws, and balancing their personal stories with the tales of their discoveries.

The Cowboy and His Elephant: The Story of a Remarkable Friendship, Malcolm MacPherson

Short version: too much cowboy, not enough elephant.

Longer version: This really ought to be called The Hagiographic Account of the Saintly but Nonetheless Awesomely Manly Cowboy Who Took in an Orphaned Baby Elephant. Bob Norris, the cowboy in question, may indeed be all that and a bag of chips, but breathlessly adoring accounts of flawless people are awfully boring.

Especially when they take up space that could otherwise be occupied by elephants. Because elephants are awesome.

A tragic and beautiful elephant story, from Marina Belozerskaya’s The Medici Giraffe, and Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power (which I meant to review, but never got around to; it’s fascinating but unnecessarily meandering):

Hoping to restore his fading prestige, the Roman general Pompey put up a four-day-long games extravaganza at the Circus Maximus. He brought in gladiators, lions, leopards, giraffes, exotic animals of every kind, with a few dozen elephants as his piece de resistance.

But the elephants, realizing that they were doomed, refused to fight. Instead they trumpeted in such despair that the bloodthirsty crowd pitied them, and demanded that they be spared.

Pompey had the elephants slaughtered anyway. When he fell from power soon after, the people of Rome said it was the curse of the elephants on him.