A few months ago I was lucky enough to catch a documentary about elephants. The film crew followed a herd of elephants for about a year, documenting their every move. The herd had been under watch for a few years at that point and researchers had identified every elephant’s role and had also designated names to make identification easier.
The matriarch was named Emily. She had been leading the herd for decades and was pushing 80 years of age at the time of filming. She had two daughters and the eldest, Hannah, was next in line for the matriarchy.
Throughout the entire show there were many aspects of elephant socio-cultural interaction that fascinated me, but one in particular stuck out....
Every morning, when Emily awoke she would wake the herd; going around and softly nudging her daughters, waking them up. As the herd, which comprised of almost 30 elephants and was very large by current herd standards, rumbled awake they would trumpet and greet each other, then Emily would lead them to their morning water. The elephants did not go to the same watering hole every morning. Emily had different spots that were rotated each day, but it was her job to lead the herd to water; every morning and multiple times throughout the day and while doing this she taught her daughters the routes to the water. They were to memorize those routes for when Emily was gone; the memorizing that went into the water locations was necessary for the herd’s long term sustainability.
One morning Hannah, jumping the gun on her leadership responsibilities, wanted to lead the herd to a certain water hole. Emily would not allow it and an argument ensued. The argument comprised of Emily and Hannah facing off, each lifting one front leg at a time and lifting their trucks high, trumpeting loudly. To me it appeared as dancing, but alas, it was an argument and it ended in a divided herd. Hannah and those she’d convinced following her one way and Emily heading in the opposite direction with those in the herd that trusted her. After a full day of traveling the herd regrouped at home base for a comfortable night’s sleep.
The next morning Emily was no where to be found and the herd awoke on their own. The film makers thought that Emily possibly went off by herself to find water and would be back shortly...but she never came and the other elephants appeared to be a little disheveled. Hannah took her leadership role and took the herd for water....only she couldn’t find water. She couldn’t remember where water was. The herd spent the day walking around looking for water to no avail; this continued for a couple of days.
The film makers eventually thought that Emily had gone off to die; she was after all in her 80's. Researchers and crew alike were worried for the herd’s survival because Hannah was not ready to lead. It became apparent after day three passed and they had not found water. The crew searched very hard for Emily, but she had hidden herself well.
Emily showed up on the fourth morning. She rumbled into the herd early in the morning and was greeted so happily by the other elephants, especially Hannah. The crew was lucky enough to film the reunion and Emily and Hannah wrapped trunks and embraced. Emily immediately led the herd to water, with Hannah firmly by her side.
The researchers did not quite know what to make of such an experience, but shortly realized that it was a lesson in the making.
It became apparent that Emily had left the herd because she wanted to teach Hannah a lesson; a lesson in survival. She left the herd so Hannah could lead, to see how they would survive without her, and came back knowing that they wouldn't make it without her. She wanted to show Hannah that she wasn’t quite ready to lead the herd and what better way than throwing her into the position.
The learning experience was hard on Hannah, but was a lesson that she and the herd both needed and Hannah was a better leader because of it. Emily died shortly after that. The film crew and researchers frequently observed Hannah mourning over the bones of Emily. Elephants are one of the few mammals on Earth that mourn their dead. They will visit the sight of a deceased family member often, alone and as a herd; trumpeting and feeling the bones with their trunks. This is done with family members and with elephant bones they run across randomly.
I've always wondered if they used that time to pause and reflect on how important life lessons are....and how important it is to show the ones you love that you care.
To love sustainably can be difficult and a hard lesson to learn. Sometimes, in order for the group to sustain long term, an individual must sacrifice the short term gain. This requires one to control their selfish desires and to look past themselves, sometimes giving up what they love dearly (like an elephant herd) or trying and failing (not finding a watering hole when dearly needed); which can be hard, especially in a world where instant gratification is so easily obtained.
Sometimes I pause
To think of the elephants
And remember that the world is much larger than myself....