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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Lyall Watson is a well-known naturalist and writer who lives in Ireland, but his youth was spent in South Africa, and it was there that his lifelong fascination with elephants began. Spending the summer of his 12th year with friends at a beach camp, he came face-to-face with a massive, whitish-hued elephant. "Time seemed to stand still as he held his imperial pose" -- but then the majestic apparition melted away into the undergrowth. This fleeting vision -- of a silent, gentle grace coexisting with incredible size and force -- did not disappear so quickly. It has haunted Watson ever since and inspired this charming and unconventional portrait of an elusive creature.
Elephantoms wanders across a wide variety of terrain, drawing upon history, anthropology, evolutionary theory, and the author's own experiences to illuminate the elephant world. Colorful yarns from animal trackers and wildlife researchers alternate with disquisitions on elephant biology (the trunk can lift weights exceeding 1,000 pounds) and behavior (elephants mourn their dead, burying and even revisiting the bones of deceased family members). But some of the most interesting passages in this genre-defying work assess our experience of the natural world; the pull of childhood places and the wordless mysteries of sensory perception, which confuse, inspire, and ultimately lead us to reach outside ourselves.
In recounting the search for elephants in an area of South Africa where they were thought to have disappeared -- hence the phantoms of the book's title -- Watson comments that "every time I think I am beginning to understand them, elephants do something astonishing that makes it necessary to go back and start all over again." His account of the encounter between a lone elephant and a blue whale swimming just offshore is a particularly astonishing example. "Symbols of might and memory, harmony and patience, power and compassion," elephants continue to enthrall us -- and Watson's book is a worthy testament to this enduring bond. (Jonathan Cook)