Elephantoms: Tracking the Elephant

Overview

A scientific safari and personal memoir celebrating the enigmatic dignity of the world's largest land animal.
As a child in South Africa, spending summers exploring the wild with his boyhood friends, Lyall Watson came face to face with his first elephant. This "entertaining and enchanting" work (Washington Post Book World) chronicles how Watson's fascination grew into a lifelong quest to understand the nature and behavior of this impressive ...

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Elephantoms: Tracking the Elephant

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Overview

A scientific safari and personal memoir celebrating the enigmatic dignity of the world's largest land animal.
As a child in South Africa, spending summers exploring the wild with his boyhood friends, Lyall Watson came face to face with his first elephant. This "entertaining and enchanting" work (Washington Post Book World) chronicles how Watson's fascination grew into a lifelong quest to understand the nature and behavior of this impressive creature.
From that moment on, Watson's fascination grew into a lifelong obsession with understanding the nature and behavior of this impressive creature. Around the world, the elephant—at once a symbol of spiritual power and physical endurance—has been worshipped as a god and hunted for sport.
"Watson's insights and speculations are dazzling, but what lends them power is his extraordinary knowledge of evolutionary biology and animal behavior, ethnography and South African history" (Wade Davis, National Geographic Society). "Like a shaman, Watson conjures up the spirit of the massive beast" (Publishers Weekly), documents the animal's wide-ranging capabilities to remember and to mourn, and reminds us of its rich mythic origins, its evolution, and its devastation in recent history. Part meditation on an elusive animal, part evocation of the power of place, Elephantoms presents an alluring mix of the mysteries of nature and the wonders of childhood.

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Editorial Reviews

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The 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)

Jeffrey Masson
“This compelling book is filled with warmth, wisdom and depth.... I could not imagine a better introduction to these mysterious and wondrous creatures, than this fine and loving book.”
Desmond Morris
“An absorbing, beautifully written memoir focusing on one of the most amazing animals that has ever lived.”
Wade Davis
“Elephantoms is above all a celebration of scientific and intuitive wonder, a work of mystery and delight.”
National Geographic Adventure
“[R]econnects us to something old and fundamental inside ourselves: a wordless brotherhood with the nonhuman, a lost intuitive understanding.”
Science News
“[P]rovides a wonderful overview of creatures that remember, mourn, and even draw pictures.”
B. A. Brittingham - Midwest Book Review
“Watson is at his peak literary style....impressive.”
Stephen Mihm - Washington Post
“Readers need not share Watson's level of fascination to find this book interesting....entertaining and enchanting.”
Midwest Book Review - B.A. Brittingham
“Watson is at his peak literary style....impressive.”
Washington Post - Stephen Mihm
“Readers need not share Watson's level of fascination to find this book interesting....entertaining and enchanting.”
National Geographic Adventure
[R]econnects us to something old and fundamental inside ourselves: a wordless brotherhood with the nonhuman, a lost intuitive understanding.
Science News
[P]rovides a wonderful overview of creatures that remember, mourn, and even draw pictures.
Publishers Weekly
Delightfully multidimensional, Watson's latest describes how through an enchanted childhood and a lucky adulthood he has been haunted by elephants. Watson fills his memoir with metaphorical tales, creating a spiritual and emotional rendering of elephants. He retells the old fable, for instance, of a group of blind men trying to describe an elephant when each can only examine a portion of it: its tail, its ear, its leg. Watson's is an adventure story filled with explanations of natural history. Seemingly tangential discussions enrich every topic, from the family tree of languages demonstrating the rarity of the click language of a Bushman he meets to the philosophy of tracking elephants. Like a shaman, Watson (Jacobson's Organ) conjures up the spirit of the massive beasts who can disappear in plain view and can be felt from miles away. He describes how elephants have shaped the land and people around them for as long as they have existed. They are intelligent, self-aware and profoundly emotional. Elephants have filled mystical spaces in the world, and Watson illustrates this through such examples as cave paintings, the royal white elephants of Siam and a story about a boy who, possessed to draw monsters until a Bushman intervenes, finds calm in drawing elephants. The fantastic adventures of Watson's youth in South Africa and his later years studying elephant history and zoology are tantalizing, and his chronicle of these majestic creatures will cast a spell on readers. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Lyall Watson started his life in South Africa where he spent four of his summers with boyhood friends, "roughing it" in the wild and living off the land-an orderly, civilized counterpoise to the world of the Lord of the Flies. After one magical moment of encountering an elephant in the wild, Watson's life is forever changed. All else is seen in relation to this mighty and mysterious animal. "Compared to them, we are primitives, hanging on to a stubborn, unspecialized state, clever but destructive. They are models of refinement, nature's archangels, the oldest and largest land animals, touchstones to our imagination." (p.38) In such passages Watson deftly combines the poetic with the scientific, the anecdote with the lyric. His naturalist training enables him to recount the scientific facts about elephants, but his temperament and ability to write carry the reader along with his fascination for them. Even people who know about elephants will find something new in Elephantoms, as he recalls unique and marvelous incidents, but anyone-knowledgeable or not-will find enjoyment in his writing and in this unusual combination of meditative memoir and scientific discourse. KLIATT Codes: A-Recommended for advanced students and adults. 2002, Norton, 261p., Ages 17 to adult.
— Katherine Gillen
Library Journal
Prolific naturalist Watson (Jacobson's Organ) spent his childhood summers in South Africa exploring the countryside with his young companions. His life changed forever when he observed his first wild elephant. Elephantoms is a blend of childhood memories and a natural history of South Africa, particularly of elephants. While Watson draws on the work of well-known explorers and researchers, such as Frederick Selous, Katy Payne, and Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, and intersperses many of his personal experiences and observations, the book reads more like the memoirs of the elephant itself. While there is a wealth of information here, it is not presented logically but woven into the text. The rambling narrative style does not diminish the treasures to be gleaned from Watson's personal experiences, especially those following his studies with Desmond Morris and the infamous Niko Tinbergen, but it might frustrate readers simply looking to learn more about the species. This enjoyable diversion from standard natural history presentations is recommended for public libraries where there is interest in a more personal approach to the study of animals. Readers looking for titles with more species details might want to consider Cynthia Moss's Echo of the Elephants or Elephant Memories. Edell M. Schaefer, Brookfield P.L., WI Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Naturalist Watson (Dark Nature, 1996, etc.) recounts his experiences among the elephants of southern Africa with wonderful freshness and enthusiasm, even though some of the most important encounters depicted here took place decades ago. Elephants haven't changed a whole lot since their distant ancestors the Primelephas evolved from the gomphotheres ("the beasts that are bolted together") during the Pliocene Period. That may, suggests Watson, explain their fascination for humans; they are literally out of time. Elephants have become symbols of might and memory, of harmony, patience, power, and compassion. But they also have an ambivalent relationship with humans: they are not cooed over, but respected; they keep their distance, they provoke fear and awe; but they have been hunted, harried, and fenced nearly out of existence. While humans' deplorable treatment of the elephant occupies Watson, he is more concerned with the creature's otherworldly existence on the fringes of our experience, the host of intuitive responses it triggers in us when in the wild we feel its reverberant presence, even (perhaps especially) at times we can't see it. Three major episodes frame the study: a superbly rendered account of 12-year-old Lyall and his friends spending some days on the beach with a Khoi man and a spectral white elephant; his immersion a decade later in the elephants' environment (where he had some close encounters with a raging bull) under the guidance of an old hand at tracking; and his use as a mature author/researcher of insights gained during his time with the elephants in books he has written on evil and the paranormal. Much more evocatively than any zoologist has ever managed, Watsonmakes the elephant a force of nature, accessible even to the reader with no personal exposure to the mighty creature. (Line drawings)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393324594
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/19/2003
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 526,795
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Lyall Watson is a naturalist and the author of over twenty books, including Jacobson's Organ. He is based in a cottage on the West Coast of Ireland.

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