I saw an elephant while walking the dog early Thursday morning. She, the dog that is, did not notice the elephant as she was totally focused on sneaking up on a squirrel. This struck me as odd. Not that I saw an elephant as our morning walk takes us around the back side of the Denver Zoo and elephants do occasionally shuffle from their indoor quarters to the outdoor exhibit where the tourists look at them. Dolly, this elephant that I saw, is 43 years old, and seemed to be in a rush. I suppose her breakfast was waiting for her.
What was so curious is that Poppy, who generally is far more aware of what is going on about her than I am, missed seeing an elephant trotting along not fifty feet distant. She notices everything; a scrap of paper left in the meadow and she hauls me over to see what it is. I’ve seen her trot halfway across a golf course to investigate a plastic bag. She’ll spot a coyote at a quarter mile (and this is why when purchasing leashes I opt for the ‘heavy dog’ choice), shift into her four-paw drive and drag me in pursuit. She tells me if a rabbit or raccoon has passed a particular spot, even if it were days earlier. How does she miss an elephant nearly in front of her nose?
Perhaps an elephant is just too far from her experience to see. Or perhaps this has little to do with her own experiences. These other animals that she notices have existed in her and her ancestors’ world for thousands of generations and maybe there are hard wired slots in her brain for each of them; cat, fox, coyote, et cetera are identified by reflex. For her an elephant does not trigger any more reflexive or instinctive knowledge than a city bus might. If she knew what I was pondering, she would probably look at me and say (assuming she could talk), “Sorry that thing is beyond my job description.”
It is the same for lions. Early in the morning, just before sunrise, and especially on summer Sunday mornings, we can hear the African lion amore than a mile away at the zoo, let out his wake up roar. Sunday, because the drone of traffic on Colorado Boulevard is absent and doesn’t drown out the deep rumble of his roar. Summer mornings because our windows are open. This is a sound so primitive and so etched into our DNA that even before I first identified its source, hearing it still made the hair on my skin stand. Our beloved watchdog, protector of our hearth, does she react? Nothing: perhaps she twitches an eyelid. The sound of the lion is also too far outside her experience.
My habit of course is to try to extrapolate my anthropomorphic interpretations of my dog’s behavior and apply these lessons to my human life, a process surely doomed to error. Still, I have spent the last few days thinking about elephants and wondering what how many elephants are walking in our midst of which we take no notice. Though seemingly obvious, what things in our world are just too far outside our experience to notice?
These thoughts dredge from memory Thoreau’s ending paragraph in Walden, as apt as any sentiment that I can think to be reminded of and to share during this season of long nights and kindled lights:
“I do not say that John or Jonathan, that this generation or the next, will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”