Sunday, October 23, 2011

Elephant Memories

First, I just want to express my deep affection for elephants.  Back in the day, in the summers during college to be precise, I had a job doing food service at the zoo back home in Portland (popcorn, snow cones, hot dogs, ice cream, etc), which just happens to have the largest herd of Asian elephants in captivity.  We would occasionally get to go behind the scenes of the animal exhibits and twice I went to the elephant house.  Once, we were there on a tour and they had one of the bulls in an enormous squeeze cage.  He saw us, starting swinging his trunk at us, and sprayed us with his snot.  Another time, we got to see a new baby that had been born overnight: he was surprisingly hairy.  I spent one summer by the elephant house at a cart that sold "elephant ears," big slabs of deep fat fried dough topped with butter and either cinnamon sugar or raspberry jam (or both, on either half, we would fold that in half and eat it as a sandwich for lunch).   I came to love the massive solidity of the elephants and their apparent capacity for joy.  Have you ever seen an elephant swim?

I stole this image of an elephant from another blog, http://sergioruzzier.blogspot.com/2011/06/some-elephants-i-like.html.  It identifies the image as from as Jacob van Maerlant, Der Naturen Bloeme. Flanders or Utrecht, circa 1450-1500.  Whatever.  I like its long long legs, wicked grin, toothy tusks, and vacuum cleaner hose trunk.  And I like the mushroomy trees.  Why can't nature look like that? 

I wanted an elephant for today because I've been reading and thinking and writing about ivories and I want to acknowledge where they come from.  Sometimes you can see it in the objects, in the big standing Virgins that bend following the curve of the trunk; in the the small very round seated Virgins cut from smaller cross sections.  Flip either over, if you could,  and you would see the hole for the vein that ran through the tusk.  And of course you can often see the veining of the ivory itself, the mark that it was once alive.

I've been reading the inventories of 14thC French kings and queens to see what they thought of ivory as a material.   Its interesting in being both elevated and ordinary, religious and secular or personal, used for Virgins mounted on silver and silver-gilt bases and dripping with jewels and pearls, but also for buttons and boxes and the handles of knives and fans or flyswatters.  Even the Virgins are sometimes these deluxe objects but other times smaller things, just asking to be held in your hand.

But never a mention of the elephants.  They are supposed to have long memories, to go to the remains of their dead and handle the bones, which makes me think of medieval relics, ceremonies of their translation, and commemorations of the saints.  Would the elephants themselves be able to remember the elephant in the ivory? Would the carvings be for them the relics of their ancestors?

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