Only later did it occur to me that they may have meant something entirely different when they called me Elephant. They had never seen a circus; they would not know elephants that did tricks. And I did not know what an elephant meant to them until one evening long after the sun had gone down. Only a few people were still awake in the hut where I would sleep that night. There was a slight rustle outside, the sound of someone tiptoeing very lightly through dry grass.
“Elephant,” one of the women whispered.
“They are very curious, and they walk very softly,” a young boy added, also in a barely audible whisper.
I do not think I said anything, but the catch in my breath must have given me away.
“Elephants are also very careful,” the boy said. “They do not step on anything.”
Robert Wolff, Original Wisdom: Stories of an ancient way of knowing
Wolff had assumed, a little regretfully, that the Sng’oi people he had been visiting on and off for a year, in the highlands of Malaysia, had given him a name suggestive of lumbering awkwardness. The Sng’oi themselves were slight, and typically about 5 feet tall.
Judging by the book, though, he has a gift for listening and observing, letting place and people be themselves. Near the end he tells of his informal induction into the ways of forest sensing. Walking and walking, to no apparent purpose, through the forest in the company of his Sng’oi mentor. A whole day, or two or three, would pass in this way with no food or water and no explanation from his companion, an experience repeated on and off over a number of months. The puzzlement and frustration mounted, and then, one day, it was as if his senses suddenly unblocked and he found he could smell and taste and see and hear and feel and know, as if within his heart, the totality of the living “all-ness” around him, and he as part of it. Wolff describes it as a moment of transcendence that stayed with him for days and in a way has been part of his life ever since: “I cannot explain what went on inside me, but I knew that I had learned something unbelievably wonderful. I felt more alive than I had ever felt before. All of me was filled with being.” A sense of love and one-ness, but a very practical sense too, for people padding barefoot in the tropical forest. Vividly aware – without needing to be “aware” of it – of every tiny rustle and fleeting scent and momentary puff of air on skin. And a feature too of how sophisticated the gentle, dignified Sng’oi are – or were, this was 50 or more years ago – in their appreciation of what it is to be the human creature.
Well I tried it this weekend. With the children. In light woods on the other side of the river. Not planned or anything, we were just there. They were clambering happily on a fallen tree trunk at the river bank. I strolled off on a circuit among the trees, lost to the world while treading lightly across the leaves of wild garlic. Stood still for a while and absorbed the infinitely textured soundscape of bird song: continuous, the sum of all volumes and depths. And then a buzzing insect, an urgent, sawing sound. The disposition of the trunks, shifting as I moved again. The earthy smell from a patch of moss in the crotch of a tree I passed. The play of daylight through high branches, everything in constant variation, at nature’s tempo. And I sensed…well, imagined I sensed, the smallest hint of what it might be like to be like that, always.
Later, sitting on a rock by where the children were by now wading in the shallow water, vaguely watching, waiting for them to make up their minds to move on, I began to reach by reflex for the news magazine in my backpack – how else to “kill” the time? – and realized what a pale substitute that would be for what I was at that moment “reading” in the surroundings, in my idle, zoned-out state: the sun drifting beyond the grey-white cloudbase, dampness from an earlier shower drying from the gritty sand at my feet, the plash of something in the current. What would it be to go beyond that and register…no, feel even the scent of the fish beneath the surface, the flutter of a tiny insect’s wing nearby, the creak of a branch before it happens?
Earlier in the book, Wolff recalls being baffled, every time he set off along a path to visit one of the temporary Sng’oi settlements in the forest, someone seemed to be there to meet him, waiting by the path, and would silently get up to escort him to the settlement, as if by prearrangement, though no arrangements had been made. He never quite got to the bottom of how people seemed to “know” when he was coming, but began to understand how sitting, waiting, apparently without a purpose, surrounded by nature’s fecund fullness, was not in itself an odd thing to be doing. And when the purpose came along – a visitor! – you became the escort and went along with that.