” … it was easier to believe that two Yankee Professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven.”
– Attributed to Thomas Jefferson
So (allegedly) said our third President on the subject of meteorites. The UFOlogists will never let him live it down.
I thought of Jefferson and his meteorites when I heard, somewhat belatedly, the story of how a herd of wild elephants marched in solemn procession across the South African bush to pay tribute to their recently deceased friend, the great conservationist Lawrence Anthony. It’s a marvelous story, a heartwarming story. So marvelous, so heartwarming, that my first thought was: it can’t possibly be true.
The event is supposed to have taken place last March, in the days immediately following Anthony’s sudden and untimely death on Friday, March 2. The earliest full account of it that my Google search turns up is a post by one Tanya Waterworth to IOL News, website of the South African news agency Independent Online. The post is dated Saturday, March 10:
“For 12 hours the huge beasts slowly made their way through the Zululand bush until they reached the house of the man they loved – to say good-bye.
“That, according to the son of conservationist and adventurer Lawrence Anthony, who passed away while on a business trip to Johannesburg last Friday, was the profoundly moving sight at Thula Thula Private Reserve this week. …
“There are two elephant herds at Thula Thula. According to his son Dylan, both herds arrived at the house after Anthony’s death.
“‘They had not visited the house for a year-and-a-half and it must have taken them about 12 hours to make the journey,’ said Dylan.
“The first herd arrived on Sunday and the second herd, a day later.
“‘They all hung around for about two days before making their way back into the bush,’ said Dylan.”
The Facebook Fan Page for “Thula Thula – Exclusive Private Game Reserve” has the following post, dated March 3. “Tonight at Thula Thula, the whole herd arrived at the main house, home to Lawrence and I. We had not seen them here for a very long time. Extraordinary proof of animal sensitivity and awareness that only a few human can perceive. And Lawrence was one of them. Thank you for your wonderful messages. Lawrence’s legacy will be with us forever at Thula Thula.“ The post is accompanied by the dramatic photo (above) of the elephant procession, which sure looks like it was taken in daylight. I don’t know who the “I” is but I’m assuming it’s Anthony’s widow Francoise. You’ll notice her date is not the same as the one given by Dylan Anthony. “Tonight” would be Saturday, March 3, while according to Dylan the herd arrived the following day.
The obituary for Anthony that was posted on March 8 to the online The Telegraph (UK) ends with the sentence: “It has been reported that after his death his beloved elephant herd came to his house to say goodbye.“ The New York Times, four days later, provided a little more detail: “Since his death, his son Dylan told reporters, the herd has come to his house on the edge of their reserve every night.“ I don’t know–though I suppose I can imagine some possibilities–how Dylan knew (if Waterworth quotes him correctly) that the elephants came from a part of the reserve that was a 12-hour march distant.
On YouTube there’s a video, posted April 18, of a speech given by Dylan at a graduation ceremony of the University of Kwazulu-Natal, where he accepted a posthumous honorary degree on his father’s behalf. Dylan speaks of “the outpouring of love and condolences from people around the world” over “the past few weeks since he passed away,” but doesn’t mention the elephants. But given the context, and the brevity of his speech, I don’t know that I’d have expected him to.
The fullest version I’ve found, undated as far as I can see, was posted by Rob Kerby on beliefnet.com. It’s obviously based on Waterworth’s story, to which Kerby provides a link. “For 12 hours, two herds of wild South African elephants slowly made their way through the Zululand bush until they reached the house of late author Lawrence Anthony, the conservationist who saved their lives. … For two days the herds loitered at Anthony’s rural compound on the vast Thula Thula game reserve in the South African KwaZulu – to say good-bye to the man they loved. But how did they know he had died March 7?”
Of course Anthony didn’t die on March 7, but five days earlier. (And the date of March 10, given in the heading of the beliefnet.com story for the elephants’ appearance–”a solemn procession on March 10 that defies human explanation”–is also wrong.) But Kerby’s question is a good one–perhaps the central question raised by this story. And one for which Kerby doesn’t even try to give an answer.
Instead, he quotes the deeply moving words of Rabbi Leila Gal Berner: “A good man died suddenly … and from miles and miles away, two herds of elephants, sensing that they had lost a beloved human friend, moved in a solemn, almost ‘funereal’ procession to make a call on the bereaved family at the deceased man’s home. … If there ever were a time, when we can truly sense the wondrous ‘interconnectedness of all beings,’ it is when we reflect on the elephants of Thula Thula. A man’s heart’s stops, and hundreds of elephants’ hearts are grieving. This man’s oh-so-abundantly loving heart offered healing to these elephants, and now, they came to pay loving homage to their friend.”
Consider the implications. Not only, as psychologist Marc Bekoff (“Ph.D. in Animal Emotions”) commented a few days after the event, that the higher animals are capable of grief and mourning. We knew that already. We knew that pets have abiding connections to their masters, even after the masters’ death. But now we have unequivocal evidence of something far greater, more astounding. Wild animals know love, friendship, loyalty for humans as well as for each other. Indeed, in their love and loyalty they might serve as moral examples for our species. Beyond that: at least some animals have mysterious psychic powers, channels of knowledge that can only be called paranormal.
The old legends of their secret, inexplicable wisdom turn out to be rooted in reality.
There must be more to their existence, and to ours, than the tangible and the physical.
From here it’s no great leap to the hope that we’re not bounded by the physical; that some part of ourselves (and our fellow-animals), perhaps manifested as abundant love, remains immortal even while our bodies rot in the ground.
Who wouldn’t want this to be true?
Yet consider how drastically our contemporary scientific conceptions would need to be changed, if it’s true.
This is a lot of weight to put on the testimony of two people. Even if they’re not–as per the supposed Jefferson quote–Yankee professors.
But what are we supposed to do? Say that the bereaved wife and son of a humanitarian giant–partners in his noble work–were probably lying? Or at least, were seriously deluded? Or at least, didn’t have the integrity to speak out when flagrant, comforting falsehoods were circulated in their names?
It’s not a choice I much want to make.
Neither, I’d guess, do those indefatigable debunkers of urban legends, the people at www.snopes.com. They list the status of the story as “undetermined,” concluding tersely: “Research in progress.” The date of that posting is 16 July 2012. That’s exactly six months ago. I’m not holding my breath waiting to hear about further “progress.”
Meanwhile–that crack of Thomas Jefferson’s? About the lying Yankee professors? Turns out he never said any such thing.
This I learn from a fascinating post by Anna Berkes, research librarian at Monticello. The remark for which Jefferson’s been so pilloried was first attributed to him in 1874, nearly 50 years after his death, on the basis of no evidence whatever. His real thoughts about meteorites are expressed in a letter of 1808:
“We certainly are not to deny whatever we cannot account for. A thousand phenomena present themselves daily which we cannot explain, but where facts are suggested, bearing no analogy with the laws of nature as yet known to us, their verity needs proofs proportioned to their difficulty. A cautious mind will weigh well the opposition of the phenomenon to everything hitherto observed, the strength of the testimony by which it is supported, and the errors and misconceptions to which even our senses are liable. It may be very difficult to explain how the stone you possess came into the position in which it was found. But is it easier to explain how it got into the clouds from whence it is supposed to have fallen? The actual fact however is the thing to be established, and this I hope will be done by those whose situations and qualifications enable them to do it.”
And the same goes for psychic elephants.
by David Halperin
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