The elephant stood in the middle of the stream, splashing a little water with his trunk. Later, he climbed to the banks, walking in a way that made the sunlight glint on his long tusks. He would pause, inspecting things around him, pulling down bamboos, his huge feet sinking in the marshy soil. He’d then carry forward with a rhythm that was like a song—easy, uplifting, set to a beat. He left footprints which to a dragonfly would be the size of a small pond. I was in the Western Ghats, soaking in the sheer beauty of a graceful giant in his element.
Around him, the forest resonated with life. Black drongos flitted between tree tops, breaking out into hunting dives. A woodpecker pecked at a coconut tree with infinite forbearance. A leafbird sat alone at the very top of a tree, so remote that his bright emerald and fiery orange could hardly be seen.
When in cities, I watch black-rumpedflameback woodpeckers return to the same tree to prise open wood for beetle larva. I see red munias gather grass stalks for a nest, often dropping them when startled. Parakeets swing on flowering branches, shrieking (or perhaps singing).
Animals enjoy solitude. Tigresses are the stuff of legend because they raise cubs alone, finding prey, and taking it to their cubs, who hide all day in dens. Other animals are social, but you can spot them spending time alone. They also interact with Nature like it’s an entity by itself—an elephant will splash water, parakeets playfully spring themselves off their favourite trees, monkeys make swings out of whatever is around them.
Animals are not afraid of solitude. They seem to revel in it. It’s something to take a lesson from. In the noisy bustle of life, we crave an audience and validation. That feeling leaves you when you’re out in the wilderness—you are just one living thing amidst the hundreds of other living things in the ecosystem around you, and you are focused on seeing what is around you instead of how others see you.
Ecologists stress that megaherbivores like elephants perform disproportionate roles in bringing up a forest. A herd of elephants, or even a solitary male, spreads many seeds and help plants germinate. Apart from the ecological lessons, for me, watching a solitary elephant is also about learning how to be alone.
This week, India grappled with a loss in the Cricket World Cup. When defeated, we feel isolated, marooned. Like so many other Indians I felt the same as I watched Sunday’s game, coming to terms with the end of a great campaign. Then, I remembered the elephant.
It’s true that life is a series of hits and misses—for the elephant, crossing roads and facing fast trains; for us, losses at work and play. We deal with the punches, yet we often feel unhappy. Perhaps we can only ever be okay if we accept defeats and allow ourselves solitude. If we look beyond validation, and learn to be happy in our own company. The elephant walks like he’s humming to himself—I suspect that hum may sometimes be far more meaningful than applause.
Conservation biologist and author
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