Field Note: Eye Contact with a Wild Elephant
Published: June 26, 2020
By Mark Seth Lender
Eye contact with a wild elephant. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)
Living on Earth's Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender reflects on an unprecedented, bewildering encounter with a wild elephant.
I thought about this story for a quarter of a century before I wrote it down. I did not want to see it in print. Staring back at me. It was the first time a wild animal reached out to me. Not the thing we take for granted coming from our pets. Something different from that, outside the boundaries of our ostensible control. An elephant. Can you imagine? An elephant! Something Other. And this is what happened and how it ended.
The fact of approach requires its own word: Extraordinarity. A portmanteau of “Extraordinary” and “Rare.” All the more what lies beneath, Eye contact, itself enough of a remarkable thing. How in the first place does a wild animal find your eyes? Ours face front, better for hunting. Elephant eyes are oriented more to the side, for avoiding hunters. The eyes of other animals likewise have their various strengths and weaknesses, some sporting greater acuity underwater but seeing less well than we do in air, or with night vision better than ours, or structured to be more sensitive to movement, or attuned to different ends of the electromagnetic spectrum, specialties concerned with the detection of different stimuli than those that concern us. Each looks at the world “through its own eyes” implying (or so we have been told) different mind. If so, then why seek out your face, your eyes? From insects to elephants most animals seek and find your face; and it is eyes that make the face. There is something shared. Must be. Or why bother?
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