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Three elephants
Jabu, Name, and Name. Photo courtesy Cheryl Merrill.

Breathing

By Cheryl Merrill
Terrain.org 12th Annual Contest in Nonfiction Finalist

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There is nothing like him on earth.

His head alone is more immense than an entire gorilla.

Jabu is 100 times larger than I am. His trunk is larger than I am. A single leg is larger than I am.

He rests his trunk on the ground near my feet, and the tip of it lifts, opens, inhales my scent. I reach out and run my fingers along his warm tusk.

Do you recognize me, Jabu? Do you?

Exhalations from his trunk cover the front of my boots with wet mist. There are long moments between each huge inhale . . . . . . and exhale. As if a tree is breathing.

Does he recognize me?

He starts to pat me down without actually touching me, sampling scents from the rest of my body in a way that seems almost thoughtful. He expels air after each sampling, like a wine connoisseur clearing his palate. Of course, the smelliest parts of my body are the most interesting.

Ah, fffuff, those feet! and then fffuff crotch and fffuff, armpits. He raises his trunk higher, dangles it over my head, re-coifing my hair with a large and final FFFUFF!  

Jabu checks me out the way he would check out an unknown elephant, to determine who I am, where I’ve been and, fffuff, what I did while I was there.

Wet with mucus, dotted with sand and wiry nostril hairs, the tip of his trunk hovers in front of my face.

He blows, gently. I blow back, gently. We exchange breath, distillations of our own personal atmospheres, particle-swarms of exchanged air, brewed though all the cells of our bodies.

My lungs fill with the fragrance of crushed leaves, with sap roots and spearmint-scented bark, all lightly fermented. I think of the stagnant air that surrounds my other life—conditioned, filtered, deodorized—air that is bland. Elephant’s breath is said to cure headaches.

And it just might, if I had one.

Author with elephant
The author with Jabu.
Photo courtesy Cheryl Merrill.
Twenty years ago, fresh off a 747, I inhaled the air of southern Africa for the first time: a trace of smoke and sweet mulch, combined with the mineral scent of sand, hot fur, and dry dusty trees. The air was soft, warm, familiar—as if all the windows of time had been thrown open and I had breathed in this scent before: Africa, the birthplace of all humans. It called me by my oldest name.

I wanted to become an elephant researcher. I spent a lot of time looking for parks and game reserves where I might observe elephants as closely as possible—camps with waterholes right outside their tents, or with viewing platforms, or with long, daily game drives. I looked into ecological studies and volunteer programs.

Then I stumbled across a website for the Living with Elephants Foundation, run by Doug and Sandi Groves. The website promised a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to walk with elephants on their daily foraging trek in Botswana.

Ambling around with elephants. Just what I was looking for.

Arm on elephant tusk
Photo courtesy Cheryl Merrill.
Twenty years later, I have never traveled to anywhere else but here, where the sand is layered with elephant footprints, where termite mounds have the look of marooned islands, where each footstep takes me nowhere and everywhere all at once, living at a pace that matches the land around me, that matches my breathing.

This morning, the sunlight on my upturned face is soft as bird feathers. Skirting a line of trees filled with purple shadows, Sandi and I cross the grassy field in front of their camp on our way to the elephants’ enclosure. With each step, I feel light as a balloon, barely tethered to the ground.

Sandi steps under Jabu’s massive head, leans against his leg and gives it a motherly pat. “Can you tell he’s grown?” she asks.

When I first visited, Jabu was a gangly teenager. Now 12 feet tall, he fills my entire range of vision.

He reaches out with his trunk. It hovers, once again, just inches from my face.

“Do you recognize her, Jabu?” Sandi asks him.

Carefully, he drops his trunk between us, then curls it and taps lightly against the canvas bag Sandi carries.

She scoops a handful of pellets from the bag and offers them in her palm. Jabu gathers them in with the tip of his trunk and transfers the pellets to his mouth.

He turns his head toward me. And you?

I hold out empty hands. He brushes my palms with his trunk tip, then drops it to rest near my feet. He snorts out a huge exhale, CHUFFFfffffffffff.

Was that Hello?

I hope so, but I will never know for sure.

Elephant trunk
Photo courtesy Cheryl Merrill.
Sometimes, if I allow myself to be, I am a creature of the upper air, my primary feathers flared into the wind. From such heights it seems there is little danger of falling. Sometimes, on my belly, I am a creature deep in the earth looking for light, alongside others who live in dens of darkness. Sometimes, most of the time, I am in-between and upright, tilted slightly forward, trying my best not to wander in circles.

On this morning, the elephants are backlit by shafts of light from the rising sun. Steam trails from their mouths. Elephant’s breath on a cold morning looks the same as mine does. One of those things you never think about until you see it.

I rub my arms in the morning chill. Doug joins me on the road in front of their camp.

“Mr. Bu,” he calls out affectionately. “Mr. Bu. Here.”

By the time Jabu halts next to us he’s grown even bigger, if that’s possible, than just moments ago.

The sky that begins 300 miles above my head reaches all the way down past the roots of grass at Jabu’s feet and into the earth. Molecule by molecule, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen sift into the smallest spaces, into the burrows of snakes and earthworms, into the tiny gaps between grains of sand, into the folds of Jabu’s trunk where my fingers almost disappear.

He stretches his trunk down into the grass on the side of the road. As the tip of it slowly wanders between clumps of dried-out roots and stems, I wonder if a really good smell lingers down there, if he remembers a greener season when grasses taste differently.

He turns his attention to my boots, his trunk tip inspecting toe to heel, heel to toe, fidgeting with my laces.

“Earth,” Doug commands and Jabu withdraws his trunk. He relaxes it, a thick rope coiled just once against the ground between his front legs.

I place the flat of my palm against his vast landscaped hide. A tectonic tremor sweeps across his shoulder, a shudder to dislodge flies. The tip of his trunk shifts in my direction as he takes small sips of air.

I close my eyes and listen, holding my breath. I hear soft whispers, almost like sighs. If you asked me, with my eyes still closed, to measure the size of the creature breathing beside me, my hand would rise not much further than my waist.

 

Inhale, tiny ponds of air fill my lungs. Exhale, the ponds evaporate back into the air from which they came.

To breathe. To live.

Not metaphors. Single, infinite verbs.

It’s involuntary, this business of breathing. After the first slap at birth, my lungs automated and began their life’s work—miniature willful air pumps breathing on their own, around 550 million times during the span of my life—20,000 breaths a day.

Inhale . . . Exhale.   Inhale . . .Exhale.   Inhale . . . Exhale. 

Air—barely there air—gently touching my face with its life-giving fingertips. Air—the first and the last thing I will ever know.

Elephant as viewed from rear
Photo courtesy Cheryl Merrill.
Minute by minute, the morning simmers a degree higher. Trees lean away from the heat and curl their leaves to protect moisture, holding their breath until the cool of evening, waiting months for the rainclouds that will save them.

As I walk behind Jabu, wattles of grass click together in a short breeze and make the sounds of tiny bamboo chimes. I inhale the scent of warm wood and crushed dry grass, wafting up from the sand. I smell the salt of my body, just a hint of salt, the sea from which all of us are made.

Jabu’s own personal atmosphere trails behind him, wafts past me. It’s a bit musty, like a leather suitcase stored in an old barn, like a wheat field right after harvesting, like dried mud just as it’s becoming dust.

His skin is full of folds, furrows, and crevices holding tiny rocks, sand, and small bits of leaves. More landscape than skin. Runnels of wrinkles score his flanks as if eroded by rainstorms.

The road we’re following, just two ruts in the sand, has a center grown up in grass as tall as the undercarriage of a passing vehicle, but a lot shorter than the undercarriage of passing elephants—an unnamed, unmapped road, a road the elephants travel each day.

We’re strung out in a line—elephant, human, elephant, human, elephant, human—ambling through the morning. Above our heads a few wispy clouds spool down from the equator. In another million years the clouds will still be twirling down.

The elephants move forward in unison, huge soft machines, their ears in constant motion. We reach a crossroad, two tracks leading off in a different direction. In the front, guided by a scent trail thick as water, Jabu does not hesitate, just keeps on going.

Poofs of dust surround each of my footfalls. It was Africa who designed me to walk upright across her landscapes. Because of Africa, I know the ground better than I know trees. I feel them out there, my ancestors, skirting the tree line, vigilant, trying to stay out of trouble, eyeing the long grass.

 

Inhale . . . Exhale.   Inhale . . . Exhale.   Inhale . . . Exhale.

The sky above my head reaches deep into my lungs, past my windpipe, and into my bronchi, which fork and spread like the branches on a tree. One bronchial branch for my right lung, one for the left. Not twins, not mirrors—like all tree branches they grow into the available space. My right lung, shorter and broader, nestles against my liver, which needs the protection of my ribs. My left lung, smaller and thinner, accommodates my heart.

The branches for each lung divide and narrow, divide and narrow, until they end in more than 30,000 tiny twigs. At the end of those twigs are 480 million alveoli, air sacs, clustered like grapes and held in nets of blood vessels.

Only one cell in size, alveoli hold the smallest ponds of air imaginable, their walls so thin air molecules pass into nearby capillary cells and enter my bloodstream. At the same time, carbon dioxide and waste gases travel the opposite direction, back into the alveoli, up the many branches of the bronchi, out the windpipe, past the larynx, past my tongue, past my teeth, my lips, and also out my nose.

Inhale. Exhale.

Wind from within.

All my airways, even my tiny alveoli, inflate and deflate with each breath. With each breath my lungs expand and contract, my heart moves up and down. With each breath I add a particle-swarm of changed air to the atmosphere around me, a unique breath-print, filtered through all the cells of my body. I respire—I breathe like a plant, like a tree, like an elephant.

Elephant nostrils
Photo courtesy Cheryl Merrill.
Three drowsing elephants and one human rest in the shade of a fever-berry tree. Its smooth gray branches reach into a chalk-blue sky, their tips growing always upward, searching for clouds, searching for rain. Sunlight filters through its heart-shaped leaves and flickers across the pond of shade under the tree.

As Sandi and I approach, Doug straightens from leaning against the tree. Jabu lifts his head, strides forward, and stops in front of Sandi. He reaches out with his trunk and paws gently at her arm.

“Treats already Jabu?” Sandi’s voice lilts higher with each word as she hands him a few pellets from the bag at her waist. “Alright, Jabu, that’s enough. Now go play with Morula and Thembi.”

Jabu hesitates, then backs up a few steps before swinging his giant head around. He body-blocks the other two elephants, displacing first Morula and then Thembi, as he claims his right to be biggest. I can tell, by how they stiffen and swing their heads, neither elephant is exactly pleased.

“Time for a little distraction,” Doug says, then issues a series of commands.

“Jabu, here. Herrrre.” Jabu strolls to Doug’s side and reaches out with his trunk, lightly touching Doug’s shoulder.

“Jabu, earth.” Jabu’s trunk withdraws and relaxes, the tip of it coiled on the ground between his feet.

“Thembi, herrrre. Here and back, here and back, that’s my girl,” he positions her shoulder-to-shoulder with Jabu.

“Morula, herrrre. Here and back sweetheart, here and back.”

 Doug issues his final direction. “Stand here,” he tells me.

I obey, my back to an elephant lineup.

With a little guidance from Doug, Thembi gently places the end of her trunk on top of my head. It feels like a big beanbag up there, but one that’s warm and wiggly, drooling and breathing.

As Thembi rubs mucus and mud into my hair, Doug places the end of Jabu’s trunk on my right shoulder and then Morula’s on my left. Sandi takes my camera and quickly figures out which buttons to push.

Jabu has trouble keeping his trunk balanced on such a narrow ledge. He constantly fidgets and pokes my cheek with his bristles. Morula’s trunk drapes over my shoulder like a slack hose with a dripping nozzle. Her nose continuously drains down the front of my shirt.

The trunks get heavier by the moment. In my peripheral vision, I see Jabu’s two nostrils, nostrils more flesh-colored than gray. Each opening is as wide as the “O” of my mouth.

All three trunks are not just sheer weights. They sniff, snorf, squirm, inhale, and exhale. They create an atmosphere of elephant breath around my head.

Doug releases them with a command: “Allll-right.”

The weights disappear. For a few steps I am oddly light, as if I am walking on the surface of the moon.

 

 Inhale . . . Exhale.   Inhale . . . Exhale.
Lupp-dupp, Lupp-dupp, Lupp-dupp

It’s noisy, that place in the chest where breath and blood become one, where two wet engines chug away separately, but move in tandem, where their sounds mingle, where life begins and ends. It’s noisy, that place in the chest which cracks like glass when heartbroken, wheezes when sick. Which chokes, skips a beat, sighs, thumps wildly, moves into the throat and speaks. It’s noisy in there, where two whooshing, throbbing engines plug along, reacting to all my emotions. They are on the front lines, those two. They are life. And they are death—an unimaginable silence.

Elephant trunks on the author
Photo courtesy Cheryl Merrill.
Doug rubs the side of Jabu’s trunk. “Squhweeek, Jabu,” he says. His voice rises an octave between “Squh” and “weeek.”

Jabu squeezes together the tip of his trunk and emits a series of sounds similar to rubber tires leaving skid marks on pavement.

“It’s an inhalation,” Doug tells me.

Thembi immediately joins in with her version, a finger rubbed across a balloon. Over in the brush, her back to us, like a kid off in a corner so no one will notice, Morula practices a flatulent, wetter-sounding squeak.

“Talk.” Doug says to Jabu and Thembi.

First one “talks” and then the other, as in if a low, rumbling conversation. They lean back and forth against each other. Their abdomens fill and empty like bellows.

“That’s an exhalation,” Doug says.

Their rhythmic, hypnotic tones carry layer upon layer of vibrations. I close my eyes and imagine giant, reverberating oboes.

Doug moves to Thembi’s side and pats her leg. “That’s my girl. Oh what a fine sound, sweetheart, what a fine sound.”

As soon as Doug takes a fistful of pellets from his bag, Thembi quits “talking” and opens her mouth. Doug slides his hand onto her tongue, between her massive molars, before he lets go.

Jabu, in anticipation, has also quit “talking.”

Doug croons, “Didgeridoo, Jabu my boy. Didgeridoo.”

Jabu straightens his trunk and produces a hollow, droning, oddly lonely sound, as if calling to someone, anyone, to please come join him.

Doug turns toward me. “He’s been making this new sound for a couple of weeks, so we decided to give it a name.”

Off in her corner Morula lifts her right leg and swings her foot. Puts it down, backs up two steps. Lifts her leg and swings her foot again.

Sandi is quick to notice.

“Morula. Here.“ Sandi says and Morula complies, making her way to Sandi’s side and touching Sandi’s leg with the tip of her trunk.

“Were you feeling left out my girl?” Sandi places a handful of treats in the curled cup Morula shapes from the end of her trunk.

“How many cues do they understand?” I ask.

“Verbal? About a hundred. And that’s limited only by our imagination, not theirs. But they understand and often react to around 600 words, sometimes whole sentences.”

A large trunk inserts itself between us, as if Morula wants to join our conversation.

“Who invited you?” Sandi asks her.

She taps on Morula’s leg. “Over and back, Morula, over and back.” Morula is carefully responsive. When you’re as big as she is, every movement has consequence. Each step backward is slow, deliberate, and precisely placed.

“I call her our lap elephant,” Sandi says. “She’d crawl onto your lap if she could.”

Lap elephant.

My heart expands and contracts in sweet, small thumps. I take a deep breath. The air I inhale replaces all that was solid within me.

Elephant eye
Photo courtesy Cheryl Merrill.
Air may be light, but it is not empty. Even the cleanest air is filled with microscopic organisms: bacteria, viruses, spores, fungi, rusts, molds, yeasts, amoebae, and pollen. Twenty-five million tons of air fill every square mile on this planet, each mile weighted with a burden of infinitesimal motes, both alive and dead. An average lungful of air contains 200,000 particles; on an evening commute in Los Angeles, the most polluted city in my country, that count may be as high as 375 million.

Eighty percent of the atmosphere above me huddles within ten miles of the earth’s surface. That thin skin of sky, a biofilm just 15 miles thick at its deepest, holds most of the earth’s weather, most of earth’s water, and just enough of both to protect me from the lethal vacuum of the universe.

 

A whiff of sage drifts by on a warm current of air not big enough to be a breeze. That slight puff of air brings both history and current events to Jabu, stories of who was here, who went there, and how long they stayed—a kingdom of odor, an empire of odor, a floating realm populated with aromatic citizens.

Jabu can detect fellow elephants from six miles away. Sixty percent of his brain is dedicated to smell. I’m able to differentiate between 10,000 separate odors, but Jabu has a nose for a million or more. He has a better sense of smell than a bloodhound’s, and they can identify a human fingerprint on a glass slide left outdoors for two weeks. 

A herd of elephants creates its own unique breath print. Females waft pheromones, males testosterone. Both shed crusts of dried mud from their skin, collected from where they’ve wallowed. They leave superhighways of scent, highways that are not permanently laid down.

Imagine a globe made of scent, traveling through space and time. Imagine being able to unspool threads of scent from the past. Elephants easily do that, tracking each other’s vapor trails crisscrossing over the skin of Africa.

Elephant ear
Photo courtesy Cheryl Merrill.

Inhale . . . Exhale.   Inhale . . . Exhale.   Inhale . . . Exhale.

Four thousand gallons of air each day, a pint, approximately, inhaled with each breath, containing the same percentage of molecules—78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, 2 percent other gases and micro-organisms. Every breath I exhale has a different mixture—78 percent nitrogen, 16 percent oxygen, 4 percent carbon dioxide, and 2 percent everything else. As the cells throughout my body absorb oxygen for fuel, they generate carbon dioxide as a by-product, as waste, which is carried by blood cells back to the lungs and expelled out into the atmosphere.

Trees are grateful for that. They absorb carbon dioxide and, in a process called photosynthesis, exhale oxygen. I am grateful for trees. I need all the oxygen I can get.

Oxygen is the Bunsen burner for much of life’s successful, percolating experiments, experiments that created elephants, that created me. Mitochondria in our cells use oxygen’s reactive properties to break down sugars like glucose for energy. Each living, breathing body needs a lot of oxygen to make that energy—one septillion molecules a day. Without those oxygen molecules, without the energy they help create, without the constant recharge in every cell of our bodies, all of us would very quickly die.

 

The sky turns first lemon, then violet, then deep purple. Trees are smudged at their edges, as if lightly erased. The sound of sloshing water entices Sandi and me out of camp and towards the elephants’ enclosure. We walk through warm bowls of air as heat dissipates from the sand.

Doug stands near a full trough. The elephants are in mid-drink—trunks curled into mouths, heads tipped back, eyes closed. The sky, the trees, the sand, Doug, and the elephants all blend together, water-colored, smeared by a giant thumb of dimming light.

Three elephant trunks rise like snorkels, sniffing the purple air. Then the trunks drop back into the trough and waves of water splash over all four sides.

It’s an oceanic, leviathan sort of night, each of my breaths slow and tidal. Finished drinking, the elephants tread towards their enclosure. The prows of their great heads plow into the gray waves of dusk, dipping and rising, breasting the night. Their ears flap and snap like the sails on boats luffing into the wind. At their feet ripples of grass hiss with their passage.

They carry a composure that seems ancient, as if they remember the once-great migrating herds, and all those lives that lived before man arrived. As if they remember the liquid flow of all life, shimmering under the stars.

Three elephants
Jabu, Morula, and Thembi.
Photo courtesy Cheryl Merrill.
I am mostly fluids—both liquid and vapor. Oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon account for 93 percent of my body’s weight. Oxygen and hydrogen together (water) makes up 70 percent of me—14 gallons, weighing 120 pounds. My brain and heart are 73 percent water, my lungs 83 percent, my bones 31 percent. I can live for a month without food, but only a week without water.

Along with everything else, I breathe in molecules of water vapor in each breath.

In . . . . Out.   In . . . . Out.   In . . . . Out.

Most of the molecules escaping from my nose and mouth don’t get very far. They’re drawn back in the next time I inhale, the way waves upon a shore retract back into the ocean. But some escape, sift down to the tip of Jabu’s trunk, are inhaled and exhaled in a giant Chufffff out over the nearby waves of grass dimming in the dusk, escape into the expiration of the cooling evening, float over the elephants’ favorite lagoon. Our molecules escape to the clouds still tipped with sunlight, are drawn into the breath of the revolving earth. They collide with mountains, bounce into the rivers of the jet streams, circumnavigate. Eventually those molecules return. Prevailing winds circulate traces of our breath over the entire globe, traces too small for Jabu to recognize as his, or mine, when they come back home.

And when those bits of our breath return, they bring along companions, companions from the history of the earth and all of its inhabitants. Companions from a time and a land when women made up their eyes to look like the eyes of cheetahs, when particles of perfume from Cleopatra’s gilded barge drifted up into the air as it floated down the Nile, its sails drenched with the fragrance of roses. Companions from a time before elephants, when melting ice crystals hung on the fur around a mammoth’s mouth and her icy breath rose to join earth’s breath. Rose to join the breath of every shrew and shark, worm and wombat, every tree and turtle dove, diatom and dinosaur—the sum of molecules from everywhere, throughout all time. At some point, during each day, no matter where I am on earth, one of the air pockets in my lungs will cradle a molecule of Jabu’s breath.

Molecules are eternal. They do not die. They merely exchange residences. Every creature who lives from now until the sun gives out will breathe in a tiny particle that once was me. I am immortal—in bits and pieces—an assemblage of particles that will never die.

 

In the last few minutes before darkness, the stars of the Milky Way appear one by one. The blur of Jabu’s head is tall and flat against the darkening sky. The skin on his trunk holds thousands of creviced shadows. His eyes, looking down at me, are black holes.

He reaches over with his trunk and blows into my face, gently. I blow back, gently. We exchange molecules of air, essential air, barely there air, the first and last thing we will ever know. Standing shoulder to trunk, we breathe in . . . . . breathe out . . . . . recycling the world and all its history . . . . . breath after breath after breath . . . . .

 

 

Cheryl Merrill with elephantCheryl Merrill’s photo-essays, published in literary magazines, have been anthologized in Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, Brief Encounters, Willows Wept Review, and Compose, Design, Advocate: A Rhetoric for Multimodal Communication. Her nonfiction was selected for Special Mention in Pushcart: Best of the Small Presses 2008 as well as Best of Brevity, and has been published in Creative Nonfiction #27. She is currently working on a memoir about living with a small herd of elephants in Botswana. 

Header photo, elephants of the Living with Elephants Foundation, courtesy Cheryl Merrill.

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