Archdeacon Michael: Face-to-face with a herd of elephants

Michael Everitt's watercolour of an elephant inspired by his safari encounter
Michael Everitt's watercolour of an elephant inspired by his safari encounter

It was nothing like my expectations. I had believed the cartoons, especially Jungle Book.

My wife I and were on a dust road in Africa looking for wildlife.

We had seen animals from A to Z … antelopes through to zebras. We were looking for the ‘big five’ of lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant.

Then a herd of elephants came towards my car.

I expected to feel the ground shaking, plants to be jumping out of the ground, the thump of their feet sounding like a marching band, complete with trumpeting trunks.

As I said, it was nothing like my expectations, the 40 or so elephants of all ages from babies through to long tusked grandees appeared silently out of the landscape.

The only noise was of the trees swishing and occasionally cracking. The elephants’ massive feet cushioned their steps as they walked around our car. I experienced a mixture of excitement, fear and amazement at these magnificent beasts, as we saw them very close up.

After that initial encounter my respect and regard for these magnificent quiet beasts has grown. I painted a scene of a middle-aged bull elephant by a waterhole in watercolour. It seems to sum up their delicacy and subtlety, while being huge animals in a vast context.

The watercolour is in my main room, it is there to be quite literally ‘the elephant in the room’. That expression is commonly used and writing this column this week it seems quite appropriate!

The elephants were not as I expected them to be. They were almost silent rather than noisy. The cartoon caricature not really communicating the reality.

We couldn’t ignore the elephants as they surrounded the car. Indeed, there were many things we needed to be acutely aware of as we were at risk if a young elephant had touched the hot bonnet of the car. My painting, whilst of a different scene, reminds me of all this and of my feelings and emotions both at the time and on reflection many years later.

At the moment as a country there are elephants in the room, in our own lives we also often have them too. They can be exciting and frightening presences and no matter how things pan out, they will form part of who we are in the future.

For me as a Christian the psalms - the songs of the children of Israel - address so many of these issues. Sometimes they are of great celebrations: ‘I was glad”; sometimes they address issues of journeying through life: ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’; while on occasions they are of sadness and longing: ‘By the waters of Babylon’.

However we view them, elephants can’t be ignored, but can be put into a wider context and then dealt with.