Will Humanity Hear the Elephants Trumpet?

Renaissance man Daniel B. Botkin conjures the elephant’s power and gives readers a blockbuster adventure in TSAVO.

Renaissance man Daniel B. Botkin conjures the elephant’s power and gives readers a blockbuster adventure in TSAVO.

To open the chapter “Music in the Night,” Dr. Daniel B. Botkin quotes Lewis Mumford: “What will happen to this earth depends very largely upon man’s capacity as a dramatist and a creative artist.” Musician and language-lover Dr. Botkin spent much of his career studying life on Earth as an environmental scientist. Botkin now wields his artistic powers to convey complex truths that go beyond data.

A small group of American and British scientists go to East Africa in TSAVO: Oddball Researchers Use Data and Guns to Save African Elephants. Their mission is to conduct a jumbo census in order to assess the herd’s health and protect the endangered animals from poachers. The adventurers clash with elephants and profiteers who all protect their turf with deadly force. Botkin sets in motion the many mighty forces converging upon the singular Loxodonta africana.

Son of legendary folklorist Benjamin A. Botkin, Dr. Botkin is no stranger to epic tales. Worthy of Steven Spielberg or Marcel Camus, TSAVO is an adventure full of suspense, romance, and action. Readers might imagine younger versions of Robert Redford and Lily Tomlin facing the conundrums, perils, and glory of Africa. Botkin fills every chapter with heart and intellect. His characters are richly drawn alongside the astonishing creatures that call Africa home.

Dr. Botkin has been to Kenya’s Tsavo National Park to see wild elephants up close. He shared with Library Journal how they communicate their displeasure: “They seem to know their power. Also, they don’t seem to like to use it. They go through a series of motions. They start out gently, affirmatively to warn you. I’ve watched it. I was amazed and filled with wonder and respect. They appear very smart and emotionally sensitive in ways that we only wish we were.”

In TSAVO, Zamani Baba is a bull elephant with a powerful presence in the story. Botkin portrays him with an emotional richness that defies Melville. “Every century has its own interpretation of people and nature,” says Botkin. “In the 19th Century, Moby Dick showed nature as a white whale who hated people. Nature was the enemy and our only way to survive is to fight.”

The novel is a perfect vehicle for Botkin’s knowledge and wisdom. In TSAVO, Mother Nature challenges the scientists’ idolatry of data. Perhaps more than anyone writing today, Dr. Botkin knows the whole story: “We know more about endangered species than any civilization ever did. Still we are confused about our role in nature and what it all means.” The characters in TSAVO each bring different perspectives on science and nature. Man and beast can both make a killing with ivory tusks valued at $1000/pound.

Dr. Botkin sends Bruce Airley, hired to guide the scientists, on a search of his own. Botkin shows readers the emotional history of early wardens who made fateful choices they came to regret. “Bruce has lost track of the meaning of his life. He fantasized that direct contact with this elephant would be a kind of spiritual experience.” At one point, Bruce takes in the majesty of Zamani Baba up close. “He tries to see into the depths of the elephant. He was searching to make deep contract. Bruce thinks the animal must know something that he doesn’t.”

Beyond deep spiritual truths, elephants may have something even more compelling to teach us today. “Elephant herds are matriarchal,” Botkin explained. “Elephant males are thrown out. The hormone difference leads to different ways of behaving. They are too strong and tend to get violent and angry. The big males move on and have a different life.”

Botkin’s expansive mind leaps from Meriwether Lewis to Woody Guthrie to Rachel Carson to the origin of life on Earth. When he mulled over the idea of Werner Herzog directing the movie version of TSAVO, Dr. Botkin recalled his experience the Lascaux Caves. He shared his profound awe at seeing the 17,000-year-old paintings of magnificent creatures long gone. Perhaps TSAVO is Botkin’s way to share the elephant with future humans through the enduring power of art.

A devoted explorer, Dr. Botkin’s passion for life fuels his curiosity: “I admire the great physicists. They were people of good will who saw beauty in what they were doing. I loved studying science. I had to figure out how everything works and how we connect to it. Also, I can’t imagine living without music. I made my first folk music record at age six. All these are aspects of the deepness of being human. Meaning involves beauty, connection, and understanding.”

Perhaps artists, scientists, and elephants all trumpet the same eternal message in their own ways.

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Book Vine Press

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About Daniel Botkin

Daniel Botkin is a scientist who studies life from a planetary perspective, a biologist who has helped solve major environmental issues, and a writer about nature. A frequent public speaker, Botkin brings an unusual perspective to his subject. Well-known for his scientific contributions in ecology and environment, he has also worked as a professional journalist and has degrees in physics, biology, and literature.

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