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on July 26, 2002
Naturalist Watson (Dark Nature, 1996, etc.) recounts his experiences among the elephants of southern Africa with wonderful freshness and enthusiasm, even though some of the most important encounters depicted here took place decades ago. Elephants haven't changed a whole lot since their distant ancestors the Primelephas evolved from the gomphotheres ("the beasts that are bolted together") during the Pliocene Period. That may, suggests Watson, explain their fascination for humans; they are literally out of time. Elephants have become symbols of might and memory, of harmony, patience, power, and compassion. But they also have an ambivalent relationship with humans: they are not cooed over, but respected; they keep their distance, they provoke fear and awe; but they have been hunted, harried, and fenced nearly out of existence. While humans' deplorable treatment of the elephant occupies Watson, he is more concerned with the creature's otherworldly existence on the fringes of our experience, the host of intuitive responses it triggers in us when in the wild we feel its reverberant presence, even (perhaps especially) at times we can't see it. Three major episodes frame the study: a superbly rendered account of 12-year-old Lyall and his friends spending some days on the beach with a Khoi man and a spectral white elephant; his immersion a decade later in the elephants' environment (where he had some close encounters with a raging bull) under the guidance of an old hand at tracking; and his use as a mature author/researcher of insights gained during his time with the elephants in books he has written on evil and the paranormal. Much more evocatively than any zoologist has ever managed, Watson makes the elephant a force of nature, accessible even to the reader with no personal exposure to the mighty creature. (Line drawings)
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on July 1, 2002
ELEPHANTOMS is biologist Lyall Watson's homage to one of the most significant influences in his life: the African elephant. The book is an inspiring compilation of elephant lore and scientific insights, served up in vintage Watson style.
One of the most attractive qualities of Watson's work is his willingness to honor the world's great mysteries, such as the nature of consciousness and its role in the world. What is real and what is illusion? Does the mind participate in generating what we call facts? In his elephant encounters, this question recurs again and again. Watson faces these mysteries as few scientists are willing to do. The result is an enchanting display of erudition and intition, which recall's Aristotle's observation that wonder is the beginning of wisdom.
Watson vividly describes the appalling stupidity and cruelty we humans have displayed toward one of the planet's most majestic creatures. Thus ELEPHANTOMS evokes in the reader a range of emotions, from ecstasy to rage.
ELEPHANTOMS meets my requirements as a reader. It educates, inspires, and challenges. It is anchored in science and spirit, head and heart.
Thank you, Lyall Watson.
-- Larry Dossey, MD
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on June 26, 2002
Lyall Watson's newest book, "Elephantoms, Tracking the Elephant," begins with a scenario slightly reminiscent of the novel, "Lord of the Flies." A troupe of bright, but rebellious, ten through thirteen-year-old boys has a month's unsupervised living at the southern edge of the African continent. (In an emergency, a distant farmhouse phone could be used to summon help.) These are brief, entirely amiable excursions unlike, and predating by several years, Golding's mini-society with its conjectures on the inherency of human evil. In the case of Watson's group - the self-dubbed "Strandlopers" - it was a situation affording them room to cultivate independence, camaraderie and a host of other survival skills.
Whether this is where Watson's own lifelong interest in the natural world began or expanded, is moot. It included his first sighting of a wild elephant and left an indelible mark.
For those who have never read any of this author's twenty-odd books, Lyall Watson holds degrees in a number of scientific disciplines alongside a pair of doctorates in anthropology and ethology. He has traveled extensively, both as an individual and an expedition leader. Earlier books include "Secret Life of Inanimate Objects," "Dreams of Dragons," "Heaven's Breath," the best-selling "Supernature" and, most recently, "Jacobson's Organ".
The young Watson's search for remaining elephants parallels his search for a university study focus, one that would include more than the single species represented by medicine. Human influences are colorful and impressive, as science notables Raymond Dart, Alistar Hardy, and Desmond Morris wander the halls of the author's curriculum. After an internship at the renowned London Zoo, Watson returns to his birthplace to direct the Johannesburg Zoo. Here he meets another elephant and the next phase of his search.
The history of African decision-making in terms of its unique animal populations appears to have been little better than that of the rest of the world. While South Africa's Addo Elephant Park is home to a 300-member herd and has achieved international fame, it is a feeble - possibly futile - gesture alongside Watson's listing of the nineteenth century indiscriminate slaughter of hundreds of thousands of elephants in what is now Zambia. "... a further 585,000 were wiped out in the Congo in the next half century."

Lest we think the twentieth century brought more enlightened times, there is Watson's account of his beloved South Africa's government-sanctioned elephant executions. (Our own Teddy Roosevelt, indulging himself in a 1909 post-presidential bloodbath/safari, helped dispatch eleven elephants - along with 500 other animals.)

For all the sorrow attendant to this and other stories of human interaction with "lesser" species, the author manages to end on a hopeful note. Given what we have learned in the preceding pages, one feels it is a hard-won optimism.
The combination here is of naturalist survey and subtle biography. What better way for a biologist to tell his own tale than by tethering it to one of the multitude of creatures he has studied?
As always with a Watson book, there is the deft entwining of history and science, folklore and personal observation. The final product is a tightly constructed gem of educational entertainment. At its heart is a subtle reminder that we are always diminished by what we destroy.
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on August 4, 2002
I enjoyed this book. The author discusses his encounters with elephants over the course of his life in South Africa. Lurking beneath the surface is the possibility that the elephant's existence may go beyond the physical level. Elephants appear where they have not been seen for years. Lyall Watson encounters men whose life seems strangely connected on the spiritual level with the elephant.
At times I was not sure whether Watson was sticking to non-fiction or whether maybe he was twisting the facts a little to make a better story. Perhaps, as is often the case, truth is stranger than fiction. Nevertheless, the case is made that elephants are sensitive, social, and mysterious beings who deserve a place to thrive on Earth.
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on August 22, 2006
I had not read anything by Lyall Watson before "Elephantoms". It was a marvelous and engaging read! I won't repeat other reviews here that go into greater depth, but want to say, (1)Watson is a good writer that grabs the imagination, (2)I wish kids today were encouraged and trusted as the Strandlopers were by their parents to grow on their own for awhile, (3)It was nice to have a book with a large number of short distinct chapters that could be read as time permitted, (4)It sent me out to spend a day at a zoo with the elephants, mostly just really looking at them closely for the first time, (5)I hope the book will be reprinted so many others can enjoy it. This was one of the best reads I've had in years!
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on December 28, 2002
What is it that connects us to each other, and perhaps connects us across time. Lyall Watson is a gifted scientist who suggests some provocative possibilities in simple prose. If you don't want to think about his speculations you will still be entertained by his biographical adventures about South African Bushmen and Elephants. The only reason I didn't give it five stars is that the author spends a lot of time telling the history of various Elephant herds and the men who slaughtered so many of them, and that's really a separate tale (or is it tail?)
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on March 13, 2003
Marvelously written with elements of mystery and science. This is well worth reading, along with To the Elephant Graveyard, which is somewhat similar.
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