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Monday, December 14, 2009

When Flora met the Elephants

i have this artist friend, named Flora. i wrote a story about her a while ago.  there are many stories about Flora. she's a fascinating person with a fascinating background.  a gifted artist with a constantly questioning mind.   

Flora was also a teacher at that time. she taught classes in our local fine arts centre for years.  though she's highly proficient in many media, her greatest love is for clay - especially hand built, raku fired clay.   some of my most satisfying memories involve standing in the cool and dark of a northern summer evening, gazing up at the stars while warming to the red heat of an outdoor barrel kiln.  cautiously peeking in to see if the pieces inside were ready.... then fearfully grasping them with long tongs and plunging them in tubs of dry leaves, grass, newspapers - anything that would burn quickly - to smoulder and transform into magical irridescent and metallic  textural colors and bottomless blacks.  but that's another story.

on this particular September day, Flora was at the pottery studio waiting for a class to walk the several blocks down the street from the nearby elementary school, for their clay building class. it was an unusually warm day, for September in northern Alberta.  she was having a quick smoke out back, finding the inner stillness to face a room of 20 pre-adolescents.  there was a tennis court, enclosed by a chain link fence between her and the town's arena, across an alley.  

and between the tennis court and the arena was a teenage boy, with 2 elephants. one was standing, the other lying quietly on the grass. elephants, whether standing or lying down, are not what one normally expects to see in the alley behind the local arena in a northern Alberta town.    so, Flora, being blessed with an overabundance of curiosity, and no less nerve, dropped her cigarette to the ground, crushed it beneath her beat up tennis shoe to extinguish it, and took a stroll in their direction.   

approaching from the opposite direction - from inside the arena, was a man.  an agitated man.  by the time Flora was close enough to hear the conversation, the man and the teenaged boy were engaged in a heated argument. it went something like this.  

"..... that elephant a bath.  she's a mess.  can't i trust you to do one simple job without...."

at which point, the boy,  by now equally, if not more agitated, replied, reaching down to grasp the ear of the prone elephant, who was not in the least agitated. he shouted, "look at these ears!  do you see these enormous ears?  with ears this size, you'd think she'd hear me, but she doesn't. she won't LISTEN to me, Dad! i've been telling her to get up for half an hour and she IGNORES me, Dad!   

so, while the gentleman spoke firmly to the elephant, who immediately, though unhurriedly rose to her feet, Flora, masterfully stifling the grin that she feared would insult the boy, cleared her throat and waited for them to notice her.   

it was a circus, of course, that she'd not known was coming to town.  run by this family - father and mother, several teenaged sons, some aunts, uncles and cousins.   the elephant in question was called Bella, and she had her own ideas about how the universe should be run.   

Flora is an amazing teacher.  this means she is also a lifelong student.  she sees everything that happens around her as an opportunity to learn, and to teach.  having real, live elephants in back of the studio was something too good to miss, so she persuaded the gentleman in charge that she could bring the class of kids now arriving at her clay studio to meet the elephants.  he made it clear that the children must be inside the tennis court's chain link fence at all times. there could be no risk of injury to anyone on either side.  this was agreed on.  it amused Flora that the humans were to be in a cage, while the 'dangerous animals' were able to move freely outside of it.  

20 pre-teen kids spent an hour touching (through the chain link fence) stroking, smelling and listening to 2 elephants. first they talked to the boy, and his younger brother, who soon joined them. they watched them bathe Bella, asked them what it was like growing up in the circus.  when they got more confident, they pelted the boys' father, who was the circus ringmaster, with questions about the animals, how they were cared for, where they lived in the winter, what they ate, how they were trained....  and they learned more about elephants than they thought they'd ever want to know.  they were surprised to learn how important foot care is to an elephant's overall health.  a small foot injury can mean death to an elephant.  they learned about elephant families.  these two were mother and child, though both were adults.  they timidly touched the elephant's trunk and saw, from inches away, how dextrous and gentle it was.  they learned about the intelligence and faithfulness of elephants.  

and, best of all, they got to watch an elephant take a dump.   bombs the size of cantaloupes.  

so, after the kids had all been herded out and sent back to school without so much as opening a package of clay, Flora  pointed to a warm and most fragrant lump of steaming green. a monstrous elephant pellet.  she  asked the gentleman,

"what are you going to do with that?"

he gave her a strange, sideways glance, and replied, "I'm going to clean it up."

"Well, yes, but where are you going to put it?" 

"in the garbage bin over there"

"Can i have it? I'll clean it up."

another strange sideways look.  "sure, lady.  come on back after the show starts."

so, a few hours later, Flora wiped the clay from her hands as she stepped out back for a smoke.  she listened to the music and the swell of applause, as she went back inside for some big green garbage bags.  there was enough to fill several of them, but she had to use more. the stuff was too heavy to fill a bag with. she didn't to end up wearing it as she carried it to her van.   

Flora lives on a quarter section of land outside town.  country life was a lifelong dream of her husband, but it was a new experience for all of them.  they'd been joined on 'the farm' over the summer by a couple of sheep, a riding horse, and a big, friendly dog.  Flora had planted her first garden.  it hadn't done well.  from all the work she'd put into it, she'd harvested a few salads, a handful of peas, a few carrots the size of her little finger, and enough potatoes to las a week, tops.  the beans were a complete bust.   the farmer next door told her the soil was depleted. she needed to get some manure.  

Flora smiled as she lugged the bags from the van. well, had she EVER got some manure! She dumped the gift from the elephants around the garden, spread it a bit with the shovel still stuck in the ground in the corner of the remains of the pumpkin vines. well, maybe they were pumpkin vines. they hadn't produced anything resembling a pumpkin before the frost turned them to mush. then she went up the hill to the house, got on with things and gave not another thought to the garden till spring.  

the first snows came early that year.   and the snow just kept coming, month after month.  this was good, because the previous year had been very dry.  in spring things melted slowly. the thirsty earth took a long, slow, deep drink and there was hardly any runoff.  Flora noticed one warm spring evening as she drove up the drive on her way home from teaching, that the neighbor had been by with his cultivator and done the garden for her.  "i love living here," she thought.  we have the best neighbors. the leaves were just beginning to unfurl along the drive. she'd be planting the garden soon. maybe this weekend.  

the phone was ringing when she walked in the house.  it was Joe, the good neighbor.   

"thanks for doing the garden, Joe. it looks great. is it too early to plant the potatoes this weekend?"

"naw. should be fine. you're welcome.  that was one heckuva job, tilling your plot.  stunk to high heaven.  and there were these huge lumps of stuff. what did you put in there?  elephant s***t?"

then she remembered.  grinning from ear to ear, knowing full well he wouldn't believe her, she answered, "well, yeah!"

true story.  


linda said...

"and, best of all, they got to watch an elephant take a dump."

if this sentence doesn't say it all about this age kid! what a wonderful story, a wonderful woman is flora! surely a gift to her students and friends and family alike...this was a great story that had me from beginning to end...hoping she had a fabulous garden from all that poop...can you imagine? I wish I could get my hands on some of that, you wouldn't need nearly as much.. *grins*

thanks also for your sweet comment left me today on my post and warmed my heart and made me want to paint!

clairesgarden said...

you cn never have too much manure!!

susan said...

That was a great story from beginning to end. You sure do know how to tell them.

First you talked about Raku pottery and strangely enough I was just reading today about the Jomon, the original inhabitants of Japan. For a long time they were considered to be simple hunter-gatherers who were replaced a few thousand years ago when people from Korea arrived en mass to live on the islands. Only in the past 20 years or so has it become apparent they had a very sophisticated culture that lasted nearly 14,000 years and included the making of the oldest pottery in the world. It's remarkable how much we never knew.. or at least I didn't. Flora probably knows.

The story about the elephants was wonderful. I thought she was planning to dry the stuff and use it for her glazing but no, it was for gardening. Perfect. My dad used to tell me I should be doing big things - like washing elephants :-)

gfid said...

linda - and i didn't even mention the elephant farts... they were a big hit too. yes, the garden was terrific that next year. plentiful rain, on top of the elephant offerings. i think that was the year we all had to start locking our doors. zucchini & spaghetti squash began to mysteriously appear in alarming quantities. YES!! paint!!!

claire - well, i've never had too much.... an elephant keeper might have a different opinion. ;0)

su - so glad you liked the story. i have enough Flora stories to fill a book. i followed your link. it's beautiful stuff. some of it looks very 'contemporary'. blows the 'old is primitive' theory out of the water, doesn't it? wow! and yes, i'm sure Flora knows all about the Jomon. she's very big on all things Japanese. another friend does several huge pit firings every year during the summer months. i haven't managed to make it to one.... YET

lindsaylobe said...

What an interesting very well told tale about your friend which has a wonderful punch line – and I don’t think it was b******t! "

I remember as a child our dog vanishing in terror at first glance of an elephant being led along the road not far from our house. As the elephant turned to gaze in his direction, our dog named Rex fled in terror to only return later when the gentle giant was long since gone.

Best wishes

gfid said...

lindsay - your dog sounds very sensible. Flora still loves to tell that story... often on a winter's night, next to the fireplace, gazing out the window at snow covered fields.