Reading: Julia Whitty

34th Annual UND Writers Conference:
"Art & Science"
March 26, 2003

© 2003 Julia Whitty and the University of North Dakota

[Video of this reading is also available.]

[Please note, unless otherwise specified, poetry is presented with published line breaks:
for proper spacing and formatting, please consult printed source.]

Speaker: ... been making nature documentaries for over twenty years. In that time, she has produced, edited, and written over seventy documentaries for the Discovery Channel, PBS, National Geographic, the BBC, and A&E. And much of her work has been nominated for and won national and international awards.

Her writing, the medium she is primarily involved with now, is just as provocative. "A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga," the title piece in her first collection of short stories, won the prestigious O. Henry award, and she is currently working on a book-length study of coral reefs entitled The Fragile Edge and her first novel.

Nature takes center stage in much of Julia Whitty's work. Humans and the animal world are portrayed as interrelated and interdependent, and often it is humankind's drive for technological or personal superiority that is a counteractive force against the world wildlife and natural resources. Whether documentary film or short story, Julia Whitty has an activist respect for the natural world and its preservation. And this passion is poetically expressed through both images and words.

This interrelationship is made powerfully explicit in a scene from her documentary The Everglades Rain Machine, which showed earlier today, where images of osprey and pelicans diving for fish are cross cut with the landing of an airplane delivering tourists to southern Florida. The effect of the growing population on the Everglades is complex, but essentially there are fewer fish in the Florida Bay because of the mass quantities of water Florida's population uses and consumes on a daily basis.

In addition to portraying the human/nature relationship as one of hostility, Julia Whitty also writes of the natural world as a source for an individual's growth and growing awareness about themselves, as in such short stories as "Darwin in Heaven" and "Senti's Last Elephant." The richness of her work is inspiring to writer, documentarian, and anyone who has an interest in preserving and understanding the natural world. So it's with great pleasure that I'd like to introduce Julia Whitty.

[Audience applause]

Julia Whitty: Thank you Jennifer. Can you hear me? You're all hearing me okay.

Well I had thought about reading you something from my novel, but I'm so depressed with it at the moment that I decided I couldn't bear that. And then I thought I might read something from a, an article I've just written for Mother Jones, which is, about a place in the South Pacific I just came back from, a very remote country called Tuvalu, which probably nobody's ever heard of. I had hardly heard of it. But I read it aloud to myself, and I thought, no, I'm just gonna read you guys a story. Stories seem to read better. So I am going to read you something from this collection, and I believe I will read you "Senti's Last Elephant."

Does this little light work? No.

[Inaudible response]

Julia Whitty: Okay.

Audience Member: [They promised us new stuff for next year.]

Julia Whitty: Senti does not know how to read. Neither Setswana, his native tongue, nor English, nor Fanagalo, all lingua francas here in Botswana. Not even Afrikaans, used by the white farm owners just over the border in South Africa. He can speak some of all these languages, but he can't read or write a word of any of them, a fact that embarrasses him when a tourist occasionally asks him to spell the word for, say, mopaneveld. "Elephant - tree savanna," he translates, thereby avoiding the discomfort of his illiteracy.

A dying elephant writes its obituary in the earth. This Senti knows. It writes: I am an ancient female whose teeth, the machinery of my digestion, are gone. Or it writes: I am a young calf less than a year old, and here my herd has stopped and surrounded me as I rest, awaiting the gathering of my strength so together we can continue on to the edge of the Limpopo River, to that bend where the shade of the umbrella thorns preserves twin pools of water in an otherwise dry bed.

The elephant whose tracks Senti found this morning wrote a shuffling and confused story in the dust around Lalapanzi spring last night: I am a bull in my prime who has been dying now for some weeks, and although I am greatly weakened and at times only barely conscious, I have become more dangerous than ever.

Because of this, Senti decides to avoid the spring and swings the LandCruiser around, stepping on the clutch and reaching with his right arm across the steering wheel for the stick shift. In the years since he lost his left arm he has learned to drively as smoothly—to drive as smoothly as he ever could with two arms, and now, backtracking through the belt of riparian forest along the edge of the Majale River, he weaves expertly among massive mashatu trees.

High overhead, pairs of wood woodland kingfishers as bright as sapphires loose their descending duets with the excessive monotony of crickets. His passengers, in the back, have no idea where he's going. Like all foreigners, they seem unable to ground themselves in this landscape, as old as human genesis itself.

The soil of Mashatu Game Reserve is an ancient, rusty red, cooked down to its essential elements by the African sun, its tiny particles scattered season after season by the rains as water slowly equalizes the land, carrying hilltops and long-extinct volcanoes down their own subsiding slopes to fill valleys and riverbeds. Bit by bit the landscape turns itself inside out, revealing buried treasures of geodes, agates, quartz crystals, trilobite fossils, nickel-shiny meteorites, and hundred-thousand-year-old stone tools carefully chipped by those who might well have been Senti's ancestors.

He swings back by Main Camp, radioing in first so that Pretty from the kitchen can meet his passengers with cold glasses of lemonade. Senti walks over to John's hut, where the armory is stored under lock and key. John is waiting for him with the .458, a bolt-action elephant gun.

"Be careful," says John.

Senti nods.

Back at the LandCruiser the guests—a stock broker from Texas, his wife, his two daughters, and the wife's elderly mother—are chatting with Pretty, who wears the fire-engine-red dress and scarf favored by Batswanan women. Straight as a river reed she stands, the tray with three now empty glasses balanced on her head as she waits patiently for the daughters to finish their drinks. "Dumela," says Senti, flashing her a smile. She coyly dips a shoulder and lowers her eyes, all without affecting the delicate alignment of tray, neck, lemonade glasses, head.

He unclips the Czechoslovakian made .375 rifle from the hood of the LandCruiser, places it across the empty passenger seat beside him, and hooks the barrel and butt of the .458 into its place.

"Wanna come?" he teases Pretty in Setswana.

She swings an arm up and the tray slides from her head as fluidly as a bird taking off into the wind. Collecting the daughter's lemonade glasses, she turns her back to Senti, and then glances over her shoulder at him before saying softly into the empty air, "Some of us have work to do, man."

Senti starts the engine.

"That's quite a rifle," says the stockbroker from the back.

"Yes," says Senti, turning around, smiling. His job is to tend to the tourists and their questions regardless of any other matter at hand, except, of course, safety.

The wife and daughters focus their attention on the .458 clipped across the hood, and the stockbroker takes advantage of this sudden interest to assert his knowledge.

"Why a lion gun?" he asks.

During the three days Senti has spent with his family in the LandCruiser, they've been undergoing what is by now, to Senti, a familiar transformation. The husband (whose idea this trip was and who brought them all the way to Africa to show them the worlds his wealth could provide) is slowly losing face. Out here, far from Wall Street and surrounded by the terrific appetites and talents of lion, wildebeest, leopard, and elephant, his family is coming to see that their beloved and heretofore invincible patriarch is as vulnerable as any woman. As a result, they are beginning to recast their image of the male into something resembling Senti himself.

It's an uncomfortable reshuffling of hierarchy, especially inside such a small vehicle. Invariably the husband turns defensive. Sometimes he argues with Senti, or becomes overbearingly commanding, barking orders as if Senti were nothing more than a bush valet. Occasionally the husband excuses himself from the game drives altogether (as the stockbroker did yesterday), remaining behind at the lodge to fortify himself with the familiar, shouting business directives via the radio to underlings at home.

Yet Senti is glad to have him back today. He knows this trip will not be successful in the family's memory unless they can put to rest their conflicts in the LandCruiser. But he also needs to answer truthfully about the gun.

"No," he says, turning again to smile. "This is not a lion gun but an elephant gun."

The husband and wife were sitting directly behind him in the open back of the LandCruiser, the daughters and grandmother one row farther back. Mokabela, the tracker, perches on the jump seat at the rear.

"You could use it to shoot lions though, right?" says the husband, readjusting his baseball cap.

"Of course," says Senti, trying to mollify him.

But he can see the doubt in the women's' eyes.

"I think he means, honey," says the wife, "that he'd really use the other gun to shoot lions."

"Why would you want to shoot any of them?" says the elder daughter (a sixteen-year-old who celebrated her birthday here the day before yesterday). Because of this trip to Africa, she has decided to become a biologist when she grows up. Senti knows this because the family teases her about the fact that during their last vacation, to Italy, she decided to be an archaeologist, and before that, an astronaut.

"Yes, that's right," says Senti, "We don't want to shoot anything."

He smiles. The women smile. The grandmother adjusts her hearing aid. Senti turns forward, ready to drive on.

"What did he say?" asks the grandmother as Senti swivels back again.

"He said we're not gonna shoot anything," says the younger daughter, who looks enough like the mother for Senti to understand exactly what makeup accomplishes, or rather what it will accomplish for her in a few years' time.

The husband doesn't smile. "When I'm out deer hunting," he says, "I prefer to know I have something with me that will cope with bears and cougars as well."

"Oh, don't be barbaric, Daddy," says the elder daughter.

"We are what we are because we're hunters," says the father. "Isn't that so, Senti?"

"You've been hunting, like, three times in your entire life," says the younger daughter.

"When I was a boy—" starts the father.

"And you never actually killed anything," interrupts the elder daughter.

"Face it, Daddy," says the younger daughter. "You're just a weekend warrior."

"Darling!" The mother laughs, looking at Senti with her beautiful smile. "Where do you learn such things?"

"I'll tell you where the real hunting goes on these days," says the father, warming up for what seems to be a too-familiar lecture.

"We know!" shout the daughters

"You wouldn't know this, though, Senti," says the father, trying to make eye contact. But Senti is distracted by the sight of Pretty sauntering up to John outside the reception hut, her eyes still downcast, yet a kind of sullen coquettishness evident in the sway of her hips. They're too far away for him to hear what's being said, but she glances Senti's way when John isn't looking. Senti smiles back, but not too strongly. Just with one side of his mouth. He knows you don't win women with over eagerness. You work downwind, so to speak.

The guests are staring at him expectantly, and he realizes he has missed something. A question.

"Pardon me?" he says.

"I said," says the father, "that isn't it true that if we hadn't become hunters, we'd still be like these baboons, picking seeds off the ground."

Senti thinks it was probably a good line when he said it the first time, as it brought this argumentative family to a stop. But it has lost some power in the retelling.

"What's wrong with baboons?" says the younger daughter. "I love baboons."

"Baboons," says Senti, carefully addressing the daughter, "are very good hunters. In the Limpopo they catch fish. They take springhares from their holes in the ground. On the farms here they steal baby sheep and goats."

"Honey," says the wife, playfully punching the husband's shoulder, "I think you'd better stick to the price-earnings ratios."

Affection tempers her sarcasm, and the others laugh gently. Senti turns forward again, relieved to be absolved from the husband's real question.

A healthy elephant writes a beautiful cursive. The prints of the rounded front feet, bigger than dinner plates, are partially erased by the sweep of the back legs trailing lazily through the earth. In a herd of females, the last will leave her signature on the top of the others, though traces of the forerunners remain: the small footprint of an infant, or the sinuous drag-mark of a trunk as an elephant inhales dust and sprays it over her ears to drive off tsetses. The dust, falling like rain, leaves tiny craters on the ground.

Senti's father taught him all this, and more. Together they tracked in the bush, Father squatting beside the trail, patiently pointing with the tip of a small twig so Senti could learn to read the words written in the earth in their correct syntax.

"Here is the female with no tusks," Father would say, recognizing the elephant by the split heel of a rear foot. "And here," he added, pointing to a set of small tracks with a characteristic W shape, "the genet walked by later last night." Tracing a spidery path right up to the insect's newly built lair, he continued, "And here, you see, the ant lion left his own trail on top of both first thing this morning."

Driving out of Main Camp, Senti heads north, away from Lalapanzi spring. Which is the best he can do at the moment, knowing full well that a dying elephant, especially male and alone, is intrinsically unpredictable in its behavior. Short of tracking it, which is far too dangerous with tourists aboard, he can try only to stay beyond the range it has likely covered since last night.

"Thutlwa," says Mokabela, the tracker.

"Giraffe," says Senti, pointing.

He slows the LandCruiser so the daughters can take snapshots. Out here in Mashatu the giraffes are much taller than the bush itself. Elephants keep the mopaneveld trimmed to a comfortable height for them, but it forces the giraffes to eat with their necks perpetually bent. Worse, the giraffes are living lightning rods, and many a thunderstorm leaves one struck down and splayed across the landscape like a giant, five-limbed, spotted star.

"Phala," says Mokabela from the back.

A tiny female bounds off the track far ahead of them. It's unusual for an impala to be alone, but as this is the birthing season, Senti slows the vehicle, knowing what to expect. Just off the trail lies a perfectly formed impala baby, born only a moment before, but now dead.

"Stillborn," says Senti, surprised.

Its cinnamon-colored coat is soft and wet, the large eyes unopened, back legs tucked into a fetal curl, front legs raised together over its head as if it were diving headfirst out of the womb. Senti engages the handbrake and steps down from the LandCruiser.

"It's still warm," he says.

Mokabela grunts, lifts his chin.

"What did he say?" asks the wife.

"He says now it will be food for the jackals."

"Can we get out?" asks the elder daughter.

"Sorry," he says. "But remember, you must stay inside at all times, unless we're out in the open." He glances up at the passengers as they study the dead impala. The daughters and the grandmother look sad, the wife excited, almost aggressive. He has caught that expression on her face before. The husband? He's not sure. Bored, perhaps. Senti resolves to find him something of interest. Lion. Or, if they're lucky, cheetah.

The soil of Mashatu is the red, oxidized remains of ancient lava, imprintable in both the dry and the wet season. Lions particularly like to walk along the LandCruiser tracks, and patrol them as regularly as the vehicles themselves do, their six-inch pugmarks weaving over the treadmarks in the lightfooted waltz. The trail Senti is driving now, up the bed of the Jwala River, is the current boundary marker between two warring prides, the Jwala pride to the north and the Motloutses to the south. The sandy river, dry, twisting, and narrow, is cluttered with lion spoor.

The Jwalas, composed of a rare coalition of five adult males—brothers in their prime at eight years old, each beautifully outfitted in a mixed blond-and-black mane—are astonishingly successful at the moment. The Motloutse pride is an up-and-coming mixture of three four-and-a-half-year-old-brothers and one six-year-old outsider, who came in over the border from Zimbabwe. Senti has watched this loner slowly affiliating himself with the Motloutses for the past seven months, acting with great reserve and diplomacy, staying at a distance, always greeting the pride with peaceful puffing calls, generously abandoning his kills to them and then tentatively beginning to hunt beside them. With great restraint, he has avoiding any sexual contact with the females. All within the pride know that someday soon he and the three brothers will leave this territory and take on the Jwalas, or a pride to the west in the Kalahari.

The elder daughter decides she wants to study the big cats after hearing all this.

"It's a lion soap opera," says the mother.

The dry ravine, lined with tamboti trees and huge beautiful specimens of mashatus, is acrid with the smell of lion urine. Each pride makes forays down here when it's sure the other is away and sprays everything in sight.

Mokabela points up the gully through thick bush.

Senti turns the wheel and engages the four-wheel drive and the LandCruiser climbs the nearly vertical bluff with the tenacity of a tank, its reinforced front-end knocking down and running over a thicket of stinky-shepherd trees, which release their carrion stench in an eye-watering burst.

"Phew," says the younger daughter.

"Is something dead?" asks the mother.

Something is always dead, thinks Senti, but he turns his head and says over his shoulder, "No. Just these trees smell dead."

"Isn't that strange, honey?" says the wife to her husband.


"The trees would smell dead!"

"What's so strange about that?"

The husband, Senti recognizes, is refusing to show any surprise, as that would acknowledge ignorance.

"You never smelled trees that smelled dead before, Daddy," says the younger daughter.

"I don't smell anything," says the grandmother.

"Me neither," says the husband, laughing playfully, so they know he's lying.

Flocks of green-spotted doves flush from the ground ahead of them, then alight in the trees behind them, cooing in the soft and melodic percussion of the bush.

Senti's father was a tracker, first for white hunters, later for poaching conglomerates headquartered in Johannesburg and then, during the apartheid blockade, in Harare. Like Senti, he grew up in this landscape known as the Tuli Block and was familiar with every sandstone massif, each belt of mopane forest, all the granite hills, and the rivers in every season, every mood.

When Senti was five years old, Father began taking him into the bush, teaching him the skills with which he would make his living. First the obvious: the twenty or thirty rhino mid-dens maintained by each territorial male, huge dung piles advertising, as Father said, the strength of his gut. Then the subtle: the peculiar shitlike smell of the leopard's two-day-old catch, a tiny steenbok dangling incongruously high overhead in the pale foliage of the apple-leaf tree, its head draped upside down and its legs arched awkwardly backward, displaying the open body cavity. The smell, Father pointed out, was not of the carcass itself but of the heart, which the cat had buried in the dead leaf litter below.

Elephants were both the easiest and the most dangerous to track. Easy because of their noisy lifestyle, ripping away bark with tusks and trunks, knocking down fruiting trees, constantly trumpeting to each other, or rumbling, or belching. But they were dangerous in those days before the establishment of the game reserve (when warfare raged between elephants and men), because if they found you, they charged.

Although some poachers used machine guns, Senti and his father could afford only rifles and were therefore reduced to one carefully placed shot each. They could shoot nearly anywhere, even in the head, even with a .458, but an enraged elephant could survive sometimes for weeks. To kill, they needed to sever the spine, up at the occiput was best. Senti learned this, along with the lesson that he should outwait his excitement, or impatience, or whatever it was that made his tringer, trigger finger itch, until near-boredom assured a good shot. He should also, Father said, shoot the biggest elephant first, the matriarch, because even after her skull was stripped of its ivory, her family would return to fondle the bones. From a young age this bothered Senti, the way time and again he and his father took advantage of the elephants' grief to ambush the rest of the herd.

"Look at all those bones," says the elder daughter as Senti drives them off track into open bush through a carpet of dwarf yellow wildflowers raised by early storms. As always, he is surprised that it has taken three days for the first family member to notice Mushatu's bones. The lost vertebrae, detached occipitals, femurs, antlers, and ilia that decorate the red soils and yellow flowers like weatherworn pearls.

"That was a wildebeest killed by a lion in 1996," says Senti.

"Really?" says the mother.

"Wow," says the elder daughter. "You remember that?"

Senti knows every bone here, to whom it belonged in life and who consumed its flesh in death. Only the largest bones survive the crushing skills of the hyenas, and the absolutely largest, the elephant skulls, become enduring landmarks by which the rangers radio interesting finds to each other, as in "A pair of bat-eared foxes is resting by the elephant skull on the Braaikoppie."

Mokabela points to the right.

Senti turns the wheel and they head into thicker mopane bush. He can smell it now.

"Tau," says Mokabela.

Senti turns off the engine. In the sudden quiet, sound becomes as bright and layered as a rainbow: the humming of nursing cubs, the crunching of bones, the rasp of a cat tongue licking flesh away.

"There are lion here," says Senti, very quietly.

"Cool," says the younger daughter.

"They are eating something now," says Senti. "Can you see? Through there. A zebra."

"I can't see anything," says the mother.

"I see," says the husband.

"No, not there," says Senti, pointing. "Just through there."

Senti, who can smell the lioness's milk, knows from the tracks they've been following for the last hour that this is the female with four cubs, along with her own pregnant mother. Two of the four adult women of the Motloutse pride.

He starts up the engine again and circles around to the left.

"Hey, right there," says the father.

Senti cuts the engine. Fifteen feet away lies the mother, suckling two of the cubs. The others play tug-of-war with a blood-red rib bone. The grandmother lioness is the one making the rasping sounds as she cleans tendons and ligaments from a severed front leg. Behind them, perhaps another twenty feet away, lies the dead zebra, opened and excavated from belly to chest. A haze of flies adds its own sound.

"Just look at that," says the wife. "Can you believe it?"

"This is what we came for," says the husband.

"Africa," says the wife. "Isn't it incredible?"

The rib, in the jaws of one cub, twirls in the air.

"It's kind of gross," says the younger daughter.

The cub detaches itself from the bone to investigate the grandmother's switching tail. Without breaking the rhythm of her licking, the lioness growls, a sound low and percussive enough to rumble human bones.

"It's Darwinian," says the elder daughter.

"What's that mean?" asks her sister.

"It means it isn't good or bad, stupid. It just is."

In the distance Senti sees a pair of jackals, waiting.

"Is it safe," whispers the grandmother, leaning forward, "for that zebra to be so close to those lions?"

There's a moment of silence before the family bursts into laughter, causing the lioness to give a startled woof and fix her eyes on Senti. He starts the engine, knowing that of all things, lions don't like laughter: hyena words.

For eighteen years Senti worked with his father. Bone by bone, fascia by muscle, nerve by artery, the landscape assembled itself in his mind into a living anatomy containing many smaller working parts: the elephants, the baobab trees, the warthogs, the salt pans. In the beginning he believed that he and his father were simply two more aspects of this corpus. But as the years went by, as their life's work accumulated across the landscape in the form of hacked-up rhinoceros and elephant skulls, Senti's notion began to change. Eventually he and his father seemed less a part of the anatomy of the land than an outside force.

As his bush knowledge deepened, so did his qualms, until Senti began to believe he had filled up and exceeded his life's quotient of death, a feeling that weighed upon him. One fateful day the gravity of this notion pressed him down to the ground, to a place where he was relieved of the weight of it. Lightened, as it were, by one arm.

At the rock crossing, on the Matabole River, not far from Main Camp, Senti slows the LandCruiser, then backs it up, following fresh spoor in the sand. This signature is unmistakable. Gone is the graceful rhythm of the stride. Like an elephant drunk on fermenting calabash fruit, this bull staggers and sometimes nearly falls. It's a script Senti knows well. As he also knows that this dying elephant will now remain by the water to drink and drink, trying to still the unquenchable thirst that accompanies the final failure of the kidneys.

Mokabela whistles softly.

"Yes," says Senti in Setswana, "he's nearby now."

A pool of water in the riverbed trickles slowly downstream to another pool, where a pair of saddle-billed storks are wading, trying to tempt fish to the lures of their pink feet and pink knees.

Senti speaks quietly into his heasdset, in Setswana so the tourists won't understand, alerting the other rangers to the news. John, out searching, comes back to him on the radio, concerned that the elephant is too close to Main Camp, where the other guests, returning for breakfast, might well hear a gunshot.

Senti drives upriver in order to cross again near the eagle's nest. From the far bank he hears an elephant rumbling, the sound building into a growl, then a roar.

"Elephants," says the husband.

"Yes," says Senti. "They are coming down to the river to drink."

From behind a picturesque screen of flowering flame trees comes a herd of females, the matriarch bringing up the rear, slowed by the unsteady pace of a newborn calf traveling between her legs. The elephants pause, trunks twirling, sensing the LandCruiser.

"They don't see well," says Senti. "They are trying to hear us, and smell us."

The newborn flaps one ear nervously, the other ear still molded into a fetal fit alongside its head. An adult female advances to the water with both ears open to catch the wind. She dips he trunk, siphons the water, then relays it to her mouth. Others follow. Their smell drifts over to the LandCruiser, as warm and comforting as a barn.

"Isn't this wonderful, girls?" whispers the mother.

Low rumbles echo from the herd, companionable and peaceful.

"I like elephants the best," says the younger daughter.

The newborn reaches an unsteady trunk into the mouth of its mother tasting the water she drinks.

"Where are their tusks?" asks the husband.

"Most don't have tusks now," says Senti.

"Why not?" asks the wife.

"Before," says Senti, "there were many poachers here. Now the elephants don't grow much ivory."

"Don't they need tusks?" asks the wife.

"Oh yes," says Senti. "Tusks are very useful."

"Some of them have one tusk," observes the younger daughter.

"You mean they're evolving without tusks?" asks the elder daughter.

Senti is not sure exactly what she means. "The hunters," he says, "took all the ivory. The only ones left are those who had little, or none. Their children grew up like them."

"Well that's natural selection," says the elder daughter.

"I'm not sure it's all that natural, honey," says the mother.

The newborn elephant bends down on its knees to drink with its mouth.

"You see how he is too small to use his trunk," says Senti.

"I say it's the Lord's will," says the grandmother.

"What?" says the mother.

"That the poor elephants have lost their tusks."

"Oh, lordy, lordy," teases the husband.

Senti turns to look the grandmother in the eye, and they share a smile.

"He does save elephants," she says, "as well as all us sinners."

Senti nods. The old woman alone must sense something of his past.

If his father had doubts about their work, Senti never knew it. At times he wished to discuss his own misgivings, but what were their options? They lived in a chasm of poverty, as dry and unyielding as drought. Worse, they were beholden to bosses, who in turn were beholden to other higher-ups, link by link across the landscape like the elephant fences erected by the farmers in the region. Obligations enclosed Senti and prevented him from completing what he came to believe was his own natural migration, away from all the killing.

He hadn't shot well for a long time, which was an embarrassment to him, although his father, his eyesight failing from years in the sun, was unaware of or at least silent about Senti's mistakes. With their income dropping, the family began to go hungry, and the women, his father's three wives and their daughters, were driven to scavenging maize from neighboring white farms, where they risked being shot along with the marauding wildlife. Still Senti couldn't bring himself to improve his efforts. He hesitated. He made too much noise. He let the wind give him away. To add to their troubles, elephants were becoming scarce, and no one had seen a rhino here in three years. Some poachers were drifting to Johannesburg in search of other work, some toward the diamond mines in Namibia.

Occasionally Senti tracked false spoor down toward Solomon's Wall, the rock outcropping at the confluence of the Limpopo and Motloutse, where even in the dry season deep pools of water offered the solace of reflection. There he and his father would perch on their haunches in the dappled shade beneath fever trees, Father napping, Senti swatting at flies and observing the aerial antics of carmine bee-eaters as they swooped down and puncture the stillness of the water.

One breezy afternoon in the dry season an elephant appeared from behind the rocks, surprising both itself and Senti. All hesitated, Senti to grab his rifle, the elephant to charge or withdraw, Father to awaken. Following that instant of stalemate, Senti looked away, allowing the elephant a safe retreat.

Then, in a blur, a sudden gallop of speed, the ground shaking, a furious scream, first elephant, then man, as Senti was knocked over and trampled under an enormous weight. He heard the cough of a .458 discharging, badly placed. Abandoning Senti, the elephant turned to punish Father, stomping, screaming, and tossing him into the water, where brain matter spilled out of his skull. From his ant's-eye view on the ground, Senti saw the elephant turn again and felt the vibration of the big feet slamming into the earth. Feebly, raising his uninjured arm to shield himself, Senti observed the elephant thunder up to him and then pass over, the dust rising in its wake.

Mokabela coughs, and Senti turns to look.

All the elephants have stopped drinking, ears raised. A network of blood vessels is visible through the thin parchment. Stretching one front leg forward, the matriarch—matriarch rocks her foot back and forth in a threat display. A young female reaches out a trunk and pulls the newborn calf back from the water's edge and hurries it under her belly.

Senti starts the engine and eases the LandCruiser into reverse.

Mokabela points.

Behind them, leaning against a small tree in a mopane thicket, is the bull elephant they've been trying to avoid. He is as emaciated as a corpse, the contours of his skull rising sharply through his skin like those of the aged elephants that die in the dry season. But Senti can tell by the color of his ivory that he's not old at all, although his trunk droops listlessly on the ground and the nipples between his front legs protrude like the breasts of a nursing female. One leg is raised into the air, swaying there, as if he has momentarily forgotten where the ground lies. The mopane tree cracks under his weight, and he lurches forward on to the raised leg without lowering it, and ends up twirling to the right and buckling onto his knees. As he falls away from the trees, Senti sees the bullet hole in his side, just behind the ribs, the wound white with maggots.

"Oh my god," says the wife.

Ahead of them are elephants. Behind them lies the dying elephant, his head now resting on his single tusk. To either side lies the river, too deep to cross. Senti speaks rapidly into the headset.

"What's wrong with that elephant?" says the younger daughter, watching the bull try to leverage himself with tusk and trunk and succeeded only in plowing backward through the dry earth toward the LandCruiser.

"That's one sick elephant," says the husband.

Senti is calculating how to drive around behind the bull? He'll have to drive straight through a thick stand of mopane, knocking it down.

"Mom, I don't like this anymore," says the younger daughter.

"Tlou" says Mokabela.

Senti glances forward. The herd of females across the river is advancing through the water toward the bull. They will want to raise him, Senti knows, even though without—without much ivory between them, it will be difficult.

"Uh-oh," says the wife.

The bull groans, a sound of pain and frustration.

The matriarch shakes her head back and forth, and her ears slap against her face. Another female rolls her trunk towards her forehead, and unfurls it with a blast of air.

"Okay," says the husband, "I think they want us out of here."

But the back of the LandCruiser is not reinforced. In order to drive over the mopane thicket, Senti needs to turn the vehicle around. He begins advancing and retreating, awkward with his one arm, juggling the stick shift, the steering wheel, trying with quick jerks to change direction.

"Tau," says Mokabela quietly.

Sure enough, padding through the trees that Senti would like to drive over, their footsteps as quiet as clouds, are four of the five brothers of the Jwala pride, yellow eyes fixed on the bull elephant.

Senti thinks, So this is what the females heard.

All four lions drop to a crouch, their ears flat. They are not afraid of the LandCruiser, as for many years now it has been a nearly constant and always neutral observer of their hunts.

"Can we get out of here?" asks the husband.

Senti would like to take one rifle or the other and hand it back to Mokabela in the rear, but he's fearful of the animals' response to the sight of it.

The elephants advance shoulder to shoulder, heads tossing, tails out, roaring. The lions fan out in a semicircle. Suddenly one springs forward and clamps onto the tip of the bull elephant's trunk, lying outstretched on the ground.

The bull screams. Or perhaps it's the girls in the back. Senti is not sure. The elephant lurches backward, dragging the lion with it. Senti feels the familiar thunder of the other elephants, now running. Realizing that he has turned the LandCruiser enough to charge toward the trees, he fights to straighten the wheel, only to see the husband reaching into the passenger seat for the .375.

Senti tries to grab it away from him but fails.

The husband levels the rifle over his wife's head

"Daddy!" screams the daughter.

A lion turns their way. Senti floors the accelerator, and the vehicle leaps forward just as the cat jumps into it. Only his front legs make a purchase on the doorsill. Senti brakes hard, then accelerates, trying to dislodge him. The lion swats. A shot is fired. The lion drops away. Senti drives straight toward one of the other brothers crouching between him and the trees, forcing him to his feet with a surprised look on his face. From the seats behind him there's a screaming and crying. Senti doesn't have time to look as he crashes into the thicket, grinding the trees under the chassis, where the smells of sap and death mingle.

He clears the thicket, feels the tires dig in and the LandCruiser accelerate rapidly.

"Is everyone all right back there?" he shouts.

Mokabela yells something he can't understand.

Senti keeps driving until they reach the open ground of an old salt pan, then slows the vehicle to glance behind him. Blood is everywhere. The girls are crying hysterically. Mokabela is trying to climb over them, past the grandmother, whose hands are around the mother's neck. He's trying to reach the source of the blood, somewhere in the seat behind Senti, coming from the husband, whose bloody hands cover the lower half of his face as he stares at his wife beside him. Her head has fallen back onto the reinforced clutch bar, and she is staring up at the sun. Senti sees blood pumping from between the grandmother's fingers as the wife blinks once, slowly. He takes the vehicle out of gear, sets the handbrake, and leaps into the seat behind him, forcing the husband out of the LandCruiser.

"Mommy!" shouts a daughter.

Senti brushes the grandmother's hands away from the wife's neck and sees where the bullet has torn her throat away.

The husband stands beside the vehicle, staring at his hands in puzzlement. Several fingers are missing, taken by the lion as it went after the rifle. His nose is split back from his face and lies against one cheek, held on by a flap of skin only. Mokabela is making him sit on the ground, and is trying to push his nose back into place.

Despite the sobbing and the grandmother's loud prayers, Senti can still hear the other fight. The snarling of cats and the screaming of elephants. Looking up from where his hand presses against his wife's neck, trying to stem the blood, he also sees a Jeep.

John pulls alongside, takes one look and barks at Senti, "Get the man back in the vehicle!"

"But the blood—"

"Inside," snarls John.

Senti sees there isn't much blood left anyway, though the wife is still alive. Senti helps the husband into the passenger seat next to John, who takes the wheel as Mokabela jumps in beside the wife, and they speed away.

Alone, covered in blood, Senti stands by John's Jeep, staring at the dirt with its chaotic record of hiking boots, Senti's army boots, and Mokabela's sandals punctuated by blood. He glances back across the salt pan toward the fight and see the lions have moved off but have not given up. Stepping wearily into the driver's seat, he engages the clutch. Three of the female elephants are jockeying for position, trying to raise the bull, but their tusks are too small. The other—the other elephants are agitated, charging erratically towards the lions. Senti sees that half the bull's trunk is gone, chewed off by the cats who now lie on their haunches in the shade to wait. Stopping the vehicle, Senti unclips John's .458 and steps out. Crouching, he hefts the heavy rifle to his shoulder with his arm and braces it across the hood. His body is shaking, and it's difficult to get a sight through all the frenz—frenzy. But he's patient, there on his knees, prepared to wait as long as it takes for that feeling of peace to come upon him, the calm that precedes the one right shot.

[Audience applause]

Julia Whitty: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I'd be happy to answer questions, is that—is that, yeah, if [inaudible from audience] okay, if anyone has any questions?

[prolonged pause]

You're all stunned. [Audience laughter] I've left you somewhere in Botswana. [Laughs] No quest—Yes?

Audience Member: [Did the idea for this story generate in any of your...[inaudible]]

Julia Whitty: Yes. Yeah. Yeah, I spent quite a bit of time in Botswana filming and, oh I'm sorry, did the, did the idea for this generate from documentary film travels? And the answer is yes. I, I had spent a fair amount of time in Botswana doing some filming and, I was actually inspired by these trackers that I worked with, who I realized, were in many cases were illiterate, but had this knowledge of the earth that was so phenomenally deep. It was so far beyond the realm of even, some of the white South Africans and Batswanans that I was working with who had grown up in the bush and knew an awful lot about the bush, but it was nothing compared to what these trackers knew. And I was so inspired by that. I also did encounter an elephant that was dying from a poacher gunshot wound, which troubled me deeply. And, um, bits and pieces of it I downright stole, I mean. I had heard a story about a guy who was attacked by actually a leopard in a Jeep who jumped up, took off his fingers and split his nose off his face and, being a writer, I just stole all those good details. So yes, this came directly.

Any other questions? I know you have them. Just need somebody to be brave and ask. No questions? Yes?

Audience Member: [inaudible]

Julia Whitty: Oh, how do, you can tell lions, you can age them fairly well by the size of their mane. They're still growing out their big manes, and it's a pretty good age determiner, determinant.


Audience Member: [inaudible]

Julia Whitty: So the question was, was there also a lot of research, as well as all of my own travels, and yes I'm a bit of a research junkie. I, even when I'm writing fiction I, I just love looking things up, and, basically, you know, just filling up my data banks as much as I possibly can. So I, wherever I travel, I love to get all the books to the local natural history, you know, birds, fish, mammals, trees, geology, you name it, and that's pretty much all I read when I'm on site somewhere. I just wanna learn as much as I can about a place. History, anthropology, whatever there is to read, and I bring them home with me and, when I start writing, I use them as reference.

Anybody else? Yes?

Audience Member: [inaudible]

Julia Whitty: So the question was, um, do I see myself moving into the sort of feature film business where I might take the documentary background, combine it with the writing background and... The only other place I've been asked that is in L.A. and...

[Audience laughter]

No, it, I did, on my book tour, I did, all the interviews I did in L.A., everyone said to me, "So, you're working on a screenplay right?" I was like, "No!" But, the thing is, the downside of, in L.A., screenwriters are just considered the lowest form of human life. And, I can't understand why anyone would want to join that crowd. So write, writing screenplays doesn't appeal to me at all. And also you lose, instantly lose, any and all control of a project. Even say you write a good screenplay, somebody options it, they take it off and now there's four other writers, who you don't know, working on it. There just doesn't seem to be much satisfaction in that. Feature films intrigue me because I enjoy watching them so much, but, I don't know, it's another world that whole L.A. world just... I'm from California, but I'm from northern California. [Audience laughter] Different story. So I don't, I don't know, I doubt it.

Any other questions? Yes?

Audience Member: [inaudible]

Julia Whitty: Well, the question is, any tips for, for finding focus in the writing. It's a very intuitive process, it's very had to, really describe. Certainly in fiction it's deeply intuitive, I don't know if you heard the panel I was on earlier today, but, what I find is that the first couple of paragraphs of a short story are what I work the hardest on, because in those first two paragraphs, or three, or four paragraphs, I am subconsciously arriving at what the story will be. And it takes me frequently days to work those paragraphs. After that, the story starts to unfold, so it all happens very quickly in the early going.

In nonfiction writing, of course, you know your target, more or less, from the get go, but you don't know your target in fiction, or at least I don't. I don't know where I'm going until, until I get underway. And I think that is the case with most people who write fiction, although I have heard of a few people who don't do it that way.


Audience Member: How do you know where your stories will end?

Julia Whitty: Yeah, that's the other question, is how do you know where your stories will end.

I personally don't have any trouble with endings, knock on wood. Not yet. And for me, what happens is the story begins to gather momentum, and it begans, begins to take off under its own force and at a certain point, you know, you're workin' uphill and then you crest a hill, and then you're coasting. And then you're just going downhill, you're rolling at this point, and its very clear to me always where the end is. Neither of those answers were at all helpful, I realize.

[Audience laughter]

I don't know how to answer them, thank you. Yes?

Audience Member: [inaudible]

Julia Whitty: Yeah, oh, you want me to share my depression with you? [Audience laughter] Oh my god! Well, you know, hell. Some people charge to listen to that stuff.

Well I'm just, you know, it's, it's my first novel, and it's, it's hard work, just in case anybody thought otherwise. So, I've been interrupted a lot, which is kind of, mildly annoying. I've been traveling a lot on the Coral Reef book and, so I have been gone for several extended periods, which is semi-helpful. I come back with a fresh eye. But I'm just, I don't know, other than I think I'm gonna switch gears and just go on with the Coral Reef book for a while and put the novel down and see what comes of it. But it is very difficult. It's, there's so much that you're juggling in the air, and keeping in the air, in the course of quite a long period of time. And then you have an editor who doesn't agree with you [laughs] and that's where it really gets sticky, anyway.


Audience Member: What authors do you like to read?

Julia Whitty: What authors do I like to read? I read a lot of different stuff. I read a lot of, I actually read a lot more nonfiction than I read fiction, to be truthful. And, I read, I tend to consume genres sort of obsessively. I'll get into a genre, and I'll more or less read everything ever written in that genre, and then I switch genres, you know. So, as I said in the earlier panel, I do read a lot of science. I read a lot of history. I read a lot of natural history.

The authors, the current fiction writers, the contemporary writers, I consider Cormac McCarthy absolutely brilliant. I think he is probably the best writer in American English today. I think Tim O'Brien is pretty unbelievable. I like an Australian guy named Tim Winton, who just has a new book out called Dirt Music. There's a lot of, and then there's a lot of lesser known. I'm a fan of a woman named Carolyn Cooke who has a short story collection out called The Bostons. And there, there, there's a lot. I read very different, strange stuff.


Audience Member: [inaudible]

Julia Whitty: The question is, what's my process for rewriting and polishing, and did I do any of that on these, some of which had been published elsewhere, previously.

I actually like the editing process, a lot of people don't. It's a different mindset, you know, you turn on a different brain. And I quite like that brain. It strikes me of much more of a puzzle at that point. How do you fit the pieces together, and how do you make it work, and how do you, you I'm quite happy to take off the just purely, well as we said in the earlier panel, you know, "write drunk, edit sober." I'm quite happy to sober up and start editing. And I like it. I like that it, it's closer to the nonfiction writing in my mind, where you just have that very clinical eye. And yes, I did rework these stories. Some of them I just wanted to rework, because I felt that I'd grown as a writer in the time since they had first been published, and my editor also forced quite a bit of rewriting upon me. [laughs] No, most of it was good actually, I was quite grateful to most of what she did suggest, so.

Anybody else?


Audience Member: [inaudible]

Julia Whitty: So the question was, does my background in documentary filmmaking influence the way I write a story, and I would say yes, it probably does. I think, I know that when I first started writing fiction, I was literally editing. I was making little scenes, you know, in celluloid, and, you know, I was, I was creating little scenes the way I would create them in a film, and I visualize them. Since then I've, sort of, become more fluent in the, the writing process, and I don't have to be quite that literal in translating everything. But I think I may still have a, you know, leftover, where I have a rather strong urge to describe the visual world. I think perhaps I do that a little bit. I've been told by people that I, my, my writing seems to be very visual, and I think I must perhaps still visualize an awful lot as if I'm watching a film as I'm writing. But I'm, I'm not sure.

Any other questions?

No? Well, thank you very much for listening, I appreciate it.

[Audience applause]

Thank you!

[Copyedited by Emily Mell; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts 20 June 2015]


Contact Information

Crystal Alberts

Associate Professor of English

Director, UND Writers Conference

276 Centennial Drive
110 Merrifield Hall, Stop 7209
Grand Forks, ND 58202