The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

A childhood dream

The Greatest Show on Earth fades, with its elephants, into history.When I was in Fifth Grade, our class trip was to see The Greatest Show on Earth – the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. I don’t recall many details of the excursion, but the fact of it obviously has stuck with me.

Many years later, one of my first dates with my now wife was to the Kelly-Miller circus in Littlestown. It was not three-ring, but it was impressive, especially the part after the show when two-year-old granddaughter got to ride an “el-da-dan” – known as an elephant to adults with more practice saying the word. Once you’ve seen a picture of one of those large gray circus animals with tails on both ends, you have pretty much seen them all.

What makes the circus special, elephant-wise, is the feeling of being in the presence of huge and powerful creatures. One minute, the circus tent is lying on the ground, flat as Wiley Coyote after miscalculating the speed of a passing Road Runner. The next, a monstrous pachyderm has pulled the structure into shape, ready to take in and wow an audience of wowable youngsters.

The logistics of teaching an animal the size of a small house to stand on one foot became insignificant. The neat part was seeing the excitement and the wonder seeded in little minds.

Over the years, some of my attitudes toward animals has changed. Elephants, for instance, have become more than mere circus performers. They are graceful, and social, and rapidly nearing extinction – the latter, unfortunately, because their ivory tusks make such wonderful carving mediums.

I once hunted deer and rabbits and caribou. I used to say hunting was a way to get into the woods, to feed the psyche; killing a way to feed the stomach. I still believe that, though these days I hunt with a camera. My psyche still needs feeding, my stomach not so much. I don’t much like trophy killing. I’ve known hunters who looked for the largest set of horns – and left the rest of the meat in the field.

There is an episode of The Twilight Zone in which an astronaut is captured by residents of a planet on which he had landed. They were friendly to him, put him up in a house with a nice living room, and led him to believe all would be friendly. Alas, when they left, he found the doors locked, and the living room was the only room. Finally, he pulled the curtain back and looked out – through bars, at a crowd of people looking at him in wonder and curiousity.

There was a time when zoos and circuses were the only way we could see creatures from exotic places. Few of us could go where they lived, and technology was such that pictures were a poor substitute. Now, with cameras that allow us to record all aspects of life, and a proliferation of TV channels to bring us the minutia, we can almost reach out and touch critters of which we previously would only have heard. The coming of 3-D makes them nearly lifelike, and it will not be long before holograms add another level of realism.

Those technologies, and technologies yet to be imagined, can and will immerse us in environments about which we previously could only read in books and glossy magazines. Imprisoning an elephant in a pen, or tying it to a stake in the ground, allows us to know of a captive creature but nothing of how it lives. Absent awareness of their culture, we are left with only the memory of creatures that once occupied a childhood dream.


  1. Lovely journey from then to now of elephants. They are beautiful and here in Milton MA, topiaries of life sized elephants and related events will be come alive in April to draw awareness to the plight of these magnificent creatures.

    • Thanks for the note, Suzette. I’d love to have one for a friend — if I lived in the savannah, where we could visit. But my notions have changed over the years. We had English setters when I was a kid. Dad kept them mostly chained to their houses, especially the female, who’d run off when she got loose. Now I want a dog to live in my house, hike in the woods — and not be on even a leash.

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