"He lay on his back as the first mtu appeared in the sky, sparkling shyly. The war was coming just like the mtu came, barely sparkling at first and then glowing stronger and stronger. And then as darkness came, all you could see were the mtu. He listened to the leaves in the jungle rustling with the wind. He loved the sound suddenly. He loved the wind on his face. He loved lying on the ground quietly. Tomas, Y'Siu, and Y'Tin liked to lie on the ground near the elephants because it felt risky but also comforting. The elephants could step on them -- but they wouldn't. That was elephants for you."
Over the past month, I've been working on a research project requiring the retrieval of vast quantities of information -- bibliographic; biographic; educational philosophy and state standards-related stuff; cultural trivia; song lyrics; and more. I am totally in my glory because being knowledgeable of, comfortable with, and practiced at tapping into the vast array of Internet and online database tools,and online word processing tools, available in the twenty-first century means being able to achieve in a few moments what a dozen years ago would have required months of time and travel and reading. Much of what I'm accomplishing in a just few keystrokes simply would not have been possible to accomplish in the past. It gives me such a rush -- on a daily basis -- to be able to ride the waves of these radical, world-changing, technological advances.
I took a bus trip in to Manhattan the other day. Much of the route we traveled consisted of six-, eight-, and ten- lane highways that did not exist in any form when I was a young child here on Long Island in the early Sixties. Back then, I grew up flying kites in cow pastures that turned to housing developments almost two generations ago. It is this sort of progress that I have to accept as being the way of our world. I mean, the population boom that instigated those roads and the millions of new homes that have been built on Long Island and everywhere else in my lifetime are the result of you and I -- along with billions of other people -- being born worldwide.
"We have met the enemy and he is us." -- Pogo
The downside of the manner in which the world has radically evolved over the course of my lifetime is that the very ability of the planet to support life is now being threatened. While the true degree and growth of that threat may be open to debate, there is no question that the world's largest and most glorious mammals have been on the firing line, relentlessly falling victim to the insatiable global pressures of human population growth and the related agricultural development and resource exploitation.
And so it is, that upon reading A MILLION SHADES OF GRAY, a hauntingly brutal piece of historical fiction set in Vietnam in the mid-Seventies, it is not only the slaughter of hundreds of mountain tribal people that leaves me aching. It is, even more so, the unknown fate of the three elephants that we come to know so intimately -- along with their three young keepers -- that has me sitting here wondering what else I could/should be doing to belatedly help mitigate the damage, if it is not already far too late.
You tell me what kind of half-assed, second-rate planet this will be when elephants and rhinoceroses, whales and polar bears, lions and snow leopards, have all gone the way of the dinosaurs?
When we first meet him, Y'Tin is eleven, hoping to become the youngest elephant trainer that his isolated mountain tribe has ever had. It is 1973 and his people do not yet know it, but the Americans are on the verge of signing the Paris Accords and leaving. This is a problem for the tribe because Y'Tin's father is among a number of men there to have repeatedly undertaken military-related missions for the Americans. In the long run, once the Americans are gone and the North inexorably moves south, there will be a deadly price to pay. After the opening chapters, the story moves to 1975, when that price is on the verge of being exacted and Y'Ting has achieved his dream.
Y'Tin ends up moving back and forth between bearing witness to and barely escaping the atrocities that come to pass, and being on the run in the jungle with the other two boys while training and caring for Lady, the elephant out of the domesticated trio with whom he has been entrusted.
I am happy that the story ends with boy and the elephant both still alive. But that is of small comfort as I search sites for information on Asian elephants. Some estimate that in 1900 there were more than a million Asian elephants in the wild. That number is now down below 40,000, including a few dozen left in the wild in Vietnam.
"Y'Tin ran right toward Lady. When Lady spotted him, she trotted over, picked him up with her trunk, threw him to the ground, and bonked him on the head. Then her trunk swayed back and forth the way it did when she was happy."
A MILLION SHADES OF GRAY is an important tale in its telling the little-known story of the Montagnard tribal people amidst the Vietnam War (which, there, was called the American War). But what will stay with me is the story of the boy who is justifiably filled with pride and joy for his having the uncanny ability to communicate with and to be as one with such a beautiful and powerful creature, without the need for employing force or punishment.