Because my blog posts have morphed into some strange hybrid of diary entry and book review, I wanted a model of a classic essay to see just how far off the beaten path of the modern essay I’ve veered. I selected “Shooting An Elephant,” by George Orwell as my example. It was written in 1936, so it seemed classic.
I barely made it though the shooting of an elephant part.
There are things to be said about that essay, building up to the shooting, tragedy of experience, and the truth of the event. Not all writers can make themselves go to the dark places they’d rather forget—or ignore.
“It gave me a better glimpse than I had before of the real nature of imperialism—the real motives for which despotic governments act.”
As I read the essay, I thought of all the elephant facts I knew: elephants bury their dead and have graveyards, elephants greet each other, elephants have matriarchs, elephants communicate via feet. Via feet? Wait. Had I remembered that correctly?
It’s not a far-fetched concept. My chair, desk, and entire house have vibrated around me for the last month while workers repave the road in front of my house. Sitting at my desk today is akin to using one of those feet massage machines at Brookfield Zoo. Only difference is I don’t have to pay a dollar for the experience. Husband pays several thousand dollars in taxes over the next ten years. Point being, I know what’s happening without hearing or seeing it.
After a trip to the library, I found out that, yes indeed, elephants do communicate via vibrations in the ground. It’s called seismic communication. Caitlin O’Connell was the first scientist to document and test this phenomenon in elephants. And <<bonus>> she wrote a book about it: The Elephant’s Secret Sense, The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa.
CO first studied bugs. Hawaiian planthoppers to be exact. The subtle difference between vibrations detected by a planthopper on a leaf and vibrations detected by me at the desk is that the large machinery in front of my house does not intend to mate with me. At least I hope not.
Some seventy years after GO’s essay, those pesky elephants were still up to their crop-raiding-civilization-destroying antics. After her bug work, CO was hired to study the behavior of elephants with the hope of using research to help farmers deter them. She noticed some of the same behaviors of the planthoppers in elephants and set up experiments to prove her theory.
What were the odds that CO would have the opportunity to study both planthoppers and elephants and have the ability to recognize similar patterns between the two? While that is a riveting question, I will have to leave it to a statistician, as it is not the focus of this essay. And according to CO’s book:
“My challenge as a scientist wasn’t that there weren’t enough interesting questions to ask but that I would have to remain focused on the first question and find the answer while being open to the next question presenting itself.”
My original question: how far have I veered from the modern essay?
Next question: is there an example of an essay that answers this question?
Next question: what does imperialism have to do with a dead elephant?
Next question: can elephants communicate with their feet?
Next question: what will I have for lunch?
Next question: what do bugs have to do with elephants?
Next question: what do elephant’s feet have to do with imperialism?
Next question: why would anyone want to be a statistician?
Next question: how far have I veered from my original question?
Next question: can I apply reading about elephants to essay writing in general?
The modern and classic essays are both forms of communication that take one small experience and apply it to a larger concept. Except in a modern essay I can get away with stating I had an ice cream cone and a cup of tea for lunch if readers understand how much I have veered without explicitly stating it.