Elephant Kingdom

61ZtFbpwmHL._SY445_This book was a secret escape into another world, reminding me of the pleasures of childhood reading. It opened up a fascinating realm of nature and animals. I found a battered, spine-broken, worm-eaten edition that had passed through the Penang Library in 1959. It’s a two-track story: first, it’s the story of the Indian working elephant – jungle royalty. Second, it’s  a record of a young Englishman’s life, who has been thrown into the job of a “teak wallah” for seven years in the mountainous areas around Chiang Mai in the early 1950s.

Essentially, he’s a clueless but eager, hardy soul who takes over the responsibility of managing a crew of clever and sometimes exasperating Thais and savvy hill tribe workers charged with cutting and hauling out of the deepest jungles of  Northern Siam (now known as Thailand) timber that was prized for its strength and beauty. “These elephants possess the virtues of a crawler tractor, crane, bulldozer and tug combined in one package and are endowed with a high degree of intelligence,” wrote H.N. Marshall. In the 1950s, the area around Chiang Mai was still wild and dangerous, especially when sending the cut timber down the small streams into the Mae Ping River where the logs slowly worked their way downriver to the larger Chao Phraya, eventually arriving in Bangkok as long as four or five years later. Huge logjams blocked the river trip along the way, which had to be “un-jammed” by man or elephants in the most dangerous situations imaginable.

Opium crazed workers, pythons in the rafters, hunting game for fresh meat, the lore of  treating sick elephants, the devotion of their mahout, berserk elephants on rampages defending their turf, night-stalking tigers, outlaws and bandits, marauding mosquitoes, flies, ants, termites, spiders and centipedes. It was a life and work few people could do. But he found the satisfaction that comes from doing work unimaginably hard, work one thought themselves incapable of doing.

Marshall wrote, in a goodbye tribute, in that effusive English language of  his day: “On forested hills, in steamy valleys and swampy lowlands, in extremes of heat, wet and cold, and at all times of day and night, I had come to know the Indian elephants for what they are:  the unquestioned Kings and Queens of the jungle.” The daily life he unfolds is warmer, simpler, richer and supremely demanding,  a life few people could endure and which he must have carried like a dream through his routine life when he returned home to the easy comforts of England.

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