Panom and the Blue Sapphire
Recently I drove over to Pai, a small town less than two hours from the western border between Thailand and Myanmar, to visit again a small elephant camp where once lived Panom, featured in my 2007 documentary, “Panom, a Story of Elephants and Humans.” Over the years I’d occasionally drive across the mountains and check in with Panom to see how she was doing. When I first met her, she was forty years of age and had worked most of her life in the forest industry with her owner. Unfortunately, in 2014, Panom slipped on the side of a steep hill and died from the fall. The beginning of 2019 seemed a good time to re-visit the place where she and I first met.
There are two elephants left in the camp. As always, at day’s end, the mahouts lead them up into the low hills, tethering the giant creatures on long chains so they can forage for most of the evening, but not stray too far. Elephants only sleep a few hours each evening, eating almost constantly, always abundantly curious about what lies over the next hill.
I’d had dinner and retired early in my small bungalow on the edge of the camp, only a few feet from the path the elephants take on their way up each evening and back again in early morning. As is my custom in these days of beloved senescence, I retired early, reading myself to sleep. In the early hours of the morning, however, I bolted upright as if prodded by some presence moving out in the still rich darkness. I rubbed my eyes, read a bit more, then tried to reclaim my dreaming state. Impossible. I was too restless. I rose, dressed, and went out to the porch and stared up into the hills, thinking about the elephants. Were they sleeping? Were they dreaming about a different life they might have lived, as we so often do, or where they settled into their present reality, shackled and roaming about on thirty-meter chains, twisting and pulling bunches of grass from the earth, stoking their voracious appetites?
Suddenly I felt an urge to walk up the trail; I’d hiked up before with the mahouts in previous years, always moving just in front of Panom as she plodded up the path, slow and surefooted. It wasn’t a lengthy hike—less than a kilometer up. Why not go, I thought. I dressed, slipped on my shoes, grabbed a small pack, and headed up the mountain. It was dark, but there was enough light to get a sense of the turns in the trail. After thirty minutes or so, the narrow footpath opened to a grassy meadow in which car-sized boulders lay scattered here and there with a few scraggly teak trees growing between them. The sun was at least an hour from rising; a pale moon floated between a few scattered clouds, casting an ethereal spell across the valley.
I looked for the two elephants; I didn’t see them. All I could discern in this pale light were those dark stones rising from the ground. Then, to my left and about twenty yards away, I saw one of the elephants move. And to the right of her, the smaller elephant began ambling up from a prone position, perhaps having heard my arrival. I dared not get too close without their mahouts being present, so I sat on a large, flat stone at a safe distance trying to observe without alarming them. Of course, with their remarkable sense of smell and hearing, they knew I was on my way the minute I left the bungalow.
Beyond the two grazing elephants in the grassy meadow, the valley spread out toward Mae Hong Son. Far off, I could hear the crowing of roosters and temple bells from Wat Phra That Mae Yen rousing the monks and farmers. Suddenly I heard a soft crunching of sand and stone behind me; perhaps one of the mahouts had arrived early. I turned to look; no one was there. Then I saw, between me and the breathing night, a slight movement as if one of the boulders had wakened from a deep sleep. It seemed to be moving toward me, imperceptibly slow and dreamlike. Finally, silhouetted against the blue-black starlit sky, a third elephant turned its head. I could hear the sound of its ears quietly slapping against its shoulders, a few exhalations from its undulating trunk.
“Why have you come?” I heard a voice from somewhere. Or did I?
I quickly looked left and right then behind me, waiting for the human to appear from beyond the boulders. No one.
“Where have you been?” asked the voice that wasn’t really a voice. Or was it?
“Who are you?” I asked, expecting a human to stroll into view.
“You know me,” answered a whisper like a gentle wind floating up from the valley.
“Panom?” I asked. “Is that you?” Then I immediately slapped my arms and laughed. “OK. I’ve got it. This is a dream. That’s all.”
“Maybe. Maybe not,” said the elephant. “Does it matter?”
“No, I guess not. No.”
“So why are you here?” she asked again.
The elephant remained indiscernible in the darkness, but I looked up toward and into where I imagined her inquisitive eyes must be. Because I might or might not be dreaming, or that Panom might or might not be real—that none of this is—I thought about my reasons for being there, wondering perhaps if I mostly wanted to share my concern for her family of elephants, and, I suppose, by extension, all living things, especially humans; not, mind you, because we’re the apex of importance. We aren’t at all. What we seem to be is the catalyst for so much distress about almost everything. But I didn’t.
“I wanted to say goodbye,” was the only answer I could offer.
Panom came a little closer. With her trunk, she blew an ant-sized cyclone of dust across my feet. “Why say goodbye to someone who hasn’t gone anywhere?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, “I was told you’d had a terrible fall, that you had died.”
The great elephant’s head tilted to the left, then to the right; nothing came but silence. She didn’t answer my question. Or did she?
Panom slowly turned and walked back across the meadow, disappearing over the horizon.
E N N E A D
The newest series of galenographs is entitled ‘Enneads,’ a word that broadly denotes a group of nine; in this case, ‘Ennead’ is the title of nine recent images I’ve just finished, satisfying those endlessly unavoidable creative urges while I tediously plod away preparing my new studio for larger painting yet to take shape.
Since ancient times, the number nine has long been considered a sacred number, magical, and mysterious. I spent a little more than nine months in my mother’s womb, I went to school nine months out of each year, my cat has nine lives, etc. etc. etc. None of this entered into my thinking as I started the series. I’m not exactly sure what might have been the catalyst for ‘Ennead’ as the images began to tumble out. Each image lives in a square dimension composed of nine equal squares. I like that. Is there another odd number between 1 and 9 that can do so?
Nine Clues Rising into the Sky, galenograph 2019 for Josh Gilmore
Ennead is a signed limited edition of nine galenographs. To see the entire series…
The E N N E A D Stories
While it’s true that the ‘Ennead’ images came to me in a subconscious state, once they’re developed, once they have a voice, as it were, they call out to me in various ways. Sometimes it’s the implicit imagery, sometimes it’s an associative memory or an event that holds the stone, as in, for example, the image…
This particular image is dedicated to friend and poet, Peter Weltner. Whenever I visit him at his home near the beaches in San Francisco, I love to go with him on his walks down the beach, a ritual of exercise and meditation he does at least once daily. On my 2015 visit, as usual, the morning fog was thick, and everything in our vision was enshrouded in mystery. I tried to imagine Peter’s imagining, and how the sea surely must always speak to him, instilling its belief in him, in what he does. In the galenograph, Peter’s mind and the disciplined voice of the poet are represented in the nine blue squares, juxtaposed to the amorphic symphony of the ocean with its lights and darks dancing in infinite possibilities.
Portrait of the poet shaping a line in a poem about two men disappearing and a blackbird left to ponder what is and what is not. San Francisco, 2015
More stories will come soon in various threads of social media…
Many good wishes to everyone on this Valentine’s Day, and, yes, even though its earliest history is a bit dark , I offer it in its most contemporary unfolding with hope that love will bloom us into the light.