A Sense of Kinship with the Natural World

Mandy Young, a Cape Town psychotherapist, believes that we can gain a better understanding of out own nature and social behavior by observing animals in the wild and learning through their wisdom.

This is especially true in the case of elephants and wild dogs, which she has keenly observed and researched for many years.

Young, who regularly runs an extended weekend eco-therapy programme called the Wisdom of Elephants at the Pongola Game Reserve in Kwazulu-Natal, says she’s learnt much from elephants about mothering.

While this task – the cornerstone of both elephant and human societies – should be instinctive, many people in Westernised society do not receive enough mothering and consequently have unmet childhood needs. Often no significant attachment develops between a child and his parents because the child was robbed of emotional nurturing and the in-arms experience as a baby, she says.

In other parts of the world, fortunate people such as the Yequana tribe of South America, have – like elephants – retained the ancient wisdom of their predecessors. A child blessed to have a Yequana mother will be held in physical closeness from its birth, she says.

He will feel, sleep, wriggle and observe from the security of his mother’s side as she continues her daily pursuits. He feels the rhythm of her body, and enjoys the sights, sounds and smells of her world.

She, in turn, respects his bodily rhythms and responds to his need for sleep and food when these occur naturally, rather than at regimented times dictated by the clock.

Like the elephant calf, the child gets to know himself.

The mother-child bond initiated in the womb becomes affirmed and he grows into a well-adjusted adult, she says.

While there are not many Yequana-like tribes left to learn from, the same natural rhythms can be observed among the elephant population at Pongola Game Reserve. For example, the whole herd will stop when a calf us tired and needs time to rest.

At Pongola, a small herd of orphaned mothers that have not received good parenting themselves can also be observed, demonstrating the differences in mothering styles.

Charlie, a calf follows his mother, Charm, feeding, resting and playing as his body and developing mind dictate. Charm responds to him, but with little affection. And, with not enough protectiveness, she allows him to walk within a meter of the game vehicle. This could be fatal in an environment that is less safe for elephants.

Another orphaned mother, Constance, grieving after giving birth to a stillborn calf, has become smotheringly close to Charlie.

She shows him the physical affection his mother rarely succumbs to, but also disrupts his normal bodily rhythms. When he lies down to sleep, she nudges him awake, as she cannot bear his death-like stillness.

These orphans are still learning to be good mothers. Fortunately they have the breeding herd nearby to model their behavior on, says Young.

She adds that while she does not advocate that humans behave like wild dogs or elephants, she chooses these animals to be players that her clients are privileged to observe and experience in the eco-therapy programmes she develops.

By observing these animals they regain a reverence for life and a sense of kinship with the natural world, she says.

Weekend Argus,
November, 22, 2003
Journalist: Impti du Toit