THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN ARE THESE: Freedom, Justice, Dignity

THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN ARE THESE: Freedom, Justice, Dignity

Dr. Lorin Swinehart

elephants 2021


“Man is destroying the forests, poisoning the oceans, poisoning the very air we breathe. The oceans, the forests, the races of animals and mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven at its roots, and the tree will wither and die. The stars will go out, and heaven will be destroyed.”

These words spoken by the elderly naturalist Peer Qvist in French author Romain Gary’s 1956 novel The Roots of Heaven are more frighteningly relevant today than when uttered.   

The Roots of Heaven is an aging volume, now gathering dust on the back shelves of public libraries or perhaps moldering away in long forgotten cardboard boxes in attics or basements. Its characters should resonate with anyone today who is concerned with the destruction by poachers and others of the last wild African elephants, with the abuse and slaughter of all endangered and threatened species of wildlife.  The story, a parable for our time, deserves to be rescued from its current obscurity.

Romain Gary led a checkered life as author, soldier, diplomat, adventurer. He served as a pilot with the Free French during World War II and was either shot down or crashed on more than one occasion. He was a prolific writer, but Roots of Heaven is perhaps his most enduring work, his masterpiece. His works do not provide happy endings but reflect less desirable realities.  It may be that all stories in the real-world end in loss and sorrow. Perhaps there are no truly happy endings.

The protagonist of Gary’s story is Morel, a former dentist who survives a lengthy incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp, partly by imagining herds of wild elephants trudging freely across the African veldt. To Morel, elephants symbolize freedom, and freedom must be defended. His first act upon being released from the Stalag is to free all the dogs from a dog pound and then to burn the establishment to the ground. Afterward, he sets out for Africa. Morel says that man is a lonely creature, that he needs animals as companions. Dogs and cats are insufficient. Man needs larger animal friends, like elephants.

For some time, Morel lives a hermit-like life among a herd of wild elephants, causing the collection of European expatriates and outcasts, most of them wallowing in nihilism and despair, who inhabit the bar inside a night club in nearby Fort Lamy to suspect him of misanthropy, terrorism, even being in league with Communists and terrorist groups like the dread Mau Mau, who were causing an uproar in Kenya at the time. In contradiction to all these misunderstandings, his activities seem innocent, even naive, as he goes about toting a brief case and urging people to sign a petition banning elephant hunting. Finding his simple idealism rejected, even scoffed at, he decides upon a more drastic course of action, a sort of non-lethal terrorism, and begins actively defending the peaceful herds from their human tormentors.  

Leading a band of what we might call monkey wrenchers today, composed of societal rejects, misfits, opportunists and fervid idealists like himself, Morel begins to do serious battle with those who prey upon Africa’s defenseless pachyderms. Apparently a crack shot, he knee-caps one hunter as he is about to shoot an elephant. When he spots another about to execute an agonized mother as she attempts to rescue her trapped infant who is headed to a life in a zoo, Morel, sends a high powered rifle round into the man’s posterior, causing him to repent of his earlier sins against creation and express sympathy for his attacker’s views.

To Morel, elephants stand as living contradictions to the communal, industrial, mechanistic society that is wreaking havoc across the natural world. He openly reiterates that elephants are the only thing he cares about, that he has no other agenda, political or otherwise. Others attempt to co-opt his simple, honest quest to their own agendas, African nationalism, for instance. At first, only a handful can even begin to grasp the purity of his motives.

There is a hint of something almost Christ-like about the role Morel plays. He wears a Cross of Lorraine pin, attesting to his role during the Resistance. It is, after all, a Cross. He defends creatures that are without sin, who cannot possibly deserve the treatment they too often receive from humans. All the while, white men perceive elephants as mere sources of ivory, and local Africans see them only as walking chunks of bloody red meat.

There is even a Mary Magdalene among Morel’s entourage, a beautiful German woman named Minna, a singer, stripper and sometimes prostitute who has been repeatedly raped by members of one wave of conquerers after another. Minna’s love for Morel becomes starkly evident as the story progresses. There is a sort of Judas, a young man named Youssef who has been inserted into Morel’s small group with orders to assassinate him rather than ever let him be captured and be discovered not to be a symbol of African independence.

A Jesuit priest modeled after Father Teilhard de Chardin, accuses Morel of elevating elephants over the needs of the African people, a tired and trite but all too common view among those who refuse to recognize the essential role played by every creature in the food chain, the chain of life on earth itself.

Morel’s activities become too effective to ignore as he roams the bush, firing well placed rounds into the most vulnerable body parts of elephant hunters. Tensions heighten when his group sentences and subjects one notorious female elephant killer to a public flogging. His activities include burning down the houses and shops of elephant hunters and those who profit from their bloody activities. At the same time, his quest gains him a global following, composed of those across the world who are in sympathy with his love of nature and passion to protect it.

British naturalist Sir David Attenborough’s latest publication, A Life on Our Planet, offers some hope for the future of biodiversity on our island home. He notes that nature possesses great power to heal itself and offers as an example the present-day Ukrainian town of Pripyat, devoid of human presence ever since the April,1986 explosion of the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant. No human has dwelled there since. However, Attenborough points out, other species have come to call the place home; foxes, elk, deer, bison, bears, even wolves. The area is now a wildlife preserve.

While there is no excuse for rosy colored optimism, and Attenborough pulls no punches in delineating the global environmental catastrophe facing the next generation, he posits that humans can take a hand in preserving and restoring the natural environment and points to the increase in the population of mountain gorillas and the international ban on whaling as examples. It is heartening that some Native American nations, along with state and federal departments of natural resources and such organizations as the World Wildlife Fund are successfully reintroducing the once nearly extinct North American bison back into its original home on the prairies. Gary argues, through his character Morel, that man is powerful enough to protect the natural world, including elephants.

The question looms as to whether wild elephants, pangolins, orangutans, rhinos, tigers, snow leopards, the Florida panther, the polar bear and gray wolf will remain with us long enough for future restoration efforts to succeed. Will the last elephant die a lonely death in a zoo or, product of a taxidermist’s art, gather dust in a museum alongside other species, like the passenger pigeon, doomed to extinction by human cruelty, rapacity and shortsightedness.

A closely related question concerns whether or not there is hope for imperfect mankind. Most of the expats in the story stand by word, thought and deed as living epitomes of opposing ideologies, calling to mind the clashes between archangels and demons at the dawn of time, as the first bipeds descended from the sanctity their treetop aeries and began to roam across the African savannah. The palliative offered by some of Gary’s characters that the solution lies in altering human consciousness by means of substances cooked up in soulless scientific laboratories is not reassuring. Such arguments have been made by Aldous Huxley, Arthur Koestler and others. The Chardin character argues that a new, more ethical and kinder form of humanity may evolve naturally, ascending from its reptilian origins and becoming at last fully human.  Currently, there appears even less evidence of such happy progress than when Gary penned his book.

Among the many who express concern over the gory fate of the remaining wild elephants, there are few who, while labelling the conflict with poachers a war, actually treat it as such. At the present, though, there is an authentic mirror image of Morel, a former Israeli commando named Nir Kalron who trains and leads African rangers in their never ending battle against poachers. His story is highlighted in the June, 2016 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. At the time of the report, Kalron’s group MAISHA was conducting anti-poaching actions in the Central African Republic, and he has since expanded the scope of his activities to include other African nations. While Kalron has his critics, they seem to mostly be wide of the mark, repeating tired platitudes while arguing that anti-poaching efforts need to address underlying economic and societal factors. Kalron brushes these criticisms aside. He knows how to deal successfully with gangs of murderous poachers, including terrorist groups like Boka Haram who use illegal ivory sales to finance their violent misogynistic agendas. While drying up the Far Eastern markets for elephant ivory and rhino horn is a necessary goal, rangers on the ground must take on a more active day to day role, relying upon paramilitary techniques to defeat poachers. Perhaps the spirit of Morel lives on in the persons of Kalron and his devoted anti-poaching rangers.

Amidst a severe drought while a herd of elephants congregates around the only available source of water, Morel and his group are ambushed and captured. Led by Watairi, an African nationalist preaching continental independence with himself as the master of a huge new empire. Rather than a liberator like Simon Bolivar, Watairi more closely resembles the stone-cold psychopathy of a Joseph Stalin, a liberator who will enslave his followers.  Hundreds of elephants are slaughtered in cold blood. The goal of the massacre is to use elephant ivory to purchase weapons for the coming war of liberation. Watairi argues that elephants and other African fauna are unnecessary baggage that enable Europeans and other outsiders to regard the continent as a vast zoo, while neglecting the human inhabitants’ just craving for freedom. In his jaundiced view, the unfortunate creatures constitute barriers to modernization and progress, and they all must be eliminated. Like a Pol Pot wannabe, he comes to regard even his fellow Africans as barriers to efficiency and progress. Joe Stalin would be smiling in his grave.

After Youssef refuses to complete his assignment, allowing Morel to live, Gary hints that the protagonist continues to live among his beloved pachyderms and to battle for their survival. Perhaps he will return someday. Perhaps he has in the person of Kalron.

Currently, there are only an estimated 450,000 wild elephants remaining, out of the millions who once wandered peacefully across the African vastness. They face multiple threats, not only from trophy hunters and poachers but from habitat destruction. Presently, ReconAfrica, a Canadian gas and oil company proposes a vast petroleum drilling project across elephant habitat in Namibia and Botswana. A short time ago, hundreds of elephants died mysteriously in southern Africa, probably because of algae contamination in their nearby water source.

Given that John Huston was disappointed in the film he directed based upon Gary’s novel and featuring such luminaries of the silver screen of yesteryear as Errol Flynn, perhaps the story of Morel could be retold with a prominent environmental activist such as Leonardo DiCaprio in the starring role.

For those of us who feel there is little we can do to address the cruelties of the wildlife trade, we can at least refuse to purchase products composed of parts of elephants and other majestic creatures, such as tigers and rhinos.  And we might consider supporting the World Wildlife Fund or the Wildlife Conservation Society who fight the good fight globally.

Morel’s attackers accuse him of arrogance in his belief that humans can protect nature. In our time and place, it is criminally irresponsible and self-destructive to believe otherwise. It is up to us to save our fellow creatures and, in the process, to save ourselves. Humans are the problem, and humans must decide whether to be good husbandmen of the earth, protectors of the creation, or to behave more like a malignancy devouring its host organism and at the same time extinguishing itself. Will we be complicit in a manmade Gotterdammerung at the end of time, when the stars go out and heaven dies, or will we follow the example provided by Romain Gary’s character Morel and that of the real life Nir Kalron.


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