The Greatest Masterpiece on Land

Paul Barton was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1961, studied at the London Royal Academy of Arts, was an extraordinary portrait painter, and became a concert pianist. You wouldn’t think so, but something was missing from his chosen career, and he didn’t know what. He travelled to Thailand in 1996 to ponder his future and discovered the missing piece to his passion for the piano – elephants.

Barton created a recording studio in Bangkok, teaching piano, and then he heard about Elephants World, a self-supporting Environmental Conservation Organization. In 1900, Thailand was home to about 100,000 elephants. And now, there are 3,000 domestic elephants and 2,000 elephants in the wild. Thailand boasts the world’s finest teak wood, which led to the devastation of their forests, consuming 28% of its forests between 1975 and 1986. Government banned commercial logging in 1989, which helped to preserve the remaining forest, but left working elephants homeless, many of them blind from injuries sustained in the dense forests. They could not survive in the wild.

Elephants World was founded in 2008 on the banks of the River Kwai by veterinarian Dr. Samart, and his wife. The project provided homes for injured elephants. Elephants eat 1/10th of their body weight each day. That’s a lotta food. Barton approached the organization for permission to play classical piano to the pachyderms, to soothe and comfort them. Videos are available online. An important side-note – Barton’s Feurich piano has no ivory in its construction. Elephants are still being poached for their ivory.

I read a critical account of Barton that said the elephants were abused for Barton to play for them in this prank to raise money. I could find no other reports supporting this claim of abuse. The project did start out as a fund-raiser, but Barton was surprised how the elephants responded so he continued his playing. A Feurich piano tuner is regularly sent into the hills to tune Barton’s piano for him. Thirty elephants call the Sanctuary home with a staff of 130 caring for them.

And then there’s Pang Pha, a middle-aged Asian elephant living in the Berlin Zoo since she was a baby in 1987. Pha likes bananas. Caretakers peel and feed bananas to Pha. Over the years, the elephant decided she could peel her own bananas and that’s just what she did. No one taught her; she learned from observation. But … Pha does not peel her bananas when she has competition at the supper table. She may not want to be mocked by the other elephants for adopting a human’s habit or more likely, eating quickly is the better option when others are sharing your food. I’m the same way with French fries.

Pang Pha prefers the green and not quite ripe bananas, and like me, has a definite disdain for the ripe ones. She will eat the green bananas in one swallow, not bothering with the business of peeling, which I tend not to do, and she peels the yellow bananas. When she is offered a ripe brown banana, she returns it to her caretaker. If offered the same banana again, she pitches it, to drive home her point that she is not a fan of discoloured squishy bananas. What she doesn’t do is put the ripe bananas in the freezer and tell herself that one day she will make banana muffins with them. She’s much too wise for that nonsense.

Many accounts are written about the wisdom that elephants possess – their memory, their respect for one another, the herd moving at the pace of the slowest member. They are the largest of the land animals, the greatest masterpiece on land, making pathways through the dense forest that allows other animals passage. They help plant trees by the vast area they cover. Elephant family bonds are very strong, the females staying within their family group their whole lives. The males remain only until they are teen-agers and then they form bachelor herds and continue to mature. The whole family helps to raise the young elephants. Elephants grieve and have been observed when a young calf died – the elephants circled, covered the body with leaves and grass and dirt, stroked the mother elephant with their trunks while she swayed back and forth. They communicate using infrasound that carries many miles. When an elephant is distressed, the family touches her with their trunks to calm her. They choose their leaders based on wisdom and problem-solving skills, not aggression. Wise indeed. We could learn from elephants. Maybe if I threw open my windows and doors and sat to play my piano an elephant would appear. Maybe not. I’ve not seen a single elephant in any of my walks. That’s a shame.