In many ways, this is the archetypal, the original elephant. Not because of its age or the length of time that I’ve had it but because of its provenance. I know all about where this elephant comes from because I made it.
It must have been about Year 7 or 8 woodwork. I can’t recall what the task was nor why I chose to make an elephant but I can remember the laborious process of cutting out the plywood shape on a bandsaw – yes, they let us near fast-moving sharp blades – followed by hours, and hours, and hours of sanding.
I think we can all agree that the end result is a pretty fine approximation of an elephant. OK, so it’s not exactly Greek sculpture but it definitely has an Upper Palaeolithic feel to it. It’s an elephant that speaks to the essential elephant-ness of an elephant, stripped of all adornment and ostentation: Elephantidae reductio.
It seems a fairly pointless task now, taking a lump of wood and turning it into a rough facsimile of an elephant. What were we doing? What a waste of time and scarce classroom resources. Not very practical at all; wood without the work.
And yet isn’t that one of the essential luxuries of life, being able to create something unnecessary and utterly useless, and then to form an attachment around it, a bond strong enough to persist across many years, oceans and continents for no real reason other than the recollection that ‘I made this’? I wonder if Upper Palaeolithic man felt the same thing when he took a break from his endless manufacture of scrapers and blades – how utilitarian – to fashion an image of a deer or a fertility goddess. Did he feel that same attachment to his object?
Part of that attachment, of course, is an attachment to the past, a connection with the person who first created it. An affirmation of who we are now depends upon having a sense of who we were then, either as individuals or a culture as a whole. It speaks of a continuity, a consistency of identity, however fragile and illusory, that threads its way through time. I was, therefore I am; the hand-crafted object is a testament to that.
And besides, making the elephant wasn’t a total waste of time in the end. A few years later, one of the first holiday jobs I had as a teenager involved operating a bandsaw. It didn’t last long but, in purely vocational terms, I owe it all to this little wooden elephant.