The big picture: Filmmaker Geoff Luck on what we can learn from elephants

National Geographic filmmaker Geoff Luck has global experience in the natural world. He will give a TEDx talk on Friday about how working in Botswana with an elephant named Naledi became a life-changing event. Photo: Kris Denton National Geographic filmmaker Geoff Luck has global experience in the natural world. He will give a TEDx talk on Friday about how working in Botswana with an elephant named Naledi became a life-changing event. Photo: Kris Denton

In the parable of the blind men and the elephant, each man takes his hands and feels a part of the elephant—a tusk, a haunch, the trunk, perhaps even the tail. Each then reports back to the others with a conflicting impression of the animal, based on the small square footage he covered. The lesson is about how we lose by focusing on a single part of the whole, rather than opening ourselves up to the big picture.

As a National Geographic filmmaker, Geoff Luck has experienced a wide swath of the microcosms that make up our world, covering diverse continents and cultures—but he also knows a hell of a lot about elephants. As part of TEDxCharlottesville’s November 13 event, Luck will give a talk on lessons he learned during his recent experience documenting a baby elephant in Botswana.

Though Luck has worked on more than 100 programs for National Geographic, he says this project was different. “This is really the first time where I literally called back from the field to tell my wife, ‘I’m changed from this,’” says Luck.

Using Amsterdam as a home base and relocating his family there for a year, Luck headed to Botswana for weeks at a time to work in the Okavango Delta. There, he became part of a team that was producing a documentary on an orphaned baby elephant named Naledi, which means star in Setswana, the primary language spoken in Botswana. For Luck, the simple act of “being able to touch the baby elephant and have it wrap its trunk around me” was momentous.

“I’ve had the chance to get up close to and film a number of other animals, great white sharks, komodo dragons, wolves—and I’ve found them all astonishing,” Luck says. “But for whatever reason, there’s something about the otherness in elephants. It’s so radically different in every way and yet it is astonishingly the same. They look after each other and care for each other. They have empathy and can recognize human speech. It’s amazing.”

He remains in awe of the ongoing scientific discoveries related to the multifaceted intelligence that elephants exhibit, ranging from vocal communications to sign language and other behaviors that aren’t very different from our own, as humans. “I got to learn about them and get a little glimmer of insight into how complex, emotional, intelligent and humbling they are,” he says. Despite this, Luck describes African elephants as “basically political refugees, fleeing human beings,” and part of the purpose of the documentary project in Botswana was to raise awareness about the plight of elephants in terms of poaching and the impact of human expansion.

This particular project completed, Luck and his family have returned home to Charlottesville. “There are certainly times that I’ve missed Naledi. You develop emotional ties, and your connection doesn’t just go away,” Luck says.

According to Luck, Naledi will continue to be very fragile for a while, until she’s about 3 years old and more fully developed. He adds that his TEDxCharlottesville talk will use Naledi’s story as “a way to talk about how we, as a species, separate ourselves from the natural world, when that’s not the case at all.”

Just as each individual human is not so very different from each other, so too are all of the species on the planet. Luck feels that the trick is to learn to perceive the similarities rather than the differences; the big picture rather than the narrow focus.

“You want people to have appreciation for where we sit in the natural world and have a greater sense of acceptance about others that are different, whether those are other species or other human beings,” he says.

Luck is one of the 23 presenters who will each have 18 minutes onstage at TEDxCharlottesville on Friday. Each year, speakers are drawn from a pool of applications and nominations, based on their areas of expertise and presentation skills. Once selected, they have the opportunity to work with coaches including Kate Bennis, Ray Nedzel, Bree Luck, Miller Murray Susen and Chris Patrick, among others.

Presenting on the theme of “What If…,” each speaker for this year’s event was selected for his or her ability to convey a unique part of “the elephant,” as it were. These range from Charlottesville’s own Dr. Neal Kassell and his talk on focused ultrasounds, to internationally acclaimed hang drum musician Daniel Waples. Local poet and performer Bernard Hankins will also present at the event, following his win at the TEDxCharlottesville Open Mic Night in September.

What connection to the natural world has influenced you?

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