How To Eat An Elephant

In December of 1980 I began working at Bank of Dooly. Not long afterward the bank sponsored four of us to take a Dale Carnegie course in Cordele. What we learned about remembering names is gone, but a few memories survived. One of my favorites is a quote, which was probably already well known yet was new to me. 

My recollection of Ray Clemons’ brief talk is limited to his opening line. He said, “I’ve always heard the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.”

Desmond Tutu, the late Anglican bishop from South Africa, has been credited with a similar version of that thought. Some references say it’s an ancient African proverb. Regardless of its origin, Bishop Tutu’s global prominence surely expanded the audience, perhaps all the way to the Clemons Farm near Unadilla.

After taking some time off due to family health matters, I resumed working in the woods in late summer, mostly clipping vines and knocking down inland sea oats. And I began mulling over Ray’s advice, sometimes reciting it to Harriet, my canine assistant.

Like many jobs, the hardest part of this one was getting started. I had gotten out of the routine, then began finding reasons to stall. Snakes and ticks were the top deterrents, but unwanted oats began double-dog daring me to to take a swing with a sling.   

Wild oats would have been a minor problem if contained when they first appeared. These, however, had roamed freely for years. Each stalk produces dozens of seeds which adeptly ride the slightest breeze or float atop rivulets of rainwater. Their territory had been expanding without disruption. 

I cringed at the thought of not seeing where I was putting my feet. The oats, however, were a growing problem, plus Harriet, a once homeless blue heeler, loves having company. So I sprayed for ticks, prayed for safety, watched for snakes, and began weedeating. 

Seeds were already on the stalk when I renewed my efforts, and were probably mature enough to survive the thrashing. I won’t know for sure until next spring. Either way, my plans are to get an early start whacking and spraying before they produce another crop.

Unwanted vines have been another recent focus. There are climbing briars and several I can’t identify. The most prolific, however, are bullis vines. I have no idea how many I’ve cut, but it’s in the hundreds and the party is not over.

Some are small enough for garden shears. Others can be clipped with a lopper and some leverage. For the biggest ones a chainsaw works best. I’ve cut a few large vines by hand with a pruning saw, but nixed that strategy due to concern the blade might overheat. 

The largest bullis vine I’ve sawed through measured eight inches in diameter. That may not be a world record, but it’s bigger than anything I’ve seen in the wild. Quite notably, it had required no special attention to flourish and entangle several trees. All it needed was to be ignored.

Last year, I cut dozens of the bullis vines back to the base. My hope was they would produce fruit on that new growth rather than high and out of reach. What I’ve learned, however, is offshoots continue to relentlessly spread, often on the ground and hidden under fallen leaves.

Trees are enjoying relief from the clinging vines that have been clipped, but eradication will require more than severe prunings. The root of the problem must be addressed. 

While trying to eliminate the bullis vines and wild oats, I’ve been pondering Ray’s comment from long ago. I’ve gained a greater appreciation for its humorous and profound message, but what strikes me as more significant is the wisdom of that approach in facing life’s challenges.

There’s an endless list of situations which can be overwhelming. It might be health issues, family matters, strained finances, or divisive politics to name a few. It can be an ominous feeling we can’t explain because we don’t fully understand it. Sometimes even the Christmas season is accompanied by feelings of anxiety which temper our joy.

Everyone’s circumstances are unique. Some have a clear path forward while others face difficulties that almost defy solutions. Whether it’s manual labor, like clearing vines and oats, or overwhelming  problems which seem impossible to resolve, Ray shared a solid idea. 

Harriet and I have found Ray’s advice helpful, so maybe someone else will too. It doesn’t matter how big the elephant is. “The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.”       

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6 Responses to How To Eat An Elephant

  1. vernon twitty says:

    Yes sir, the hardest step we make in any endeavor is that first one. After you get started the next plenty of steps are a lot easier!!


  2. Ellen Hunsucker says:

    Great advice for a procrastinator like me!


  3. Judy says:

    Thanks for the advice! Sometimes the elephant seems to get bigger with every bite, but I’m working on it.


  4. Curtis Greer says:

    Yes, this is the one that was in last week’s HHJ, but it’s  still true. p&B


  5. Fran says:

    Good advice, Neil. Happy New Year to you and your family!


  6. edbroadaway says:

    Neil, if I ever needed that little bit of advise, I needed it now. Bettie is still in a rehab facility and it’s not looking so great as of now. She has to improve to be able to come home…or… we may have to search out a nursing home. Of course my desire and hers is to come home. My one at a time little bites has sometimes overwhelmed me at times but will now try to “Eat an elephant”!! Hope you and your family had a great Christmas. I was able to bring Bettie home for Christmas Day and all the family was here. Kinda’ emotional to take her back at the end of day but she seemed to enjoy it.

    Always heard that the Lord wouldn’t give us more than we can handle but sometimes I feel that I’m being tested. But, will just hang in there and keep the faith. Hope y’all are well and again, great musing… Thanks.



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