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Ashes and Snow ... a Multi-Media Art Exhibition by

Gregory Colbert

A dear friend in Connecticut had emailed me the picture. The email's subject line: "Ashes and Snow." The body of her email contained one word from her: "Go!" The email comprised her one word, the picture, and the link,

The picture she sent is the one pictured above, used here with written permission: a sepia photograph of a monk-like child of exquisite peace, kneeling in a very large barren field, holding an open book, eyes closed. A scant few feet away and facing the boy, was an elephant, radiating love, compassion and peace, kneeling, eyes open.

Silence. Delicacy. Balance. Precision. Magnificence. Magic. Harmony. Love.

I was mesmerized.

Following the link, I found even more pictures to further mesmerize and captivate me.
Ashes and Snow, the web-site announced. Pier 54 at 13th Street in NYC.

I had to go.

Three hours, a car ride, a long bus ride, a taxi cab ride and a walk later, I was there.

"Ain't nothing where you're going," the cab driver gruffed. "It's only the NY Department of Sanitation down there. You don't want to be going down there, lady."

"Yes. Thank you. Please take me to Pier 54 at West 13th Street."

"Can't get there, Lady. Ain't no drop-off. I'll be having to drop you off south of the Sanitation building. You're on your own then. You're making a mistake. Ain't nothing there except the Sanitation Department."

"Yes. That's fine. Please take me to Pier 54 at West 13th Street. Drop me off wherever you feel you need to. I'm going to see this." I showed him the print-out of the photograph my friend had emailed me.

North of the NY Sanitation Department's buildings, on Pier 54, stretched across the ancient-looking wrought iron gates in front of the pier, waved a huge banner with the same picture I had received in an email from my Connecticut friend: the boy-monk and the elephant, both kneeling, facing each other, in infinite peace and exquisite connection.

"Lady, this must have just been put here. Ain't been nothing here for quite a while."

"Yes. Thank you."

A pleasant staffer at a very humble wooden admissions booth took my twelve dollars. I turned to enter the building, not a building really in any considered sense of the word. Parts of large freight shipping containers arranged carefully and geometrically in checkerboard formation invited the feeling that this was a shipping dock. Which it was, Pier 54 in NYC. Except the unusual construction is The Nomadic Museum, a fully sustainable building created ecologically to house the art installation of the most amazing multi-faceted exhibit I've seen in all 23 countries I've been in throughout the many decades of my life. The building and the art travel together. The building IS approximately 150 containerized shipping cartons, some of which house the exhibit when it travels and some of which are rented when the exhibit gets to its dock location.

Ashes and Snow, it was called simply. A photographic exhibit. A multi-media presentation. An art installation. A book of 365 letters.

As I turned to enter the building, I suddenly found myself in pitch darkness. I simply could not see. I heard and smelled water lapping below me.

"Like the void," I found myself thinking. "This is how we started, from the void, with the light of consciousness creating life through water."

Soon I recognized the feel of wooden planks below my feet. I saw a glimmer of light and moved towards it.

As I moved towards the light, I heard:

"In the beginning of time, the skies were filled with flying elephants.
Too heavy for their wings, they sometimes crashed through the trees and
frightened other animals.

All the flying grey elephants migrated to the source of the Ganges.
They agreed to renounce their wings and settle on the earth.
When they molted, millions of wings fell to the earth, the snow covered
them, and the Himalayas were born.

The blue elephants landed in the sea and their wings became fins.
They are whales, the trunkless elephants of the oceans.
Their cousins are the manatees, the trunkless elephants of the rivers.

The chameleon elephants kept their wings but agreed never again to
land on the earth. When they go to sleep, the elephants always lie down in the
same place in the sky and dream with one eye open.

The stars you see at night are the unblinking eyes of sleeping elephants,
who sleep with one eye open to best keep watch over us."

Already I was feeling chills going up and down my spine. I knew I was home in a very deep way.

As I emerged into the light, I felt more wooden planks below my feet, very much like the board-walks of the Atlantic Ocean Coastal Resort towns I enjoy. I heard music, beautiful instrumental music, the kind of music that touches a soul longing for a higher and deeper level, along with the male human voice speaking words. I smelled the moistness of the seaweed and phosphate pollution of the water around and below me. I looked forward and saw the insides of a relatively narrow building, perhaps 65 or 70 feet wide, yet a very dramatic two foot-ball fields long. Extremely large unframed photographs mounted on sepia linen canvases hung freely from thin moving cables fastened to ceiling girders about 3 dozen feet up. Dividing the space was a diaphanous hand-made curtain I would later learn was made of one million pressed paper tea bags from Sri Lanka. The canvases hung lightly several feet above a bed of river stones flooring the entire building, upon which were a planked walking path about 12 feet wide. Above me was a simple roof of triangular gable design supported by ceremonial columns and echoing the atmosphere of classical European cathedrals I love.

At the end of the building, a very large screen displayed moving images clearly in a film theatre, but difficult to discern from my original vantage point. I turned right onto the main walk, looked right and saw the first of almost two hundred of the most amazing photographs of the human animal connection I have ever seen.

A monk-boy and a lynx. Heads together. Lynx's eyes open. Boy's eyes closed. Peaceful. Silent yet speaking. Ultimate and perfect co-existence.

A little later, the same boy and the lynx, touching lips. Lynx's eyes open, boy's eyes closed. The beauty of it made me cry.

Another world, this. The world of silent, peaceful co-existence of all animals, including the human animal. The world we pray for and believe with all our hearts is possible. Captured here in photographs. Am I in New York City?

By the third picture, I realized all the animals' eyes were open and all the humans' eyes were closed.

Two elephants lying on their sides in shallow water, heads almost together. Between and touching both their heads, a very small huddled human child.

A monk-boy contemplating a conch shell.

A monk-boy and an elephant in a very, very large expanse of shallow water, several yards apart. Monk-boy standing, eyes closed, elephant sitting, eyes open.

A beautiful woman dancing eye-lids closed with the trunks of elephants.

The author swimming-dancing underwater with a beluga whale.

A woman up to her waist in milky water, kneeling in devotion before a very large Antigone crane.

Penguins walking happily on icy terrain.

The exquisite wisdom of an ancient elephant's one eye.

The monk-boy with the wings of a bird like those of an angel behind him.

By most accounts, it took 13 years and 9 countries for Gregory Colbert, the artist, to prepare this exhibit, hailed in its opening in Zurich as the largest one-person photographic exhibit of all time. I met the Canadian born Colbert on my second trip to the exhibit. He is an extremely attractive man. He was dressed in a double-breasted fastened black jacket and black trousers. His longish hair was gathered behind his neck. He emanated the centeredness and spirituality of a creative master. He has had an affinity for elephants his entire life. I felt his elephant heart.

I had purchased 10 accordion post card packs of the exhibit's photographs to gift to friends. I asked him to autograph them. He readily agreed and pleasantly and steadily signed each one.

"I'm an animal communicator. This is my second visit here. Thank you for this amazing contribution to consciousness," I offered. "I feel so grateful and blessed to have found out about your work. I feel deeply touched by it. I know you're closing here in a few days. Thank you again. Where are you going next?"

"Los Angeles. We open next in Los Angeles."

Later, I found out that the precise location will be Santa Monica, California, and the date of the opening, January 2006.

I learned that he had launched 33 expeditions to places including Burma, Sri Lanka, Egypt, the Island of Dominica, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tonga, Namibia, and Antarctica to film and photograph the wondrous interactions between human beings and animals so incredibly and magnificently captured by his lenses. Elephants, sperm whales, manatees, sacred ibis, antigone cranes, royal eagles, gyr falcons, cheetahs, leopards, African wild dogs, caracals, leopards, baboons, elands, and meerkats are among the animals he has photographed. His human subjects included Burmese monks, Egyptian and Sri Lankan trance dancers, San people, and Colbert himself free diving with sperm whales.

The free diving with sperm whales is in the one-hour movie, which shows continuously. I watched it twice.

"Are you going to make the movie available on DVD?"

"Everything in its time. Watch the web-site," he responded pleasantly.

"Yes. Thank you."

The movie starts with the void, then water, then life starting from water. The small red ball in the middle of the giant screen of water becomes the artist, his skin glistening underwater as he unfolds bare-topped from a fetal position to a swimming one. From there evolve wonderful segments of the artist swimming underwater with whales and elephants, and at one point with an exquisitely beautiful bare-topped woman, dancing sensually under water.

As I watched I realized that some photographs which at first look like they must have been posed, were shot from real live motion film frames and weren't posed at all.

A woman trance dancing with feathers and a large bird.

An extremely small fragile-looking sleeping human child half submersed in shallow water a yard away from the silent, guarding feet of an ancient elephant.

A beautiful woman clad in the lightest of white cloths sleeping on the side of an elephant on its side.

The same woman neck arched in a shallow river dancing with the trunks of elephants.

Two boy-monks standing beside and leaning against the ears of a large elephant, each with his hand covering his outside ear, leaning his head up against the elephant listening.

A falcon rising behind a monk-boy, with the wings of the bird looking for all the world like angel's wings on the closed-eyes boy.

A small monk-boy standing in shallow water with many elephants in an even arc behind him, all facing forward.

The artist swimming and touching with both outstretched hands, the tail of a whale.

And many, many more.

Later I was to purchase the book of 365 letters, "Ashes and Snow: A Novel in 375 Letters." The author wrote one letter a day to his beloved, one letter for every day of silence he had allowed between them. Mr. Colbert has accomplished with his pen to paper, the same energetic of precision, love, balance, infinite creativity and perfection, plus magnificent love of nature, that he rendered in his photographs.

"Letter 1"

"To the Princess of the Elephants.

"I disappeared exactly one year ago today. On that day I received a letter. It called me back to the place where my life with the elephants began.

"Please forgive me, for the silence between us has been unbroken for one year.

"This letter breaks that silence. It marks the first of my three hundred and sixty-five letters to you, one for each day of silence.

"I will never be more myself than in these letters.

"They are my maps of the bird path, and they are all that I know to be true."

The book of letters holds the secret to the name of the exhibit, I had been told earlier. As I read the book of letters, I realized that I had heard many if not most or even all of them read out loud as I watched the movie. All of it, of course! I realized. The book of letters, read aloud, is part of the entire experience, the entire presentation!

A few excerpts which particularly hold my heart:

Letter 184:
"A compass and a pen can give you a reading on the lay of the river, but no mechanical instrument can measure the motion of the heart . . . One day, when you have crossed your last river, you will stand before an elephant who will measure the value of your life not by how many miles you have traveled and how much you have seen, but rather by how much you have loved."

Letter 77:
"Man has been walking the earth for millions of years, but the first letter was written only six thousand years ago . . . Who was the man or woman who finally decided that the tongue was not enough? . . . Were they trying to restore the sacredness of words by writing them down? . . . Now, thousands of years after the first letter was written, the purity of written words has almost completely perished . . . Maybe there is a way to speak to you through the lens of my camera about a world without words."

Letter 86:
"My imagined edens have no words. Images, unlike words, can speak of silence without breaking it . . . The subject's eyes are closed in the images of my books of eden . . . Only when the eyes are looking inward can you see the edens within."

Letter 239:
"When I look up at the sky, I see the eyes of flying elephants.

They all have one name.


Letter 88:
"I'm struggling in relearning what I knew as a child that enabled me to see animals with clear eyes. Without that clarity even my ears seem to miss much of the sublime music of nature . . . What a lonely species we have become. The longer I watch the savannah elephants, the more I listen, the more I open. They remind me of who I am . . . May the guardian elephants hear my wish to collaborate with all the musicians of nature's orchestra. I want to join the dance that has no steps. I want to become the dance."

Letter 74:
"I still have the first letter that you wrote to me. I carry it like a garden in my pocket.
If you come to me at this moment
Your minutes will become hours
Your hours will become days
And your days will become a lifetime.
I am never sure if I am reading the letter or if the letter is reading me."

Letter 362:
"The fate of all birds is to fall, but the phoenix is the only bird that transcends her own death . . . The fate of man is to fall, but some find a way to transcend their deaths. In this brief moment on earth, they succeeded in singing their song. The list of human birds of phoenix is long: [the letter names several dozen recognizable names] . . . There are millions of men and women who are also birds of phoenix, whose stories are unknown . . . but whether they are known or unknown, man or elephant, all phoenixes share the same dance:
Feather to Fire
Fire to Blood
Blood to Bone
Bone to Marrow
Marrow to Ashes
Ashes to Snow."

Having read them, I now know, the letters can be read backwards or forwards, for the beginning is in the end, and the end is in the beginning.

Ashes and Snow.


All excerpts are from Ashes and Snow: A Novel in Letters, by Gregory Colbert. Published by Flying Elephants Press. All photographs are by Gregory Colbert and are used with permission.


Elizabeth Severino, D.D., D.R.S.

Spiritual Mentor      Intuitive Counselor
     Energy Therapist      Animal Communicator

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