Winter 1992, Volume 9.1
Robert B. Smith
Some Enchanted Islands
Robert B. Smith (Ph.D., U of California, Berkeley) is Academic Vice President at Weber State University. His scholarly interests have ranged over synthesis of organic natural products, unconventional approaches to science education, learning theory of Piaget, organizational culture, and the sociology and epistemology of science. His works have appeared in Journal of College Science Teaching, Weber State College: A Centennial History (1988), and Metropolitan Universities.
There is a way a small island rises from the ocean affronting all reason. It is a chunk of chaos pounded into visibility ex nihilo: here rough, here smooth, shaped just so by a matrix of physical necessities too weird to contemplate, here instead of there, here instead of not at all. It is a fantastic utterance, as though I were to open my mouth and emit a French horn, or a vase, or a knob of tellurium. It smacks of folly, of first causes. (Annie Dillard, Stone 111)
From Charles Darwin's provocative prose to the Public Broad- casting System's intriguing images, purveyors of the exotic have acquainted us with the Galapagos Islands. Yet neither explicit video footage nor coffee-table photo books nor the most creative verbal portraits quite capture their reality. The Voyage of the Beagle and my colleagues' Kodachromes alike failed to prepare me fully for the live experience six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador. As they say, you had to be there.
The Galapagos earned their South American name, Las Islas Encantadas ("bewitched islands"), due to the strong, variable flow of the coastwise Humboldt Current, as it knifes through channels among the islands after bouncing off the angled Peruvian shore. I felt that power one night, rolling and bouncing between islands on a small yacht, but it was through a far less obvious force they enchanted me.
Trying to identify that force preoccupied me off and on for years after. The solution awaited a second visit and a sojourn with works of some of the classic literary naturalists. While my island visits were group ventures, they were for me uniquely personal wilderness encounters, and extracting their significance has been a solitary enterprise.
Darwin himself offered me the first false lead with this oft-quoted passage from his 1835 Beagle chronicle:
Seeing every height crowned with its crater, and the boundaries of most of the lava-streams still distinct, we are led to believe that within a period, geologically recent, the unbroken ocean was here spread out. Hence, in both space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great factthe mystery of mysteriesthe first appearance of new beings on this earth. (379)
Time has borne him out. All the evidence says these islands are late comers to the earth's surface, having popped up a meregeologically speakingthree to five million years ago (Jackson 31). Nowadays, wilderness that close to primordial is hard to find.
Nothing Darwin had seen in Europe, on the South American continent, or even among islands in the Atlantic was quite like what he found here. He reported, for example, a strange imbalance among species in the Galapagosreptiles here seemed to play the role of plant-eating mammals elsewhere (390). Instead of deer and raccoons, we find oversize tortoises and lizards. These islands are, in fact, crawling with reptiles but devoid of amphibians, rich in birds but poor in mammals, empty of conifers or anything sporting large flowers or heavy seeds, but full of ferns, grasses, and unusual members of the dandelion and sunflower families, some the size of small trees (Jackson 32).
Darwin, of course, is eternally associated with the Galapagos due to his most crucial observation, what he considered "by far the most remarkable feature in the natural history of this archipelago . . . that the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings" (394). What he did with that fact would forever change the way we think and argue about the place of humans in the endless variety of the world's life forms. It would also inspire pilgrimages.
Unlike Darwin, I had only a few days to spend on my first visit. They were enough, though, to produce symptoms bizarre in a person with my Calvinist work ethic. I would sit alone on a rock watching two silly-looking birdswaved albatrossesexecute an intricate mating dance, so absorbed that until their half-hour ritual ended, I forgot I was holding a camera. Eager to contemplate again and again the grace and beauty of a solitary swallow-tailed gull in flight, I would perch for an hour at cliff's edge awaiting its repeated appearance from a nest far below. Between flights I found myself scanning the rocky surf at the foot of the cliff, transfixed with the labored comings and goings of marine iguanas, which from that height seemed like ground traffic at some busy aquatic airport.
Such behavior confirmed my terminal condition. I had become attached to this place, and, like General MacArthur, I would return. More than Darwin's sense of mystery was drawing me.
Friends wonder why I, a chemistheir to a tradition of better things for better living through artificial manipulation of the stuff of naturebother going so far out of my way to encounter and dwell in wilderness. Initially, I went to the Galapagos less as a pilgrim than as one of the merely curiouscurious about this place my biologist friends treated as Mecca, but curious, too, about what students from the college I administered might learn from such adventures. Admittedly, there was more: As something of an academic dilettanteat the time of my first visit a paper eventually titled "Physical Science as Humane Inquiry" was in gestationI habitually violate a tradition once eloquently expressed by Aldo Leopold:
There are men charged with the duty of examining the construction of the plants, animals, and soils which are the instruments of the great orchestra. These men are called professors. Each selects one instrument and spends his life taking it apart and describing its strings and sounding boards. This process of dismemberment is called research. The place for dismemberment is called a university.
A professor may pluck the strings of his own instrument, but never that of another, and if he listens for music he must never admit it to his fellows or to his students. For all are restrained by an ironbound taboo which decrees that the construction of instruments is the domain of science, while the detection of harmony is the domain of poets. (153)
Like many lifelong residents of the American West, I have had frequent chances to patrol at least the fringes of wilderness. Nearly every summer of my life I have vacationed with family and friends in an isolated Southern California mountain valley, now lapped by the gray sea of smog, but to this day free of electrical and phone lines. During the two decades I lived in a city straddling the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin, I would explore the so-called emptiness of the high desert and its intervening mountain ranges. A few days in the Ecuadorian upper Amazon basin and coastal rain forest just before my first landing in the Galapagos pushed my horizons still farther.
My literary explorations uncovered a provocative observation of Leopold's: "Never did we plan the morrow, for we had learned that in the wilderness some new and irresistible distraction is sure to turn up each day before breakfast" (146). That passage brought to mind a week I once spent atop California's White Mountains, becoming sensitized to the wonders of high-altitude plant communities, their composition and lifestyles differing dramatically on opposing sides of small, seemingly barren depressions in the granite. It also described well my daily South American experiences.
If not a vague sense of mystery, perhaps it was this more explicit element of surprise that so captured my fancy in the Galapagos. Supportive evidence abounds. Darwin himself remarked that if these islands conjure up an image of the age of dinosaurs, it is well to note that, despite their equatorial latitude, they bask not in a humid, tropical zone, but in an arid, remarkably temperate climate (390). Searching for palm trees is futile here.
What you can find is the odd spectacleodd for someone conditioned to think webfoots dwell on the groundof red-footed boobies perched amid the leafless but amazingly fragrant branches of palo santo trees. For me, however, the appealing contradictions are epitomized in a vivid memory of a galapagos penguin at sunset, contemplating a dive into cool equatorial waters while standing beneath a giant Opuntia cactus that grows from a lava flow on a warm desert island.
Still, stimuli such as mystery and surprise seemed too narrowly intellectual to account for my attraction to the Galapagos. The islands appealed more to my heart than to my head. John Muir claimed that, whether we recognize it or submerge it in daily cares, we all have a deep love of wilderness (Teale 311). Contemporary environmentalists have popularized the interpretation that humans' recently learned adaptations to city life have by no means extinguished our genetic programming; like other mammals, we are born to thrive in clean air and varied green landscapes (Alexander et al. 23). Edward Abbey found the word "wilderness" itself alluring, evoking a justified not merely sentimental nostalgia for the lost America our forefathers knew. The word suggests the past and the unknown, the womb of earth from which we all emerged. It means something lost and something still present, something remote and at the same time intimate, something buried in our blood and nerves, something beyond us and without limit. Romancebut not to be dismissed on that account. The romantic view, while not the whole of truth, is a necessary part of the whole truth. (166)
That sentiment has surfaced often during my summer vacations in the California mountains. A half-century of recurrent experiences in a single, virtually unchanging locale builds rich reserves of nostalgia. Using our 1870s-vintage shack merely as a prop, like Abbey's trailer at the Arches, I often stay outdoors, eating, sleeping, exploring the official wilderness area nearby, or simply soaking up a broader world. Abbey told why:
Inside the trailer, surrounded by the artifacture of America, I was reminded insistently of all that I had, for a season, left behind; . . . but taking my meal outside by the burning juniper in the fireplace with more desert and mountains than I could explore in a lifetime open to view, I was invited to contemplate a far larger world, one which extends into a past and into a future without any limits known to the human kind. (97)
Although my mountain experiences had been satisfying in their own way, none captivated me as did my few days in the Galapagos. Evidently, nostalgia or a romantic love of wilderness would not suffice as explanations.
On the mainland of two continents I had focused, like most tourists, on the obvious: the big trees, ferns, rocks, and animals, the wildflowers, andwhere scorpions, Gila monsters, or rattlesnakes were involvedthe onerous pests. The years I had invested in studying and teaching the patterns of the physical world may well have disposed me toward a particular fascination with geologic structures; familiar formations standing here and there throughout the Intermountain West became like old friends. Birdwatching I could do without.
My conscious appreciation tended toward aesthetic stereotypescolorations painted by a low-angled sun, invigorating scents borne on chill morning air, rocks eroded into majestic forms, silence preserved by virtue of distance from human activity. Abbey could work at this level, too, characterizing wilderness as at the center of things, where all that is most significant takes place. (Sunset and moonrise, moaning winds and stillness, cloud transformations, the metamorphosis of sunlight, yellowing leaf and the indolent, soaring vulture . . . ) (264-65)
The Galapagos deliver such sensations of beauty. The geology is certainly there, in all varieties of stark, youthful, volcanic glory. The interplay of sun and clouds can produce golden seascapes. Fleeting appearances of a vermillion flycatcher or a pair of red-billed tropicbirds accent any scene. I have mentioned my fascination with swallow-tailed gulls; I stalked them for days in hopes of capturing images on film to remind me of their exquisite shape and motion. Albatrosses, in contrast, drew my attention by their clumsiness on the ground. Ah, but the moment they are aloft! I came to share Henry Beston's admiration for shore birds:
[N]o one really knows a bird until he has seen it in flight. Since my year upon the dunes, spent in a world of magnificent fliers, I have been tempted to believe that the relation of the living bird with its wings folded to the living bird in flight is almost that of the living bird to the same bird stuffed. (76)
But ultimately I never was convinced that sheer beauty told the story of my enchantment with these islands.
Perhaps, sucker for slapstick that I am, I was just taken in by humorous antics of weird animals. I had succumbed to such entertainment elsewhere, awakening countless California mornings, like Leopold, to the sound of "every squirrel . . . exaggerating some fancied indignity to his person, and every jay proclaiming with false emotion about suppositious dangers to society, at the very moment discovered by him" (62). And, after all, it is impossible to keep a straight face when a blue-footed boobie gives you its blank stare or when a pair of lava gulls adds a screaming, nonstop laugh track to your otherwise serene dialogue with nature.
Even the dignified swallow-tailed gull, when on foot, has an inviolable habit of periodically abandoning everything just to stare at its bright red feet; a caption contest could be built around the photos. A cluster of male "magnificent" frigatebirds, with their balloonlike red necks hyperinflated, perched in bushes that serve as an avian singles bar, just hanging around to attract cruising females, look pathetically pompous and silly.
A waved albatross coming in for a landing hovers gently a few inches above the rocks, searching with tiptoe radar for ground contact, then instantly collapses into an uncontrolled crash; a quick pickup and dustoff, and it waddles away to its nest. To take off requires a running jump-start off a cliff face supplied with a stiff updraft; like small children on their first diving board, the albatrosses chicken out repeatedly before finally falling into space and becoming airborne. Blue-footed boobies are less tentative about their earthly connections; a flock cruising aloft on a fishing expedition will, without apparent signal or leader, rise up as a body and go into a mass vertical power dive, all striking the surface like so many suddenly inanimate dead weights.
Well, what could the Galapagos' attraction be? Mystery, surprise, romantic nostalgia, beauty, humor? All of the above? No, such characteristics, singly or cumulatively, failed to set the islands sufficiently apart from the rest of my experience to account for their power.
When the answer finally dawned, I realized that the source had been at hand all along. Annie Dillard's prizewinning chronicle, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, was published only months before my first visit to the islands, and fortuitously I had carried it along. Despite disarming assertions to the contrary"I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood" (11)Dillard clearly showed powers of observation that a trained scientist like me could appreciate. Her continual shifting of gears between vividly narrating the minutiae of daily life in Tinker Creek and, say, doing a Melville number on the taxonomy of insect pests or drawing a symbolic parallel between the creek world and the quantum world appealed to my urge to generalize. Here was a writer who grasped the landscape from theology to nuclear physics; yet to her it seemed sufficient merely to experience, "to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can't learn why" (12).
Reading Dillard's accounts of luring newts in a forest pond, stalking muskrats under a bridge, or staring down a perpetually smirking copperhead, I envied her sense of participation in nature. Whether in a benign or hostile wilderness setting, I had always felt like an intruder. The skittishness of mainland animals reinforced that feeling. In twenty years of desert life I had never encountered even a sidewinder. In my mountain retreat, apart from ubiquitous jays, swallows, squirrels, and lizards, the most mundane animal sightingsan occasional deer or raccoon, a pair of foraging coyotes at dusk, a barely glimpsed mountain lionwere notable chiefly for their rarity and brevity. Even on the more common occasions when I came upon a diamondback, it would typically be already beating a full retreat. Only the cynical, taunting blue jays seemed to acknowledge my presence with any intent to communicate.
But now in my shipboard bunk each night of that first visit I read on, sharing her experience vicariously; each day I wandered the islands, living it in the flesh, "the flesh" ranging from sea lion fur to iguana armor to bird feathers. Inevitably, within a few years Dillard, too, visited the Galapagos and reported back in her essays, "Life on the Rocks" (Stone 110-31) and "Teaching a Stone to Talk" (73-76). Like Darwin she was impressed with the primitive aura of the islands. Like me she marvelled at the inhabitants:
But these rocks are animal gardens. They are home to a Hieronymus Bosch assortment of windblown, stowaway, cast-away, flotsam, and shipwrecked creatures. Most exist nowhere else on earth. . . . You come for the animals. You come to see the curious shapes soft proteins can take, to impress yourself with their reality, and to greet them. (112)
Darwin had been struck by the extreme fearlessness of the Galapagos birds toward people (398), which greatly facilitated his revolutionary observations. Dillard, too, was amazed by the tameness of the animals, even the lava lizards and biting flies (113-15). (Stranger yet, the sole commercial airline serving the islands, ironically, a branch of the Ecuadorian air forcebears the acronym TAME.)
This vulnerability of animal life in the islands stays with you. It is not readily explained. Darwin speculated that humans must have arrived too recently on the island scene for the birds to have developed a heritable wariness of them (398-401). Yet others today note that four centuries of abuse from humans has left the birds still naively indifferent (Jackson 174). It may be that the mere absence of predatory, land-based mammals leaves the animals fearless of humans (Jackson 192). No wonder visitors in earlier centuries felt free to exploit them.
A place like this confounds Muir's argument that the very existence of animals noxious to humans proves all of Nature was not created solely for the happiness of mankind (Teale 318). Dillard observed that "inhabitants of uncrowded colonies tend to offer the stranger famously warm hospitality" (Stone 115), and that is certainly the case in the Galapagos. My own second visit, after a fourteen-year lapse, carried overtones of homecoming.
Examples come to mind readily. Offshore from a boulder-strewn island beach I would be aware of a noise in the air like distant, pounding surf. As we drew closer, no waves materialized, but the rocks became mobile; in reality, I was staring at dozens of sea lions sunbathing on the sand. The noise would intensify, giving the impression of a gigantic hospital ward given over to treatment of stomach flu. But as soon as the sea lions spotted the boat, they would spring to action, sending a reception party out to circle us with shouts and waves, like human beggars in a harbor.
As we motored toward shore, they would porpoise along enthusiastically. If we were in a pangathe local variant of a dinghythey would do chinups on its side with their flippers, in order to see who is on deck today. After landing we would walk among themsleepers, sunbathers, mothers and nursing infants aliketaking care only to avoid offending their local bull. Upon departure an official sea lion delegation would give us safe passage until they became convinced we were really leaving; you could almost read disappointment in their eyes.
When our boat crew cleaned freshly caught fish on deck, dozens of "great" frigatebirds (a different species from the "magnificent" frigate), all skilled pirates, hovered virtually motionless in the breeze, some only inches from my face, waiting. When a morsel went overboard, one would pick it off in the air, signalling the start of an aerial rugby match, replete with scrums, passes, steals, and a great deal of apparently aimless chasing about; the winners were those who succeeded in swallowing at least part of the prize before being tackled.
Whenever I walked past a heap of marine iguanas, all heads turned in unison to follow. Although simple probability dictated that at any moment several of them would be clearing the brine from their built-in nasal desalination plants, it was hard not to take that mass spitting personally. Yet I also saw these iguanas domesticated at the home of a long-time settler, where they slept and sunned on his roof and dined, hand-fed, on oatmeal.
Once I had taken lunchtime shelter under a poncho in a rain squall, when three mockingbirds hopped in, quite happy to share their banana with me and drink from the lid of their canteen. And so it went, from playful sea lions nudging the panga and swimming circles about me in the bays to, at worst, indifferent boobies content to let me pass with a mere exhortation provided I stepped carefully around their nests.
The stars of the two most astonishing incidents were, in the first instance, a juvenile great frigate bird and, in the second, a sea lion. Suitably alerted by our guide, Pancho, we approached the waist-high palo santo stump that served this particular frigate as a late-afternoon perch. The bird swung its head our way, as it snapped to attention. While Pancho told us the tale of reuniting the chickby now emancipatedwith its parents after an inadvertent escape from the nest a few weeks earlier, he had the bird's undivided attention. Recognition was obvious, and the affinity seemed to spill over to me when the bird probed gently about my wrist with its beak, as if offering a frigate handshake: "Any friend of Pancho's is a friend of mine."
One evening as we searched for penguins along a shoreline, a sea lion joined us, swimming alongside the panga. We spotted our first penguinthat cactus-shaded lava-dweller whose image is burned so firmly in my memoryand halted to observe. The sea lion floated on its back, its head up, glancing back and forth, now at the penguin, now at us. As if adding two and two, it suddenly swam on ahead, spontaneously assuming the role of guide. Soon we caught up with it, circling about a short distance away; sure enough, there were more penguins nearby for us to view. Then, at the sound of the panga motor revving up to move on, the sea lion darted off in another direction, leading us toward a darkened grotto, where we found very young penguins perched on a ledge to be examined at arm's length. This went on until our curiosity waned.
Loren Eiseley's speculation, while contemplating the state of mind of a crow who had seen him as if walking on air through a fog, seems applicable: "He has experienced the human world from an unlikely perspective. He and I share a viewpoint in common: our worlds have interpenetrated, and we both have faith in the miraculous" (169). A similar thought had crossed my mind earlier, when I had stood at the crest of a shoreline cliff as a swallow-tailed gull settled in the updraft just a few feet from my face; we indulged in what seemed an endless staredown, the bird hovering motionless in the wind, I trying to read its expressionless face.
Well, there was the answer to my question about the Galapagos' peculiar appeal. The subliminal message that had been impressing itself upon me was this: Wherever you turn, the indigenous population invites you openly to Join the Party; in these islands you're just part of the crowd. This was not spectator sport, but wilderness at its most intimate and interactive best.
It was a heartwarming discovery. Dillard's metaphor, "the tree with the lights in it" (Pilgrim 33-34), is apt; like her, like Darwin, I saw my surroundings in a new light. If only for a moment, I had broken through the barrier that so dismayed Muir:
We gaze morbidly through civilized fog upon our beautiful world clad with seamless beauty, and see ferocious beasts and wastes and deserts. . . . We seek to establish a narrow line between ourselves and the feathery zeros we dare to call angels, but ask a partition barrier of infinite width to show the rest of creation its proper place . . . . Most people are on the world, not in ithave no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about themundiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate. (Teale 313)
For me, when it was party time in the Galapagos, that conscious sympathy was inescapable. I gained an almost mystical sense of the continuity of life: My intellectual knowledge of the common cellular biochemistry that animates us all became bound up in a visceral feeling of oneness with all other species.
* * *
Equally inescapable, however, was the simultaneous, dampening effect of a contrary feeling. Even while accepting the invitation to dive in, swim, and play with the sea lions, I felt reluctant to interfere. The efforts of the boat crew to vary our diet with fresh fish, although relished by the opportunistic frigatebirds and tasty to the passengers, seemed somehow an offense against the local animal community. Better to remain a respectful observer, as Dillard suggested in Teaching a Stone to Talk: "We are here to witness. There is nothing else to do with those mute materials we do not need . . . . [T]hat is why I went to the Galapagos Islands" (72-73).
The more I ponder it, the more sensible this advice becomes. These characters did not need me; they were doing quite well on their own. Abbey, packing up after his season at the Arches, expressed a similar feeling:
I am almost prepared to believe that this sweet virginal primitive land will be grateful for my departure and the absence of the tourists, will breathe metaphorically a collective sigh of relieflike a whisper of windwhen we are all and finally gone and the place and its creations can return to their ancient procedures unobserved and undisturbed by the busy, anxious brooding concern of man. (267)
By the time I returned to the Galapagos for a second visit, fourteen years had elapsed, and tourist traffic was expected to exceed the islands' official annual quota of 50,000 by October. TAME's DC-7 fleet had been replaced by 727 jets. The harbor seemed choked with vessels, ranging from small yachts to cruise ships. Trails had been marked on the familiar islands, and wandering alone among the animals, unguided by a licensed naturalist, had been outlawed.
Leopold warned, "It is the part of wisdom never to revisit a wilderness, for the more golden the lily, the more certain someone has gilded it. To return not only spoils a trip, but tarnishes a memory" (141). True, it was not quite the wilderness I had experienced during my first visit. But not all the changes were unnatural; a monstrous "El Ni—o" disturbance of the ocean current and weather had decimated the marine iguanas' seaweed diet, and five years of recovery had not restored their population. And the party was still going strong: Among the animals there were plenty of old friends to visit and new friends still to be made. I have no regrets about returning, but on balance the changes I saw were unsettling.
Leopold framed the dilemma facing the Galapagos bluntly: "But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish" (101). In other words, use it and lose it!
Darwin saw it coming and concluded his report on the Galapagos with the prophetic thought: "We may infer from these facts, what havoc the introduction of any new beast of prey must cause in a country, before the instincts of the indigenous inhabitants have become adapted to the stranger's craft or power" (401). A latter-day invasion of "mammalian weeds"dogs, cats, rats, pigs, goatsinto many of the islands has amply fulfilled his warning.
To its credit, the Ecuadorian government, though not renowned for stability and steadiness of purpose, seems to be making exemplary efforts to preserve the islands' integrity. Restoration is in progress on a few islands devastated by runaway domestic animals. The rapidly spreading, perpetually blooming, North American "Kleenex bush" is still unknown. Ironically, the only bit of litter I recall seeing was left not by a tourist, but by the natives: a brightly colored chunk of plastic sheeting was lying near a tide pool, where it had been abandoned by juvenile red-footed boobies.
According to our guide, these birds have playfully invented an avian edition of the old sandlot game, Three Flies Up. In the Galapagos version one of the boobies releases the fragment from on high, while the rest hover below to catch it and earn the privilege of the next drop. It occurs to me to wonder whether such subtle modification of the birds' behavior by a benign tourist presence could prove more powerfully disruptive than decades of frontal assault by whalers, buccaneers, and settlers. That little blue-green piece of plastic resting by the tide pool on an equatorial island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean might foreshadow the destruction of one of earth's unique assets.
There is, in fact, already evidence of a more ominous encroachment by civilized humanity on a grand scale. Inadvertent global modification of the atmosphere is robbing nature everywhere of its independent existence separate from human society. Even if we can control frontal assaults, these islands could be doomed by invisible flanking maneuvers no single government can repel. This Bill McKibben calls "the end of nature" (64). To twist Leopold's dilemma, we could lose it without even using it.
In this light the "anxious, brooding concern of man" that Abbey decried is not all bad. One of the leaders of my first Galapagos expedition was an old friend and colleague, who spent his career studying a seemingly self-contradictory research topicdesert fishes. He was motivated by curiosity about the long-term implications of species extinctions for the human race, and as he would talk of these early warnings from a subtly changing environment, I began to sense vaguely a barometric utility to wilderness. The deeper ethical connection emerged more slowly, only recently coming home to this chemist through a dated, but clear, observationagain from Leopold:
[W]e, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact, rather than in Mr. DuPont's nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush's bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts. (110)
To abandon efforts to protect "lesser" species would be to relinquish part of our humanity. There is danger, however, in misinterpreting superiority and taking the human place in the scheme of things too seriously. Speaking of the evolving future, Eiseley warned, "The only thing that doesn't pay is to be sure of man's own part in it.
. . . Never make the mistake of thinking life is now adjusted for eternity" (48). Abbey lamented the tourist invasion of his desert, but in his next breath brought himself up short: "Grateful for our departure? One more expression of human vanity" (267). What makes us think the desert really cares?
According to McKibben it is precisely nature's predictable independence that allowed us in the Western world "to assign it a new roleas a place for withdrawing from the cares of the human world" (98). He writes of the end of nature as implying a redefinition of our ideas about the world and our place in itone that renders wilderness as we know it meaningless (8, 58).
Abbey in his own perverse way"I'm a humanist; I'd rather kill a man than a snake" (17)years ago anticipated the possibility and rebelled at it:
No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself. If industrial man continues to multiply his numbers and expand his operations he will succeed in his apparent intention, to seal himself off from the natural and isolate himself within a synthetic prison of his own making. (169)
McKibben worries that we may now give up on wilderness, just as we avoid seeking new friends among the terminally ill (211). Such a loss would be irredeemable. Eiseley reminded us that we have always been driven to the wilderness in search of insight, that any seeker, given a proper frame of mind, can find a message there. "It may not be a message from the god he set out to seek, but even if he has failed in that particular, he will have had a vision or seen a marvel, and these are always worth listening to and thinking about" (163).
If wilderness becomes our own artificial creationa global Disney Worldwhere will we turn for such visions and marvels? Will oursor our grandchildren's (scant consolation, but global change does take time)be the last generation to have the opportunity to explore the natural earth to such ends as the Galapagos? At heart I cling to a hope that forces beyond human control have not yet decreed a premature end to this amazing, young island communityan ecosystem fashioned from a unique combination of warm land, cool water, brief history, random arrivals, and human absence.
Meanwhile—fortunately for us—this party is still in full swing.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, 1968.
Alexander, Christopher, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Beston, Henry. The Outermost House: A Year in the Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971.
Darwin, Charles. The Voyage of the Beagle. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co., 1962.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper's Magazine Press, 1974.
—. Teaching a Stone to Talk. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1982.
Eiseley, Loren. The Immense Journey. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1959.
Jackson, M. H. Galapagos: A Natural History Guide. Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press, 1985.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949. Reissued, 1989.
McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. New York: Random House, 1989.
Teale, Edwin Way, ed. The Wilderness World of John Muir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1954.