Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Following Darwin's footsteps to paradise





New York Times has a nice Travel piece on the Galapagos Islands: Sailing Toward Paradise.
The Galápagos have served as a laboratory for life ever since they bubbled up above the ocean’s surface more than five million years ago. Today there are 13 main islands, and the newest are still being created by volcanic activity. The most recent eruption occurred in 2005. All species on the islands arrived through some extraordinary luck or toughness: seeds blown by the wind or carried in the stomachs of birds; small land tortoises that drifted for months on ocean currents, or on rafts of vegetation that blindly bumped up against the new land. Those that survived the harsh environment gave rise to an astonishing array of endemic species: marine iguanas, tool-using finches, giant tortoises that weigh almost 700 pounds. Life evolved in quiet isolation, unaffected by the outside world.

No longer a lonesome outpost of life untouched by humans, today the Galápagos are a laboratory of conservation, where humans’ fraught relationship with the natural world can be studied and, hopefully, repaired. In 1959, the centenary of the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” the Ecuadorean government declared the archipelago a national park. Today, 97 percent of the archipelago is preserved, along with 40,000 square miles of the surrounding ocean. Working with the Ecuadorean National Park Service, organizations like the Charles Darwin Foundation finance conservation programs, education and scientific research.

About tortoise hatchlings, conservation, and on Darwin:

I crouch down, watching as they slowly extend their long wrinkled necks to strip leaves from branches, their black eyes glimmering with awareness behind the dusty green-gray of their faces. It is an astonishing, unmediated view of the natural world, though I am certain I am anthropomorphizing when I detect a hint of both sadness and hope in their eyes. It is more likely a reflection of my own sadness at the damage we have done, and hope that humans can turn things around in time to save this unique corner of the world.

What I discovered in our crossing and exploration of the Galápagos is hard to pinpoint: as with any such travels the epiphanies come later. Darwin explored these islands for five weeks, out of a sea journey of five years. When he returned to England he never left again, and did not publish “The Origin of Species” for 23 more years. But there is a tantalizing moment in his journals from the Galápagos (later published as “The Voyage of the Beagle”) that indicates all he was on the cusp of understanding: “Both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact — that mystery of mysteries — the first appearance of life on earth.”

In an age of the disappearance of life on earth, I felt at least closer to understanding the significance of its diversity, and of its fragility.

Read the full article here (along with the slide show).