Nonfiction

No Life is an Island

From MH15

By Don Lago

This piece was cited as a a "Notable Essay of 2018" in Best American Essays 2019

            At first the birds might have thought it was a cloud. It was a white spot on the horizon, moving slowly, puffing in and out. Then they noticed that it was drifting differently than other clouds. As this cloud grew larger and closer, it grew square corners that didn’t belong on clouds and a dark bottom riding in the water. This cloud looked like a seabird, a strange, giant seabird with tall, square, white wings. They watched it calmly. They never imagined that it could pose any threat to them. The universe was made for seabirds. They cleaned their feathers and watched the seabird approach.

            As he leaned against the railing of the ship, which of course wasn’t a cloud or a seabird, but a Beagle, Charles Darwin saw mainly desolation. He saw volcanoes thousands of feet high, volcanoes still active, one accented by a streak of smoke. He saw primordial rawness, slopes bare of the usual jungles of tropical islands: “Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance” he would write in The Voyage of the Beagle.  “A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves, and crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted, sunburnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life. The dry and parched surface, being heated by the noon-day sun, gave to the air a close and sultry feeling, like that from a stove; we fancied even that the bushes smelt unpleasantly. Although I diligently tried to collect as many plants as possible, I succeeded in getting very few; and such wretched-looking little weeds would have better become an arctic than an equatorial Flora.” 

           In his private journal Darwin added: “The country was compared to what we might imagine the cultivated parts of the Infernal regions to be.” 

          The captain of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, shared Darwin’s reaction: “We landed upon black, dismal-looking heaps of broken lava, forming a shore fit for Pandemonium. Innumerable crabs and hideous iguanas started in every direction as we scrambled from rock to rock. Few animals are uglier than these iguanas…”

          Six years after Darwin visited the Galapagos, a twenty-two-year-old sailor named Herman Melville landed. Melville would write many romantic tales of adventure set in tropical Edens, but for him the Galapagos belonged to the spiritual wastelands he would explore in Moby Dick. He would publish a set of Galapagos sketches called “The Encantadas,” or, “Enchanted Isles,” the name given by an early mariner, who meant bewitched, not charming. Melville saw the Galapagos as a hellish landscape where evil sea captains were reincarnated as tortoises as a form of torture. Melville’s descriptions are filled with bleak images: “arrested torrents of tormented lava,”  “archipelago of aridities,” “the dross of an iron-furnace,” “grim cliffs,”  “ruin itself can work little more upon them.” This bleakness included the animals, “an incomparable host of fiends.”   “The chief sound of life here is a hiss.”

         “The Encantadas refuses to harbor even the outcast of the beasts.” But it did have “that strangest anomaly of outlandish nature, the iguana,” and giant tortoises:  “There is something strangely self-condemned in the appearance of these creatures. Lasting sorrow and penal hopelessness are in no animal form so suppliantly expressed as in theirs.” And then there was  “the demoniac din created by the birds.” 

            Charles Darwin was a careful naturalist, with no temptation to

emphasize the exotic to entertain readers. In fact, when Darwin turned his diaries into The Voyage of the Beagle, he toned down some of his gut reactions to the Galapagos. Yet clearly he, like Melville, found the life of the Galapagos just as alien and unappealing as its geology. “The natural history of these islands is eminently curious,” he wrote in The Voyage of the Beagle. “The archipelago is a little world within itself.”

           “All the plants have a wretched, weedy appearance, and I did not see one beautiful flower.” In his diary, Darwin had called them “insignificant, ugly little flowers.” Like the flowers, the insects and birds lacked the bright colors typical of the tropics. The iguanas were “a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black color, stupid, and sluggish in its movements.” Several times Darwin repeated that the iguanas were  “hideous,” and “a singularly stupid appearance.” In his diary he called them “most disgusting clumsy lizards…somebody calls them ‘imps of darkness.’ They assuredly will become the land they inhabit.” The giant tortoises offered a “strange Cyclopean scene…like some antediluvian animals.” 

            If ever there was a place to make humans feel that other forms of life are alien, the Galapagos was it. 

            Perhaps the Galapagos already felt ominous to Darwin when he first saw them on the horizon, for they had once been a base for black-flagged pirate ships that attacked vessels in South American waters and raided coastal towns. The pirates had relied on Galapagos springs for fresh water, and they had taken the giant tortoises onto their ships as a food supply—the slow metabolism of tortoises allowed them to survive for months without eating. The pirates had also slaughtered Galapagos seabirds, sometimes just for sport.

            By the time Darwin visited South America, its waters had been made safer by the Spanish navy. This too might have seemed ominous, for England and Spain were centuries-old rivals and sailing under an English flag in Spanish waters still made you an alien, especially since the Beagle was a military ship mapping the ocean and coasts for military possibilities. Only two decades previously, English whaling ships were attacked at the Galapagos, not by the Spanish but by the Americans during the War of 1812. The English had far more in common with the Americans than with the Spanish, yet this didn’t prevent the English and the Americans from viewing one another as aliens. A century after Darwin’s visit, the Americans would build an air base on the Galapagos to defend the Panama Canal from the alien Japanese.

            It doesn’t take a Pearl Harbor for humans to regard one another as alien. The human mind seems highly calibrated to recognize differences and limit sympathies. Differences often mean threats. Differences mean lions and mosquitoes that prey upon humans. Humans seem disinclined to prey upon one another as food, but among humans there are numerous boundaries of sympathy. Basic survival sharing is usually restricted to within families. Humans form tribes and nations that expect members to limit their loyalties to only them.  Within nations there are many circles of limited loyalties, circles of geography, race, ethnicity, class, jobs, schools, churches, political parties, and sports teams. Lack of sympathy fuels chronic human predations, from rudeness to discrimination to theft to murder to warfare. Even within human cells there are powerful definers of self and not-self: immune systems that guard biological selfhood from alien invaders. 

            Humans have waged identity contests over the mere names of the Galapagos Islands. The original names were given by English mariners, usually for English aristocrats and admirals, names like Charles, Barrington, Abingdon, Albemarle, Bainbridge. When the Spanish took control of the Galapagos they renamed most islands with Spanish names. Albemarle became Isabela; Charles became Santa Maria; Barrington became Santa Fe. Yet some of the English names had become so established in common usage that they refused to yield.             Today Barrington Island is still Barrington Island.

        Yet somehow the creatures of the Galapagos didn’t get the message about all the identity boundaries that are supposed to separate creatures. They were clueless that humans looked upon them as aliens, even fiends. They didn’t look upon humans as aliens.

        Darwin observed that Galapagos animals and birds showed no fear of humans. The Galapagos had no land predators, so its inhabitants had no concept that an animal might present any threat. In The Voyage of the Beagle Darwin devoted one-tenth of the Galapagos chapter to “the extreme tameness of the birds.” Darwin had already heard about Galapagos birds that would land on human arms and heads. Darwin saw this for himself: while when he was holding a tortoise-shell pitcher, a thrush landed on the pitcher lip and began sipping water, even as Darwin continued to lift the pitcher. Birds would almost allow Darwin to catch them by their legs. Darwin was accustomed to obtaining bird specimens by stalking and shooting. “A gun here is almost superfluous; for with the muzzle I pushed a hawk off the branch of a tree… It would appear that the birds of this archipelago, not having learned that man is a more dangerous animal than the tortoise… disregard him.” Darwin found that he could kill birds by a slap of his hat.

        The iguanas allowed Darwin to catch them by the tail. When Darwin tossed an aquatic iguana into the water to watch it swim, it quickly returned to shore, right to him. Darwin picked up the iguana again and tossed it into the water, and again it swam straight back, as if it was more worried about aquatic threats—sharks—than about a strange animal with limbs that could pick it up by the tail and toss it through the air. Darwin and the iguana repeated this process several times. Darwin was tempted to call this behavior stupidity, but then he started to perceive something else. 

        The Galapagos, more than anywhere else on his five-year voyage, left Darwin deeply impressed by how precisely animals were adapted to specific environments. From island to island, the tortoises had different shapes of shells, the finches different shapes of beaks. Darwin began to ponder the mystery of species variations. The recent volcanic birth and the primordial look of the Galapagos left Darwin feeling that he was witnessing the powers of creation at work: “Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact—that mystery of mysteries—the first appearance of new beings on this earth.” “One is astonished at the amount of creative force…displayed on these small, barren, and rocky islands.”

        It would be within the tidy, unprimordial walls of his library in England that the walls between species would come down. Darwin learned to look through the Galapagos eyes that saw nothing alien in other species. He looked through iguana eyes and saw himself standing upon a primordial shore, saw himself thrust into existence by the same powers that thrust volcanoes out of the sea and thrust iguanas out of lava.

        On the Beagle, Darwin read Charles Lyell’s newly published Principles of Geology, which made the radical case that the earth had not been created in its present form, but had evolved over eons––evolved through the work of forces still at work all around us. Mountains were uplifted inch by inch, earthquake by earthquake, and then mountains eroded inch by inch, rainstorm by rainstorm. Rivers built new rocks at the bottom of the sea and then the rocks arose as new mountains and created new rivers. On his voyage, Darwin had many opportunities to see Lyell’s ideas in action. In the Andes, shortly before reaching the Galapagos, Darwin experienced an earthquake and saw the land uplifted, and he collected fossil seashells atop a mountain. Darwin began to wonder if biological forms could change just like geological forms, if species could arise and erode and even transform into new species. The fossil record seemed to show new forms of life appearing. If new species arose not through special acts of creation but through change, then life was its own creator. Life was like a volcano building itself up; life flowed like a river from one shape into another. Other animals were not set down upon the earth merely to be our food and slaves; they were our cousins; they were our parents.

        The year after Darwin returned from the Beagle he was already entranced by a new vision of the origin and relations of life, writing in his journal: “If we choose to let conjecture run wild, then animals, our fellow brethren in pain, disease, suffering and famine—our slaves in the most laborious works, our companions in our amusements—they may partake of our origin in one common ancestor—we may be all melted together.” 

        All melted together. Did Darwin feel all melted together as his hand moved his pen to write these words? Did he see a hand that had held a crude brush and painted Ice Age animals on flickering cave walls? Did he feel the life-and-death grip of a hand upon a spear battling a wooly mammoth? Did he remember the tree-branch grasp of primates climbing for food or safety? Darwin’s grip was nourished by small mammals grasping seeds with their tiny paws and nibbling in a crevice while dinosaur footsteps shook the ground. Darwin’s grip had once propelled stranded fish back down a beach, and later on, when fish realized there was no hurry to get back to water, propelled amphibians to snack on a shore full of plants. Perhaps Darwin saw his arm melting back into a fin.

        Darwin’s grip upon his pen was taking his pulse, the pulse of a heartbeat that belonged to something much larger than himself or any human. No human chose to start his or her own heartbeat; our heartbeats began long ago when the currents of the sea turned into a tiny current within a cell and then grew into currents of blood within small bodies, currents that propelled small bodies against the currents of the sea. The heartbeats grew more reliable and more powerful and were passed from body to body through the eons as the bodies changed shape. Each animal could only borrow its heartbeat for a brief while and then had to give it back to the procession of life. Darwin’s heartbeat was but one tiny facet of a heartbeat that filled the planet, that belonged to life itself. Darwin bore the same heartbeat as Galapagos tortoises and finches and fishes. Darwin’s blood bore the same salt as the sea that whooshed onto Galapagos black-sand beaches. It was this sea and this blood that now spilled from Darwin’s pen, spelling life’s signature upon its eons of work:  “all melted together.”

        All melted together: Darwin’s body was but the momentary shape of life that never ceased changing shape, changing as individual bodies and as species bodies, changing like clouds puffing in and out. Darwin’s body contained the shapes of thousands of past life forms, all melted together into human shape. Through its human shape the life of Earth had now built a wooden shape that could sail against the currents of the sea, sail around the world, searching for the millions of shapes life had become, searching for the truth about itself. Through its Darwin shape the life of Earth finally glimpsed its long evolutionary journey and its true identity and unity.

        If Darwin could return to the Galapagos with his melted-together vision, he wouldn’t see its life as alien and ugly and stupid. He would see the seabirds as clouds puffing in and out. He would see tortoises and finches barely nibbling upon permanence. He would feel the skin of an iguana and recognize that this was another texture of his own skin. He would recognize his own heartbeat in dozens of other shapes of life. He would look into the faces of iguanas and tortoises, into the mirror of deep time, and recognize himself. The usual boundaries between self and not-self, the boundaries that divided life into innumerable facets that failed to recognize one another, had fallen away. The biological mutations of the Galapagos had triggered a mutation of ideas, a mutation that within the isolated island of Darwin’s mind had grown into a bold new species of thought. Darwin would stand upon the melted primordial shore and gaze upon all its life forms and feel that truly: this is myself.  

Spring 2019

Don Lago.png

Don Lago

United States

Don Lago has published two books of literary nature writing, including Where the Sky Touched the Earth: The Cosmological Landscapes of the Southwest (University of Nevada Press, 2017), which is now on sale in the shops of Grand Canyon National Park. His essays exploring nature and science have appeared frequently in national magazines, which include Astronomy, Sky and Telescope, Orion, and Air and Space Smithsonian, and in prominent literary journals including North American Review, Prairie Schooner, The Antioch Review, Gettysburg Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review.