GALÁPAGOS—I can tell you a few facts about these nowhere-else-on-earth islands, but it would be impossible adequately to describe the experience of wandering for a week among them. Providing one pays attention, one leaves at the end of a time here a subtly changed person. Things do not look quite the same once back in society. One’s relations with the earth and the human civilization that covers it have undergone a certain transformation: The former’s seems closer, while one feels more detached from the latter.
I traveled here in June courtesy of a generous family who brought me along. We stayed on a chartered yacht, each day making for a different island—there are 19 of them, four inhabited by human beings—and explored either the volcanic cliffs and flats or the sea surrounding them. They are barren, inhospitable almost everywhere. They are de-humanized in the way Nietzsche used this term. There have been short-lived settlements from time to time since the early 19th century; on Santa Cruz, there is a largish town and in the hills beyond some cattle farms where the giant tortoises mingle among the livestock, but otherwise homo sapiens are not part of the picture.
If you study the topography, it is easy to imagine how these islands bubbled up out of the ocean millions of years ago. Each one is crowned by a high volcano, and in most cases many smaller ones make a pattern around it. I thought of oatmeal simmering on a winter’s morning—viscous swells rising, expelling, and falling here and there. On what the islands are now—and one thing you learn is that nature’s never, ever static—the plant and animal life is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
AS WE PREPARED TO FLY BACK to Quito and beyond, our good-humored guides gave us a questionnaire to fill out on the idea this helps them improve the presentation. “What did you like best?” we were asked. The hiking? The snorkeling? The birds—the frigates, the famous boobies, the albatrosses—the iguanas, the sea lions, the plant life? I found the question unanswerable, thought for a sec, and wrote, “Listening, looking, learning.”
What did I learn, then, I was required to ask myself. I went away with two lessons and added a third on arriving back in the Ecuadoran capital. They are these:
One, there is no mercy in nature. A friend urges me to change “no mercy” to “little,” but I’ll hold to the original thought. A mother booby bird will lay two eggs a year, feed and nurture the strongest, and let the other one die. An infant sea lion that is accidentally orphaned or lost will be entirely neglected by the rest of the population, which is apparently some degree of clannish, and die on the beach.
Mercy, I conclude, is a human invention. Am I right in thinking it was first described as a value in the New Testament and dates to the time (and the person) chronicled therein? In the two millennia since we haven’t made much use of the idea, but it is ours. One does watch a pelican dive like a bomber into the surf and come up with a beak full of fish and wonder, “What’s it like to live entirely without conscience? That seemed the core question. The natural order is as it is, any animal would say were there any need to give the matter any thought, and I am simply part of it. (Is this too simplistic a description of Darwin’s thesis?)
Two, I can tell you I have walked among creatures—flying, swimming, crawling, walking, waddling—and detected no alienation whatsoever between animal and human. But I can’t describe the experience. As I read in Darwin and the accounts of other visitors, this was over and over among the first things they, too, noted about Galápagos. There is something Edenic about this.
The lesson I derived has a lot of heartbreak in it: However long ago the Old Testament was written, with its many passages about man’s dominion over all the earth, Western civilization has had it wrong ever since. I had drawn approximately this conclusion long before the journey I describe, but Galápagos fortified the conviction.
My mind drifted over certain moments during the three decades I spent in the non–West, most of that time in East Asia. Man as a part of nature and not its master is something we desperately need to learn from them. I wrote about this extensively in my last book but one, Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post–Western World. When all those years and all the work had ended, in 2010, I took to thinking of myself as no longer altogether a Westerner. It is a fair claim, I still think. But in Galápagos I realized it is true only in part: The East transformed my sensibility, but I live in a Western society; I partake of a culture whose bedrock assumptions are all about man as he stands outside nature, its superior and director.
Parenthetically, I don’t quite know what I think of the trendy new thought among the scholars: “The world has slipped,” as Jed Purdy put it in a Boston Review essay earlier this year, “from the Holocene—the epoch that officially encompasses the last ten thousand years—into the Anthropocene, the epoch of humanity, in which people are a force, maybe the force, in the development of the planet.”
“Anthropocene,” man as the determinant of earth’s ultimate fate. Brace yourself: You’ll see a lot of this idea for who knows how long.
Good enough we come to recognize we hold in our hands the means to save or destroy the earth. But the idea we’ve entered an anthropocene epoch comes to me as the Old Testament redone. Our most urgent task is precisely to abandon all pretense to planetary mastery. This is in essence an act of subtraction. The need is to desist and learn how to take our proper place.
SUCH WERE LESSONS GALÁPAGOS imparted, I figured the morning we all left, but there was one more to come. On arriving in Quito, through which all airborne visitors have to transit, there was a five and a half hour layover before the flight to Atlanta and a connection to La Guardia in New York. Inside half an hour the third lesson landed.
It is this. We had all just passed a week entirely without media—no television, no radio, no newspapers, no advertising, no horrible rock music piped in everywhere one goes, not even telephones, e mail, or the web. Everyone was aware of this media deprivation without thinking too much about its implications—and certainly not what it was going to be like to re-enter the world as we know it.
Horrible, in short—invoking of despair. In the best Quito airport could do by way of a civilized café, the piped-in music was loud—one thump-thump-thump recording drifting in from one end of the airport, another competing with it from the other. Huge television screens with junk chitter-chatter shows in Spanish about nothing whatsoever of consequence. Advertisements everywhere. Vulgar, oversized plastic signs atop anyplace selling anything. One instantly had the sensation of defenselessness against an invasion of the senses. Most people lost themselves in their hand devices, poking screens and utterly unaware of anyone and anything around them.
We’re drowning in pollutants quite beyond those one sees and smells, though they are just as potent: This is the lesson. And I don’t hear even the murmur of a prayer, to quote a good song filled with the sadness any sentient person with clear eyes has to feel when considering humanity’s hurdle down the wrong road.
I no longer question why I live in an exceedingly quiet village of 1,600 people on the rural edge of a New England state. I just discovered another reason.
ONE OTHER NOTE.
On the way out to the islands we had a day and a half layover in the Ecuadoran capital. At its heart is what remains of a superb Spanish-era city—quite a lot—there is the plaza. I have always loved Iberian culture—or do I mean Mediterranean culture altogether, as one?—for the place it awards public space: the plaza in Spanish, the piazza in Italian, the praça in Portuguese, the place or parc in French. In the heart of the heart of Quito is a sprawling plaza of the kind one sees in almost all Spanish or Portuguese or Italian or French cities anywhere (and I would think on the non–Western side of the Mediterranean, too). A fountain at its core, naturally. And benches, sidewalks, statuary, flower beds, manicured patches of grass.
People gather. At certain times of day—at the end of the working hours as the sun sets, on a Saturday morning—a plaza in any language will fill with people taking their promenade, mingling among friends and strangers, as I register it unconsciously affirming their place in their communities. It is an integral, intimate part of life in these cultures, for the plaza belongs to everyone. This consciousness, it seems to me—the activation of the public self—will have something to do with it if humanity is ever to overcome its compulsion to possess the earth rather than dwell on it as a creature among others.