What can one say about the Galápagos  that hasn't been said so many times before, sometimes by far better writers? The guide books rave; the coffee table books filled with spectacular photos project endless variations of the same images of a place the way it might have been before human ascendancy; occasionally someone mentions the impacts of tourism. This is one aspect of Eliot's "intolerable wrestle/With words and meanings"  and perhaps the only approach is what he called "the fight to recover what has been lost/And found and lost again and again". Here on the Galápagos the problem isn't only words: everything has been photographed innumerable times before, often by those with the eye that characterises the exceptional photographer (always supported by equipment I can only lust after), and sometimes I despair of finding a way to present what I feel (not necessarily what I see) in a way that hasn't been presented a thousand times before. Still, I take heart from the similar despair of a man I cannot hope to emulate and find encouragement in his conclusion: "For us, there is only the trying".
At the Station's Interpretation Centre, the main exhibits — the giant tortoises and land iguanas — are only part of the attraction for me. So much is happening around them: birds, lava lizards, big yellow and brown paper wasps, dragonflies, a Darwin's carpenter bee, a sulphur butterfly, ... how many people pay much attention to these things?Most of the people I see focus on the tortoises, with size seemingly the greatest attraction, and admittedly the fully grown adults are astonishing. But most of these enormous reptiles, not just the famous Lonesome George, who stretches his long, old man's neck to peer hopefully in my direction, have a kind of sadness about them. One in particular, in an enclosure further on with several others, looks back at me with what seems to be a kind of longing for something lost. These tortoises can live more than a century; what might they remember, and what meaning might these memories have for them? A century ago airmail began, Hiram Bingham rediscovered the present-day theme park known as Machu Picchu, and we began bombing our own species from the air. For this tortoise inspecting me, the single most memorable event in its life might be the day it was taken from the wild — or perhaps, if this is one of the products of the highly successful breeding programme, perhaps nothing stands out as memorable among the endless succession of similar days. Most probably, the longing I see in this tortoise is my own looking back at me, but to articulate its nature I need to know what I long for. Without that, I can't even try.
The walk back to Puerto Ayora takes a long time, not because it's far — it isn't — but because so much keeps calling out to be noticed. A Galápagos flycatcher flits among the foliage close by. As I photograph it, it swoops down and snatches a spider. A few quick photographs — then suddenly the bird flies directly towards me and tries to land on the lens. For a few seconds it scrabbles with its little claws on the lens hood then, unable to grip, flies off. This is the Galápagos.
1. Written on Isabela Island, about events on Santa Cruz.
2. T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: East Coker.
1. Blue-footed booby. I never, ever, want to see another T-shirt printed with some bad pun about boobies.
2. Sally Lightfoot crab.