15 September 2011

Galápagos: A raid on the inarticulate

 
What can one say about the Galápagos [1] 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" [2] 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".

A short path leads to a tiny white sand beach bordered by black lava boulders. From the rocks I look out over the dull turquoise sea at the boats pitching and swaying, the grey sky bright with cloud; I look down at the brilliant, sea-washed reds and oranges and blues of the Sally Lightfoot crabs. A sudden memory of those wonderful days at Flounder Bay and the big Leptograpsus there, close cousins of these. This is the kind of place where I can relax and feel alive, where I belong: here in a place owned by animals — by birds and reptiles in particular.
Reptiles. There, just a few metres away, a marine iguana looks back at me. I work carefully, photographing, taking care not to overexpose the scaly white patch on its head. I notice another, close to the first; their camouflage on these rocks is astonishing. Two more; I realise I'm looking at a small group. Later at the Charles Darwin Research Station I photograph the beautiful, bigger, land iguanas with their sulphur-yellows, russets and touches of white and red — spectacular dragons — but it's these little marine iguanas I'm in love with.

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.



Notes:
1. Written on Isabela Island, about events on Santa Cruz.
2. T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: East Coker.


Photos:
1. Blue-footed booby. I never, ever, want to see another T-shirt printed with some bad pun about boobies.
2. Sally Lightfoot crab.
3. One of the very-difficult-to-identify Darwin’s finches. Beak size and shape is apparently the only reliable way to distinguish the species, and even then the overlap means it’s not always possible. Presumably they have it worked out, though.
4. This is the one.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Pete, Excellent post. Amazing photos. Who's really doing the looking? Did anyone capture a photo of you with the flycatcher on your lense? For you, there is only the trying and for us the reader, there is the wonder and delight experienced from reading your words and seeing your photos. Thank you for "your" trying. Maureen

PS your booby notation made me LOL

Zhoen said...

I will love your photos more than anything in a glossy coffee table book by someone without your insight. That means more than expensive equipment. I know you, to the extent of your writing here, and your photos of these lovely creatures is the continuation of that humanity and sensitivity.

The booby is charming.

Relatively Retiring said...

Truly wonderful - words and photographs.

I echo everything said by Maureen and Zhoen, although I'm holding out for the book as well.

pohanginapete said...

Maureen, thank you. I'm constantly amazed by the banality of most souvenir t-shirts, and the Galápagos' selection is no exception. What would appeal to me would be a photo of the little flycatcher trying to perch on my lens, but — alas — no such photo exists. Hasta pronto!

Zhoen, thank you so much for that comment. Finding a way to combine words and photographs is an ongoing struggle for me, and I find your words hugely encouraging. (Apparently "booby" comes from "bobo", the Spanish word for "clown" — in my view, not a great name for these lovely birds.)

RR, thank you! Plenty of material accumulating, but the big question is what sort of framework might tie it all together. A conventional travelogue isn't an option.

robin andrea said...

That longing, your beautiful photographs and words perfectly express it. What is it that pulls like a memory of things seen for the first time? Something shared. Is it in the eyes that look back; or the heart that beats beneath feather or scales? This paradise lost.

pohanginapete said...

Thank you, Robin. You've understood.

Bob McKerrow said...

What a lifetime dream to have come true. I have dreamed of going to the Galapagos, but never made it Pete. Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos and words.

pohanginapete said...

Bob, thank you. I always thought the Galápagos was out of the question because of the expense, but that's only true for cruises. It's quite feasible and inexpensive to visit the islands independently — I picked up cheap flights through Expedia and have been staying in hostels for US$10–15 a night. Day tours add a bit more, but still seem good value (especially compared with the hundreds of dollars a day for a cruise). September's a good time, too — it's the off season, so things are quieter and the weather's mostly cloudy, meaning it's much easier to photograph (the contrast, i.e. light, is extreme here, and full sun would be almost impossible). Well worth considering, and given how tightly regulated the visits are, I'm less concerned about the impacts of tourism here than in many parts of Aotearoa.

butuki said...

My first impression was, "It's like paging through my old, childhood natural history books. all the familiar faces." But upon reading your words you bring up the little things that no one else every talks about... the paper wasps, the carpenter bee, the sulphur butterfly...

That longing seems to follow me everywhere and only seems to manifest itself as a smile when I am out in those wild places where humans are not the focus of everything. Maybe you are looking, like I am, to feel infinitesimally small, but still a intimate part of all of it around, the way all those creatures effortlessly feel... the lost paradise, as Robin put it.

pohanginapete said...

Miguel, I think the people who visit the Galápagos on cruises probably have less time to just sit and look, or wander slowly — they visit more places and get the opportunities to see things I couldn't, but the cost is missing out on getting to know one place. I think your last paragraph puts into words one of the strong feelings I get, too.

Anne said...

Everywhere you go I want to go -- have wanted to for a long time. I want to echo all that has been said about your unique and wonderful combining of photos and words. I feel that I know and saw that little bird that landed on your camera. It becomes a personal acquaintance.

pohanginapete said...

Anne, thank you. I hope we can get to sit down again and discuss these things, and more. You and Jerry are always welcome in the Pohangina Valley :^)

Lydia said...

If I could take the essence of what everyone ahead of me has written to you about this post and combine it with my own gratitude and awe and the words that seem to be lodged behind my tears, what power might that have? Enough to send you home to NZ on a beam of light, most likely.

pohanginapete said...

Lydia thank you so much. If you can manage the beam of light, I'm sure it'd be much more comfortable than the 13 hours of flying from Santiago to Auckland (too close, now) ;^)

Lydia said...

It's there...just hop on! Takes 13 minutes instead of 13 hours. :)

I thought you were not going back until mid-December

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Lydia! Yes, I fly out from Santiago on 15 December. I'll look forward to the 13 minutes of travel ;^)