Fri, 1 May 2020

On Saturday, March 14 of this year, life in the Galapagos Islands was humming along happily.  Planeloads of tourists, smiling, were filing aboard their respective tour boats for their trip of a lifetime among Darwin’s Islands, and the tourism-based local economy was looking forward to high season.  But the very next day those same tourists, now looking bewildered and worried, were scrambling back up the airline ramps almost helter-skelter in an organized but frantic exodus that carried right into the night. By Monday, only a charter flight or two were still picking up the stragglers.

With the first case of Covid-19 reported in Galapagos, by Tuesday March 17, the entire population of the four inhabited islands — about 35,000 people plus a few hundred visitors caught unawares — plunged into total lockdown, an extremely wise precaution considering that our local medical services are pretty basic and the ill are usually flown to hospitals in mainland Ecuador.  From this date onward, anyone not employed in essential services (e.g. fishermen, farmers, garbage collectors) is confined to their house and yard, 24/7, except for one weekly outing by a single household member for shopping, doctor or banking needs.  A total curfew is in place from 14:00 to 05:00 hours every day.  Each afternoon, police loudhailers announce the curfew like mujahedeen calling the faithful to prayer.  After that, occasional police sirens send the disobedient or disorganized home.  So each day has passed for nearly eight weeks now, with no end in sight.  

The measures are working, with only a few dozen cases and one fatality recorded to date.  (I should clarify that the cases ‘afloat’ represent nearly all the crew of a single tour ship; all ships are quarantined in harbor, with no passengers on board).

For me, who spent four decades of my adult life roaming all seven continents in search of wildlife photos in the planet’s remotest corners, this extraordinary situation produced an epiphany.  I quite suddenly discovered the magic of living in a world that stretches no farther than I can throw an orange!  All at once, I fell in love with my ‘home’, where I’ve lived off on and for the last year.  It is, in fact, not mine: a friend let me plonk three old shipping containers on his unused plot of land.  I cut doors and windows in my metal boxes, affixed paneling and installed basic mod-coms. It’s a ‘tiny house’ without the glamour, as the containers must remain functional and portable when I leave or when my friend reclaims his property.

Getting started:

To make the grounds less rugged, I pushed back the thorn scrub from my immediate surroundings, had a truckload of volcanic gravel spread over the jagged lava around the foundations and, fortuitously, ordered a truckload of highland soil a couple months ago to create a small garden.

When my parents moved to Galapagos in 1955 to become pioneers, they were artists who loved color, and so do I.  From their travels far and wide, long before conservation consciousness made the introduction of foreign plants an ecological no-no, they brought rare and beautiful specimens to decorate their little garden.  Too delicate to become pest species, these plants were shared with other locals, and today I’ve made it my hobby to recreate the collection in my own garden: a lavender geranium from Belgium, an orange hibiscus from southern France, a yellow hibiscus from Hawaii, and my pride and joy, a gorgeous blue waterlily originating from East Africa.  I used a discarded road-seal bitumen tank as a pond, filled with brackish water.  

I have a little patch of lush, self-maintaining lawn (no mowing), all surrounded by variegated Madagascar periwinkle.  In one corner also grows a clump of scented lemon grass.  In perfect timing for lockdown, a sprawling tomato plant self-seeded under my soak-away kitchen drain, and an even more expansive sweet potato vine, that started as an indoor ornamental until it grew too big, now occupies one edge of the garden, producing a nice little harvest.

In addition, some wildling tomatoes, hybrids between regular cultivars and the acrid endemic species, common around town, have spread spontaneously along the margins of my sprinkler’s reach.  Between these unplanned cultivations, I am fully supplied with fresh goodies.

In my miniaturised world, every leaf, every petal, the way they grow and unfurl, every moth and every caterpillar has taken on new meaning.  When I step outside at sunrise, the wild passionflower (a Galapagos native) that I use to screen the view across my neighbour’s yard, is fairly strumming with the buzz of big black Galapagos carpenter bees.

And then there are all the native birds.  Darwin’s finches by the score, of several different species. A pair of Galapagos flycatchers, whose twitter is the first to greet each dawn.  And a family of Galapagos mockingbirds, who successfully raised two clutches of babies this season.

In fact, a small miracle happened in Galapagos this year.  The story of all Galapagos passerines (songbirds) is a sad one, due to introduced pests brought in by humans.  A parasitic fly, Philornis downsi, which as an adult feeds mainly on fruit (and was probably introduced in a crate of airfreighted produce), lays its larvae in small birds’ nests where, dining on the nestlings’ blood, they have caused nearly one 100% breeding failure for well over a decade.  But miraculously this year, nest after nest fledged with almost no impact from the dreaded fly.  The cause for this unexpected break may have been the early rains, when daytime temperatures remained unusually low.  We won’t know because the scientists were unable to continue working in the field due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Whatever the reason, I suddenly found myself revisiting my childhood, with every shrub and tree resonating to the sound of chirping baby birds.  As soon as they fledged a new wave of babies appeared, as the finches are opportunistic breeders who make the best of favorable conditions — a very welcome boost to an aging population of adults.

My joy was short-lived, however, as the newly independent young finches, still learning how to find their own food, fell victim to a second man-induced scourge: avian pox.  This disease has been present in Galapagos for well over a century (as indicated by finch specimens in early museum collections), probably brought in with fowl aboard the whaling ships of old.  Most likely transmitted by mosquitoes, the pox grows into enormous, hideous boils on the birds’ feet and heads.

After such a good start this year, it was with a sinking heart that I saw the first wave of pox hit the youngsters, at first sitting all fluffed up, nursing one or the other sore foot, which soon exploded into boot-like monstrosities.  But now a second miracle happened. Most of the young birds around my garden remained feisty and active, despite their grotesque boils and visible pain.  Some were so handicapped that they could barely move about in search of food.  So, disregarding the national park edict not to interfere with the wildlife, I started doling out all-day buffets of their favorite food: rice.  

Balancing unsteadily on swollen feet, the young finches ate like gluttons.  A few succumbed, but within a week or two most of them rallied.  Scabs started falling off and tender pink scar tissue appeared.  They’d made it through!  

I had been noticing this trend for some years.  In my childhood, pox mortality of young finches was atrocious, often succumbing within days of independence.  But as the decades passed, I began to notice an increasing number of these birds hobbling along but remaining quite lively, and feeding voraciously if their horrible swellings permitted.  As time wore on, I saw more and more birds surviving, often losing entire toes during the healing process, but growing into successful breeding adult nonetheless.

I am convinced that the process of ‘Natural selection’ and ‘Survival of the fittest’, concepts put forth by Darwin that have survived the test of modern science, are finally coming to the aid of the ailing finches, making them more resistant to an affliction that threatened to decimate them.

The short rainy season has now come and gone.  As I contemplate the blue skies above my little oasis and watch the graceful silhouette of a frigatebird soaring in lazy circles far above, I reflect upon these processes, and by association, our own place among all living things.  For the last couple of centuries, we have acted as agents for pathogens to burden an island fauna that was, in scientific terms, ‘immunologically naïve’.  But slowly, I’m seeing these birds bounce back; at least where the pox is concerned, nature is showing us it’s capacity for resilience.

Now, under Covid-19 lockdown, I too am faced with the global spread of a pathogen that is threatening our own survival.  Covid-19 is assaulting the whole of humanity, a species that right now is also ‘immunologically naïve’.  As everyone hunkers down in fear, we are all waiting for a miracle to happen.  Of course, I don’t want to die any more than my neighbor does.  No living cell on the planet wants to die, not even the virus.  And yet that miracle, quite likely, lies within ourselves, within our own genetic variability.  Once natural selection and survival of the fittest has run its course amongst the human species, as it has in the finches around my house, the vast majority of people in the world will have survived, and this pandemic will be no more than a very bad memory.  What we have to relearn is that, like it or not, we are still an integral part of nature and natural cycles, those very forces that have molded all living things since the very first inception of Life on this planet.  

As I listen to the finches proclaiming their breeding songs across the tops of giant cacti, I muse a bit further.  I think of the living cells that make up my body, some dying, others regenerating, all trying to survive for as long they can, as if they were each their own entity and not a part of the whole that is my body.  But my living cells aren’t actually my own. 
They were fostered by my mother and my father, whose living cells came to them from an infinitely long chain of forebearers.  Therefore, my own cells actually bear a kinship relation with every other living cell on earth.  When I die, I hope that my cells, rather than being cremated, will be allowed to transit to other living cells via bacteria back up the food chain.  That will be a miracle indeed.

A few challenges of lockdown… illustrations clockwise below: 

Selfies of before-and-after DYI haircut;  a masked visit to the bank (it’s not that long ago you would have been arrested as a bandit for approaching the tellers wearing this!); home-made marmalade to swap for my neighbour’s home-made bread; salad from my garden (wild purslane, hybrid tomatoes, sweet potato); a cactus bark and resin panel (my mother’s creation) and a carved window sill (my father’s) I rescued from my late parents old home; town festivities before Covid-19.

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