Fri, 20 Aug 2021

On May 1st last year, six weeks into total lockdown, I wrote down some thoughts about my new way of life (read here), exploring my new micro-universe made of three shipping containers-cum-tiny-house, placed on a friend’s unused town plot tucked up against the Galapagos National Park boundary — thank you Magno Bennett, Galapagos artist extraordinaire!

As the idea of long-range travel faded into oblivion — a way of life I’d embraced since I was 19 — I became enthralled with the ways of the birds and the bees around my (also tiny) emerging garden.  Even while a part of me felt that we’d all stopped living for fear of dying, I settled into an exceedingly cozy lifestyle with two newly-adopted furry strays, Ruru the cat and Tilgo the dog.  Together, we spent joyful days without a schedule, without pressure, going out only when needed.  

Despite precautions, I did get Covid, not once but twice, eleven months apart.  Both times were like brief bouts of flu, the first one sharp and momentarily debilitating, the second quite mild.  I stayed home, didn’t medicate and shrugged it off, but both times a kind of bone-wearying lethargy took several months to clear afterwards.  Obviously, and despite my ‘at risk’ age (67), I was one of the overwhelming majority, on a percentage basis, who suffered no severe consequence, but not all were so lucky.  Of 2,205 confirmed cases out of an approximate population of 35,000, Galapagos suffered 25 deaths, some much-beloved patriarchs among them.  The mortality rates were probably similar in mainland South America, but the sheer density of sprawling cities, like in many other overcrowded parts of the world, led to the collapse of medical services, with harrowing consequences.

By May of this year, thanks to the tireless work of then Governor/Minister for Galapagos, Norman Wray, the islands became the first province in all of Latin America where the entire adult population had access to the double dose of the Pfizer vaccine — a heroic achievement for which he sadly received little recognition.  The vaccination program for the islanders has continued through the change of government in May 2020, and is currently moving down the age ranks to 12-year-olds, while Covid cases have dwindled to zero.

And suddenly here we are, well over halfway through a new year, jolted into a new reality that is remarkably similar to pre-Covid days, except that people are still wearing masks in public and using alcohol to clean their hands regularly.  Streetside restaurants, bars and pizzerias are again buzzing, skateboarders and folk dancers sashay across the sidewalks and tourists wander in and out of gift shops, or gaze at baby sharks under the colourful evening spotlights at the town’s main pier. 

Somehow, it feels eerily as though nothing at all had happened, as if I’d only just awakened from some sort of very long hibernation, except of course that many small businesses are either gone or staggering under crushing debt from which they may never recover. The lights of tour boats drift across the horizon, although few come into port, to minimize contact in what many locals see as an excess of prudence.

In June, the last and only one of the six photo tours I was meant to run over the last two years finally operated, with only one berth unfilled.  I’m not sure who was more excited, me or the visitors, to see these beautiful islands unsullied and unchanged by the storms that beset the world of humans for the past year and a half, with the added bonus that we had many of these glorious wild places all to ourselves.  One highlight followed another: boobies nest-building, turtles gliding through peaceful mangrove inlets, 

albatrosses courting and swallow-tailed gulls bonding, to name but a few.  And, as never fails to happen on any trip I take, there were a few ‘firsts’ for me, like sea grottoes filled with a flowing pink ‘carpet’ of cardinal fish (I call them confetti-fish!) hunted from below by hungry creolefish and from above by an equally hungry lava heron, while serving as a visual veil for a sleeping turtle on the rocky bottom.  

Another ‘first’ was to finally be able to photograph a flightless cormorant dispatching an octopus underwater, something I’d of course seen many times but never photographed.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been busy in other ways, with three book projects for Princeton University Press: 1) an updated new edition (with my New Zealand partners) on PENGUINS OF THE WORLD; 2) a comprehensive pocket guide to GALAPAGOS BIRDS in the making; and 3) SEA TURTLES OF THE WORLD, a long-range endeavour which won’t see the light of day until I’m in my 70s — yikes!  Once again, I’m dreaming excitedly of distant travels, as this project will take me to many new corners of the globe to get the photo coverage the subject deserves.

Strangely, however, there’s a part of me, deep inside, that seems to have changed: Like the papaya tree that is now bearing fruit in my garden, I seem to have put down roots of my own, and the thought of pulling them out once more feels rather painful.  I think wistfully of my empty home in New Zealand, of the daffodils and the cherries and magnolias that are about to erupt into another springtime celebration — a home I left so innocently in December 2019 ‘for a few months’ and which today remains logistically as inaccessible as the moon, due to formidable anti-Covid isolationist protocols still in place in that country, and showing no signs of abating.  I continue to dream of the day that I can once again climb into the old Toyota Prado and head out with my camera — with no itinerary or schedule — to photograph the natural wonders of that magical island nation, something I missed doing while I still could.

Seven years ago I returned to Galapagos to help my mom cope through the ravages of terminal Alzheimer’s.  When she passed — in her 90th year — I stayed a little longer, to heal.  I published two more books on these mythical islands since then.  The latest, A LIFETIME IN GALAPAGOS, was released last September by Princeton University Press, while the world was turning upside down (due to the demise of the Ecuadorian postal system, I didn’t actually see a hard copy of my finished book until five months after it was released!).  During a year of lockdown, I watched humanity go crazy — human rights destroyed, hegemony blossoming — and I watched the natural world going about its own business, making sense of an environment made increasing senseless mostly due to the simple equations of global human overpopulation.  Climate change, overfishing, pandemic, rising poverty, wars, refugees, famine, violence, perverse nationalism, religious extremism, the lot, all boiling down to just one thing:  too many people squabbling over space and resources on a finite earth.  Irrefutably, we’re witnessing the planet’s fourth mass extinction, this time not caused by a colliding asteroid, but by none other than ourselves.  Yet I find peace and justice in the knowledge that the biosphere will move on unscathed, with or without us.  Shaken yes, reshaped certainly, but unscathed nonetheless.

I watch my rescued dog and cat play, happy and content.  My mockingbird pair is back demanding bread crumbs with raucous urgency after a six-months hiatus while natural foods were plentiful after the last rains.  The finches too are back in force, feasting at the rice feeder now that the competition for natural seeds by introduced rats has become too steep to bear.  My dear mother’s flowers — a living reminder of her love of life and beauty — continuously blossom around me.  On clear nights, the full moon still rises in the east and the golden sun sets in the west.  They will continue to do so long after I’m gone and forgotten.  But wait — I still have quite a few more adventures up my sleeve — watch this space!

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