Wide-eyed in Galapagos

Award-winning writer Barry Lopez explores the mind-widening wonders and gut-wrenching terrors of an extraordinary land.

Published June 25, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Fog, melancholy as a rain-soaked dog, drifts through the highlands, beading my hair with moisture. On the path ahead a vermilion flycatcher, burning scarlet against the muted greens of the cloud forest, bursts up in flight. He flies to a space just over my head and flutters there furiously, an acrobatic stall, a tiny, wild commotion that hounds me down the muddy trail, until I pass beyond the small arena of his life. Soon another comes and leaves; and afterward another, tiny escorts on a narrow trail descending the forest.

I had not expected this, exactly. The day before, down below at the airstrip, I'd looked out over a seared lava plain at the thin, desultory cover of leafless brush and thought, In this slashing light there will be no peace. How odd now, this damp, cool stillness. Balsa and scalesia trees, festooned with liverworts and mosses, give on to stretches of grassland where tortoises graze. Blue-winged teal glide the surface of an overcast pond. The migrant fog opens on a flight of doves scribing a rise in the land, and then, like walls sliding, it seals them off.

Beneath this canopy of trees, my eyes free of the shrill burden of equatorial light, my cheeks cool as the underside of field stone -- I had not thought a day like this would come in Galapagos. I had thought, foolishly, only of the heat-dunned equator, of a remote, dragon-lair archipelago in the Pacific. I had been warned off any such refreshing scenes as these by what I had read. Since 1535 chroniclers have made it a point to mark these islands down as inhospitable, deserted stone blisters in a broad ocean, harboring no wealth of any sort. A French entrepreneur, M. de Beauchesne-Gouin, dismissed them tersely (and typically) in 1700: "la chose du monde la plus affreuse," the most horrible place on Earth. Melville, evoking images of holocaust and despair in "The Encantadas," viewed the Galapagean landscape as the aftermath of a penal colony. A visiting scientist wrote in 1924 that Isla Santa Cruz, where I now wandered, "made Purgatory look like the Elysian Fields."

Obviously, I reflected, feeling the heft of the mist against the back of my hands and the brightness of birdsong around me, our summaries were about to differ. And it was not solely because these writers had never ventured far inland, away from the bleak coasts. Singularly bent to other tasks -- commercial exploitation, embroidering on darkness in a literary narrative, compiling names in the sometimes inimical catalogs of science -- they had rendered the islands poorly for a visitor intent, as I was, on its anomalies, which by their irreducible contrariness reveal, finally, a real landscape.

GALAPAGOS, an archipelago of thirteen large and six smaller islands and some forty exposed rocks and islets, occupies a portion of the eastern Pacific half the size of Maine. It lies on the equator, but oddly; the Humboldt Current, flowing up from the Antarctic Ocean, has brought penguins to live here amid tropical fish, but its coolness inhibits the growth of coral; and the fresh water streams and sandy beaches of, say, equatorial Curagao or Martinique are not to be found here. The Galapagos are black shield volcanoes, broadly round massifs that rise symmetrically to collapsed summits, called calderas. Their lightly vegetated slopes incline like dark slabs of grit to cactus-strewn plains of lava. The plains, a lay of rubble like a storm-ripped ocean frozen at midnight, run to precipitous coasts of gray basalt, where one finds, occasionally, a soothing strip of coastal mangrove. Reptiles and birds, the primitive scaled and feathered alone, abound here; no deerlike, no foxlike, no harelike animal abides.

The tendency to dwell on the barrenness of the lowlands, and on the seeming reptilian witlessness of the tortoise, as many early observers did, or to diminish the landscape cavalierly as an "inglorious panorama" -- an ornithologist's words -- of Cretaceous beasts, was an inevitability, perhaps; but the notion founders on more than just the cloud forests of Santa Cruz. Pampas below many of the islands' calderas roll like English downs serenely to the horizon. Ingenious woodpecker finches pry beetle grubs from their woody chambers with cactus spines. The dawn voice of the dove is as plaintive here as in the streets of Cairo or Sao Paulo. Galapagos, the visitor soon becomes aware, has a kind of tenderness about it; its stern vulcanism, the Age of Dragons that persists here, eventually comes to seem benign rather than aberrant. The nobility that may occasionally mark a scarred human face gleams here. Biologists call Galapagos "exceptional" and "truly extraordinary" among the world's archipelagoes. They pay homage to its heritage by referring to it as "the Mount Sinai of island biogeography." But these insular landscapes give more than just scientific or historical pause. With flamingos stretched out in lugubrious flight over its fur seal grottoes, flows of magma orange as a New Mexican sunset percolating from its active volcanoes, towering ferns nodding in the wind like trees from the Carboniferous, and with its lanky packs of bat-eared, feral dogs some two hundred generations removed from human contact, Galapagos proves unruly to the imagination.

A departing visitor typically recalls being astonished here by the indifference of animals to human superiority. Sea lions continue to doze on the beach as you approach, even as you come to stand within inches of their noses. Their eyes open with no more alarm at your presence than were you parent to their dozing child. Mockingbirds snatch at your hair and worry your shoelaces -- you are to them but some odd amalgamation of nesting materials. While this "tameness" is not to be forgotten, and while it is an innocence that profoundly comforts the traveler, Galapagos imparts more important lessons, perhaps, about the chaos of life. A blue-footed booby chick, embraceable in its white down, stands squarely before an ocean breeze, wrestling comically with its new wings, like someone trying to fold a road map in a high wind. An emaciated sea lion pup, rudely shunned by the other adults, waits with resolute cheer for a mother who clearly will never return from the sea. You extend your fingers here to the damp, soft rims of orchids, blooming white on the flanks of dark volcanoes.

SANTA CRUZ, in whose highlands I had gone to hike, lies near the center of the archipelago, some 590 miles west of Ecuador. Almost half of Galapagos's permanent population of 16,000 lives here, on farms, in two small villages, and in the large town of Puerto Ayora. The geography of this island is typical of Galapagos; the character of the vegetation changes, rather sharply, as one gains altitude. Candelabra and prickly pear cactus, dominating the lowlands, give way to a transitional zone of dry brush. Higher up, this scrubland turns to forest, then to heath and open country, where sedges, grasses, and ferns grow. It was while climbing up through these life zones on the slopes of an extinct volcano, hearing wet elephant grass swish against my pants, that I first became aware of my untempered preconception of Galapagos as desolate. And it was here, along a fence line meant to restrain cattle, that I initially encountered that immense and quintessential animal of Galapagos, the giant tortoise. In those first moments it seemed neither a dim nor a clumsy beast. In its saurian aloofness, in the wild shining of its eyes as it ceased its grazing to scrutinize my passage, I beheld a different realm of patience, of edification, than the one I knew. Tortoises hesitate and plunge across the highlands like stunned ursids. The spiritual essence of Galapagos clings to them.

It was also on Santa Cruz, in the streets of Puerto Ayora, that I first sensed the dimensions of something disturbingly ordinary -- the difficulties the people of Galapagos confront today: an erratic economic development that has come with the growth of tourism, and the disaffection of local farmers, fishermen, and lobstermen with the distribution of wealth here.

Galapagos seduces the visitor with the complexity of its beauty; but, like any mecca of wonder in the modern era, its beauty, its capacity to heal the traveler from afar, is threatened by the traveler himself, and by the exigencies of modern society. In 1985 a huge, man-caused fire burned nearly a hundred square miles of forest and pampa on southern Isla Isabela. The fire began on the rim of Volcan Santo Tomas and burned for months before an international team of forest-fire fighters finally put it out. The press in North America and Europe exaggerated the havoc (penguins, for example, did not flee before the flames, nor did flamingos turn gray from a fallout of ash) -- and the exaggeration precipitated an indictment. While the cause of the fire remains undetermined, it was widely assumed in the United States and Europe that it was started, accidentally but perhaps on purpose, by residents of the small village of Santo Tomas. The charred landscape was viewed, by some, as a dark statement of economic frustration, of the village's irritation with officials of Galapagos National Park, who will not allow them to extend their croplands and small-scale ranching operations into the -- to them -- "unused" interior of the islands, or to cut timber there.

Two extreme views about the future of Galapagos have since emerged. Some scientists, already aware of the extensive damage done in the islands by domestic animals gone wild -- there are currently 80,000 feral goats on Isla Santiago alone -- would like to see the resident population of Galapagos greatly reduced and most of the agricultural holdings bought out and incorporated into the park. Many colonists, on the other hand, want to see both tourism and town trade continue to expand, in order to supplement their relatively meager incomes from farming, ranching, fishing, and odd jobs. (Galapagos has no indigenous people with prior land claims. The first colonists arrived in 1832, when Ecuador took possession of the islands.)

But these are extreme positions. Economic hardship is evident to anyone walking the dirt streets of Galapagos's villages; but, on Isla Santa Cruz at least, the accommodation achieved among colonists, scientists, and national park personnel seems, to one who inquires, of a relatively high order. Considering how recently principles of conservation, let alone land-use planning, have become part of village life in South America, the acquiescence of many farmers to park-service demands for conservation is striking. (In a gesture of reciprocal understanding, park managers recently began planting teak trees on private land, to compensate owners for the saw timber they are not allowed to take from the park.)

Galapagos has two indisputable, interrelated problems: economic development (farming, fishing, tourism) without any overall plan; and non-native plants and animals, which continue to change the islands' ecology. The latter situation is dire, but no worse than it's been in recent memory. Programs to eliminate feral goats on some of the smaller islands have been successful, as have efforts to reintroduce tortoises to areas where their populations have been decimated by feral cats, dogs, pigs, and rats. (A new, current worry is that feral dogs may breach a rugged, waterless stretch of lava on Isabela called Perry Isthmus and begin to prey on the least-disturbed animal populations in the whole archipelago, those on northern Isabela.)

Galapagos National Park incorporates nearly 97 percent of Galapagos, a combined land mass half the size of Connecticut. (Near-shore waters were recently declared a "marine resource reserve" by the Ecuadorian government. Tourism and commercial fisheries officials, the park service, and the Ecuadorian navy are currently working out a management agreement.) The other 3 percent of the land comprises about a hundred square miles of farmstead, a few small settlements, and three large villages -- Puerto Ayora, a base for tourism and scientific research on Santa Cruz; Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the islands' administrative center on San Cristsbal; and Puerto Villamil, a farming and ranching community on Isabela. Agriculture in Galapagos has always been marginal, because of a lack of fresh water, poor soils, and periods of drought. Fishing offers an economic alternative, but Galapagean fishermen increasingly are of the view that profit lies with converting their work boats to touring yachts.

Changes in the Galapagean economy are directly related to a sharp rise in tourism. During the 1960s only a few thousand tourists a year visited the archipelago. When the numbers increased in the 1970s, a park committee suggested a limit -- 12,000 per year, later raised to 25,000. By 1996 more than 55,000 were arriving, severely straining hotel and restaurant facilities at Puerto Ayora and more limited facilities at Baquerizo Moreno, the two communities connected to the mainland by air. Officials are now looking for specific answers to three separate questions: How many visitors can the park itself absorb? How many visitors can the park service manage? And how many people can simultaneously be present at a single location in the park before a visitor's sense of the magical remoteness of Galapagos is lost?

POINTS OF LEGAL DISEMBARKATION in the park -- seabird colonies, cactus forests, saltwater lagoons -- are limited, currently to fifty-four; the tour I joined, therefore, took us to the very same spots other visitors see. Occasionally we did encounter another group, but what we saw or heard at nearly every site was so uncommon, so invigorating, that the intrusion of others rarely detracted. We snorkeled amid schools of brilliant sergeant majors and yellow-tailed surgeonfish at a place called Devil's Crown, off Isla Floreana. At tide pools on the coast of Santiago, octopuses stared at us askance, and small fish called blennies wriggled past, walking peg-leg on their fin tips from pool to pool over the rock. At Isla Espaqola we stepped respectfully around blue-footed boobies nesting obdurately in the trail. At Punta Cormorant we watched a regatta of ghost crabs scurry off up the beach, a high stepping whirr, two hundred or more of them, as if before a stiff breeze.

The genius of the management plan in Galapagos -- its success in preserving a feeling of wilderness warrants the word -- rests on three principles. The park, first, exercises a high degree of control over where visitors go, with whom they go, and what they do. No one may travel in the park without a licensed guide and guides can -- and sometimes do -- send visitors too cavalier about the environment back to the boat; trails are marked and bounds have been established at each visitor site; and touching or feeding the animals, wandering off on one's own, or pocketing so much as a broken seashell are all prohibited. Second, because the boat itself incorporates the services of a hotel, a restaurant, and a souvenir shop, there is no onshore development aside from the villages. Last, the park works concertedly with the Charles Darwin Research Station, a nonprofit, international scientific program, to manage the islands and monitor their well-being.

As a result of these precautions, few sites appear overused. Occasionally you even have the illusion, because the animals don't flee at your approach, of being among the first to visit.

Galapagos gently, gradually, overpowers. As our small yacht made its long passage between islands at night (to put us at a new island at dawn), I would lie awake trying to remember some moment of the day just past. The very process of calling upon the details of color and sound was a reminder of how provocative the landscape is, to both the senses and the intellect. The sensual images I recalled in vivid bursts: the yellow-white incandescence of an iguana's head; a thick perfume, like the odor of frankincense, suspended through a grove of bursera trees. At the sheer
headland on South Plaza, I watched swallow-tailed gulls rappel a violent draft of air, stall, quivering in the wind, then float slowly backward in the stream of it to land light as a sigh on their cliff nests. One afternoon while we drifted on a turquoise lagoon, Pacific green turtles rose continually to the calm surface to glance at us, the stillness broken only by water tinkling from their carapaces. They drew surprised, audible breath and sank. Behind them a long hillside of leafless palo santo trees shot up, a cinder wall of Chinese calligraphy leaning into an azure sky.

The most enduring image in Galapagos for me, however, was filled with terror rather than beauty. I stood an hour in a storm petrel colony, under heavy gray skies on the east coast of Tower Island. Galapagos and Madeiran petrels, adroit seabirds about the size of a robin but with thin, delicate legs, nested here in cracks and hollows on a flat expanse of barren lava. They were hunted down, even as I watched, by intense, compact lethal predators -- short-eared owls. Wind had scattered the torn fragments of bone and feather like rubbish over the dark plain. Farther back from the sea, boobies and frigate birds had made nests in the first ranks of low muyuyo shrubs. The risk to these lives was apparent. Young birds dead of starvation, or victims of what ornithologists call sibling murder, lay crumpled on the bare ground like abandoned clothing. Detached wings hung like faded pennants in wickets of Cordia lutea bushes, the wreckage of fatal bad landings.

These deaths, one realizes, are all in the flow of natural selection; but the stark terror of it, like the sight of a sea lion's shark-torn flipper, makes the thought fresh and startling. Images of innocent repose and violence are never far apart in Galapagos and the visitor is nowhere spared the contrast. He or she scans the seascape and landscape at the storm petrel colony acutely aware of the light hold the biological has on the slow, brutal upheaval of the geological.

THE FIRST HUMANS to visit Galapagos may have been Indians from the South American mainland, who arrived on oceangoing balsa rafts in the eleventh century and probably used the islands only as a base for fishing operations. In 1535 Fray Tomas de Berlanga, bishop of Panama, sailing far off course, came on the islands by accident and gave them the name that later appeared in Abraham Ortelius's atlas of 1570 -- Insulae de los Galapagos. (The cleft fore-edge of a lowland tortoise's carapace resembles the sharply rising pommel of a sixteenth-century Spanish saddle, the old Spanish for which was galopego.) English buccaneers began using the islands as a raiding base late in the seventeenth century. Struck by the contrariness of local winds, they referred to the place as las encantadas, the enchanted ones.

Early in the nineteenth century whalers began visiting Galapagos regularly. They came to hunt sperm whales west of Isabela but found they were also able to careen their boats easily on the beaches for repairs and to provision them quickly with live tortoises, a source of fresh meat. The whalers turned pigs and goats loose on most of the islands, food for anyone who came up ship wrecked, but, too, animals easy to hunt down on a return visit. They barreled fresh water in the odd year when it was readily available. They idly beat thousands of marine iguanas and Galapagos doves to death with clubs, marveling at how the animals "do not get out of our way." And they buried their dead among the stones.

The legacy of those frontier days of whaling (and later of sealing) is still evident in Galapagos. Only 15,000 of an original population of perhaps 200,000 tortoises remain; four of fifteen subspecies are extinct and another is on the verge of extinction. The fur seal population, almost hunted out, is making a slow recovery; and black rats (from the ships) long ago eliminated at least one species of rice rat, the lone native mammals on the islands, aside from bats. Foraging goats have radically altered the structure of some of the islands' plant communities.

In addition to the whalers and sealers, three other groups, historically, had an impact on the biology of Galapagos. During World War II, American soldiers stationed on Baltra shot virtually all the larger animals there, and scientists, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, collected extensively for zoos and museums. The most deleterious effects, however, were caused by colonists.

The history of colonization in Galapagos is marked to an unusual degree by violence and periods of wretched, bare subsistence. The early settlements, founded on the hope of trading agricultural products to the mainland, all failed. In due course, each was turned into a penal colony by the Ecuadorian government. Attempts to raise sugarcane, coffee, citrus fruits, melons, and sweet potatoes, and small-scale efforts to export sulphur, seal hides, and tortoise oil, or to make stock-ranching profitable, were all schemes that didn't take sufficiently into account the thinness of the volcanic soils, the undependable climate, or the vicissitudes of a trade-based economy.

Along with the farmers came resident fishermen, who fared somewhat better. Utopian daydreamers, adventurers, and eccentrics followed, many of them poorly informed about the islands' climate, the extent of arable land, even their sovereign status. This pattern, in fact, carried far into the twentieth century.

The first scientific collectors in the islands, an expedition under the French, arrived in 1790. The next, under Captain Robert FitzRoy in HMS Beagle in 1835, fixed the archipelago indelibly in the minds of all who read the subsequent reports of the ship's naturalist, Charles Darwin. In 1905-1906 the California Academy of Sciences conducted the last major effort to collect in the islands, with an apparent excess of zeal -- its leader killed the only tortoise ever recorded on Isla Fernandina.

The days when scientists trapped for zoos and collected indiscriminately are gone; settlers, however, still turn domestic animals loose to prey upon, and compete with, native animals, and residents still shoot Galapagos hawks as predators and occasionally poach tortoise meat. Colonists have also introduced nearly 250 exotic plants to the islands, some of which, in combination with the grazing of feral horses, goats, cattle, and donkeys, threaten several endemic plants with extinction. Scientists, too, sometimes contribute to alterations in the islands' plant communities by bringing ashore food and equipment that harbor seeds or insects from the mainland, or from one of the other islands.

Anxiety about the islands' natural communities stems from scientific knowledge that each island's flora and fauna are unique. Remarkably, this remains essentially true today, despite plant introductions, damage by feral animals, and the loss of some native plant and animal populations. Researchers, in other words, can still find in Galapagos an evolutionary puzzle with relatively few pieces missing.

A DESIRE TO PRESERVE a virtually undisturbed environment in the islands seems obsessive and unrealistic to some local villagers and farmers. Their pressing concerns are for food, a stable source of fresh water, and such things as raw building materials and supplementary income. (One encounters this basic difference in point of view, of course, with growing frequency in many countries -- around the game parks of East Africa, for example, or in the rain forests of Guatemala.) In Galapagos, as elsewhere, things of the mind, including intellectual ramifications from evolutionary theory, and things of the spirit, like the feeling one gets from a Queen Anne's lace of stars in the moonless Galapagean sky, struggle toward accommodation with an elementary desire for material comfort. In Galapagos, however, the measure of accommodation is slightly different. Things of the mind and spirit exert more influence here because so many regard this archipelago as preeminently a terrain of the mind and spirit, a locus of biological thought and psychological rejuvenation. It represents the legacy of Charles Darwin, and the heritage of devotion to his thought.

The sheer strength alone of Darwin's insight into the development of biological life gently urges a visitor to be more than usually observant here -- to notice, say, that while the thirteen Galapagean finches are all roughly the same hue, it is possible to separate them according to marked differences in the shapes of their bills and feeding habits. The eye catches similar nuances elsewhere -- minor differences also separate eleven species of tortoise and fourteen species of scalesia tree. This close variety is tantalizing. Invariably, one begins to wonder why these related species look so much alike -- and an encounter with adaptive radiation, with what Darwin called "descent with modification," becomes inevitable.

A vague intellectual current meanders continually through Galapagos, an ever present musing one senses among a certain steady stream of visitors, if but faintly. Evolution, an elegantly simple perception, is clarified by exceedingly complex speculation; Darwin's heroic attempt to understand evolutionary change forms part of the atmospheric pressure in Galapagos. The idea that an elucidation of natural selection or genetic drift, mechanisms by which evolution might operate, could contribute to more than just a clearer understanding of the universe, that it might make humanity's place in it plainer, is never far off.

One has no need, of course, to know how natural selection might have directed their destinies to appreciate unadorned variety among Darwin's finches. The Galapagos penguin is no less startling, the turquoise eyes of the Galapagos cormorant no less riveting, for not knowing precisely how each might have evolved since it arrived. Nor is a visitor required to brood over the economic fate of farmers and villagers in Galapagos, while staring down into the wondrous blowhole of a dolphin riding the bow wave of a tour boat. But at the close of the twentieth century, not to turn to the complexities of evolution in a real place, to the metaphorical richness and utility of Darwin's thought, or to turn away from the economic aspirations of a local people, seems to risk much. Our knowledge of life is slim. The undisturbed landscapes are rapidly dwindling. And no plan has yet emerged for a kind of wealth that will satisfy all people.

AS I SAILED between the islands -- at dawn from the sea they look like heads of crows emerging from the ocean -- I dwelled on the anomalies. Subsistence hunters pursue feral cattle high on the Sierra Negra with dogs and snares, the same cattle that are pursued by packs of resident feral dogs. What meat they get they sell in Puerto Villamil for ninety cents a pound. From their mountain redoubt they watch the tour boats far below, streaming east along the coastal margin. The park's wardens work 350 days a year for $8,000, part of the time on twenty-day patrols in the arid, rugged interior, hunting down feral dogs and goats to purify the park. A young farmer, proud of his shrewdness, says he will grow a diversity of condiment crops on his small holding and so be in a strong and exclusive position to supply new restaurants which are sure to come to Puerto Ayora. I remember an afternoon sitting at the Darwin Research Station, reading formal descriptions of nearly a hundred scientific projects under way in the islands. What a concise presentation of the inexhaustible range of human inquiry, I thought, what invigorating evidence of the desire to understand.

The evening before I departed I stood on the rim of a lagoon on Isla Rabida. Flamingos rode on its dark surface like pink swans, apparently asleep. Small, curved feathers, shed from their breasts, drifted away from them over the water on a light breeze. I did not move for an hour. It was a moment of such peace, every troubled thread in a human spirit might have uncoiled and sorted itself into graceful order. Other flamingos stood in the shallows with diffident elegance in the falling light, not feeding but only staring off toward the ocean. They seemed a kind of animal I had never quite seen before.


I LEFT FOR QUITO with regrets. I had eaten the flesh of blue lobster and bacalao from Galapagos's waters and enjoyed prolonged moments of intimacy with the place; but I had not, as I had hoped, had the days to climb Volcan Alcedo, nor had I seen a shark or a violent thunderstorm. But I knew that I would be back. It was not the ethereal beauty of the flamingos, solely, or the dazzling appearance underwater of a school of blue-eyed damselfish that now pulled at me. It was the fastness of the archipelago, the fullness of its life; and the juxtaposition of violent death that signaled that more than scenery was here.

On the way to the Hotel Colsn in Quito, the cabdriver spoke about Galapagos with resignation and yearning. A number of Ecuadorians think of Galapagos the way Americans once dreamed of the West -- a place where one might start life over, fresh. I told him about a young couple who had just opened a small restaurant on the hill above Puerto Ayora. I had had coffee there after a long hike. I sat by myself on the veranda, watching sunlight filter through the forest. Far in the distance I could see the pale ocean. I could hear birdsong, which sharpened an irrational feeling of allegiance, of fierce camaraderie, with the trees, the wild tortoises I had seen that afternoon, the vermilion flycatchers that had followed me.

As we threaded our way through heavy traffic and billowing diesel exhaust from the municipal buses, the driver asked what sorts of birds I had seen. I told him. The litany made him gesture at the traffic, the different makes of vehicle pinning us in, and led him to smile ruefully.

Por que quieres ir a las Galapagos? I asked. Why do you wish to go to Galapagos? For work? To buy a farm?

La paz, he said, turning to look at me, his thin, sharp face full of fervent belief. The peace.

Ah, Galapagos is not peaceful, I thought. It is full of the wild conflict that defines life. The groaning of the earth beneath fumaroles on Fermandina. Owl-dashed petrels. But what I reflected on wasn't what he meant at all. He meant a reprieve. Retreat. I thought to tell him, as I put the fare in his hand, of the flamingos at sunset on Rabida. People in Frankfurt and San Francisco, here in Quito, in Puerto Ayora, in Geneva, I wanted to assure him, are working to preserve such a retreat, a place out there in the ocean where men and women might gather themselves again. It would take wisdom and courtesy to effect a certain understanding between those who wish fewer people would come and those who want to see more. An understanding that what is beautiful and mysterious belongs to no one, is in fact a gift.

But these were my own feelings, too presuming. What came out of me, as I nodded gratitude for a desultory conversation in an unfamiliar city, was Hallar la paz, eso es sabio ... To go there to find peace, that is very wise.

)1998 by Barry Holstun Lopez. Used with permission of Alfred A. Knopf Inc. No use of this material is authorized without the express written consent of the Licensor.

By Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez, a National Book Award winner, is the author of "Arctic Dreams"; a book of essays, "Crossing Open Ground"; several story story collections and a novella-length fable, "Crow and Weasel." His work appears regularly in Harper's, the Georgia Review, Orion, the Paris Review and Manoa.

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