Doctrines and Dragons

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In the beginning…”

The airplane’s window, a single, oval pixel in a God’s-eye view, affords me a myopic perspective of the larger scheme below. Here, some six miles up, the boundary between cornflower heaven and aquamarine sea blurs. In subtle defiance of the divine hand that separated them, the two realms recede, one into the other, to form a single blue domain, like adjacent hues on a hardware store paint sample. In the distance, puncturing the water’s hyaline surface, tiny flecks of land—squat, umber-colored disks with smooth, domed tops that disguise their volatile past; and verdant, flattened cones with vague, central depressions that hint at erstwhile calderas—come into view. A view I’ve dreamt of seeing for nearly five decades. Afloat in a vast and void expanse of seemingly limitless sea, the Galápagos Islands appear suspended on nothing, untethered to time or space.

A flight attendant’s voice, barely audible over the engines’ din, crackles through the intercom. We’re landing.

Roughly dead center in the archipelago, Baltra Island, pancake-flat and covered in low scrub and prickly cacti, serves as our port of entry. In an open-air structure consisting of little more than a concrete slab, a tin roof, and several grossly ineffectual ceiling fans struggling against the thick, sweltry air, my husband and I receive the international greeting of all customs officials: “What is the purpose of your visit?”

I’m here for the dragons, I’m thinking.

I recall I was seven or eight years old, and my mother and I were watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau: The Dragons of Galápagos, a documentary about marine iguanas. Mom had a secret wanderlust that she fulfilled by watching wildlife programs and travel documentaries about exotic creatures she would never see, in faraway places she would never visit. We would settle into the couch in front of our brand-new color television, my head resting on her hip, while watching her favorite shows—the National Geographic series featuring the famous French conservationist and explorer, Jacques Cousteau.

In Mom’s Southern drawl, he was “Jack Cost-o,” which made him sound somewhat less exotic. Jack and his crew sailed to Galápagos in the late 1960s to observe the iguanas. And there in our Florida living room, the menacing, inky-black dragons seemed as elusive as their mythical counterparts, cliff-diving into the chilly depths of the Pacific Ocean. I knew nothing of Charles Darwin, evolution, or selective pressure; I knew only Sunday school, creation, and genesis. But over the years I would watch many documentaries and read countless books about Galápagos. I would come to know (from a distance) all the mysterious creatures of these remarkable islands. I would come to view them and Darwin and my Sunday schooling in a different, sometimes puzzling light. And I knew I would visit one day.

“Tourism,” I respond.

***

Let the dry ground appear…”

Valentín, our guide for the week’s activities, greets our group of five English-speaking visitors as we exit customs. Naturalist, diver, historian, translator, and cultural ambassador, Valentín is a native of Galápagos and looks like a swarthy Richard Gere. He blushes. He’s heard that before. We catch a water taxi to Santa Cruz, our base island for the trip, and then board a bus that carries us into the highlands.

Poised more than six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador, Valentín says, the islands lie near the nexus of three tectonic plates: the Nazca, on which they perch; the Cocos, to the north; and the Pacific, to the far west. They balance on a shelf of sorts, created by an upsurge of magma in Nazca’s nether regions, referred to as a “hot spot.” When hot magma meets cool ocean, land is created; create enough land, and you have an archipelago. In constant motion, Nazca operates like a massive, underwater conveyor belt, slowly transporting the archipelago to the east at a rate of about six inches per year. Nazca’s hot spot remains hot, and volcanoes in Galápagos erupt regularly. Highly active volcanoes boil in the northwest while less active ones simmer in the southeast.

As our eyes scan the horizon from northwest to southeast, evolution unfolds before us in time-lapse fashion. Volcanoes visible to the eye—islands now—represent different epochs in the Galápagos’ natural history, exhibiting different landscapes, ecosystems, flora, and fauna, says Valentín. Older islands, like Española and South Plaza, are “dying,” their plant and animal life nearly expended. Middle-aged islands, like Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, are thriving, their rich ecosystems and abundant plant and animal populations well established. And young islands, like Bartolomé, are budding, their harsh, lunar landscapes and sparse vegetation home to only the most resilient of creatures.

Valentín explains that the islands played a prominent role in Darwin’s theories about natural selection, but I’m only half listening. I occupy myself with my camera, grateful for my large hat, which shields my face from the rest of the group. Tears well in my eyes, and I struggle for composure.

Dragons—of a personal sort—torment me.

Darwin, evolution—words I seldom use. Raised in the Bible-belt South, I never heard anybody talk about “creationists” when I was a child. No, Creation, with a capital “C,” was gospel, and Darwin (who wasn’t mentioned until I was in the tenth grade) was the anti-Christ. Evolution was a dirty word. It still is for many Christians, who live in a world where only a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis is acceptable. This is the world in which I was raised.

Now, some fifty-plus years since my early Sunday-school days, I feel afloat and unmoored, like these islands beneath my feet. Our trip to Galápagos celebrates a list of good things: permanence, our thirtieth wedding anniversary; change, my husband’s retirement from the Air Force; and growth, my completion of a grueling science-intense master’s degree. But the last item on that list, growth, has engendered a sense of disquietude. My upbringing, juxtaposed against my education, feels like a bad fit. Galápagos is simultaneously a crucible of creation and an exposition of evolution. I stand on a fault line, suffering a crisis of faith.

***

Let the earth bring forth living creatures…”

The bus ahead slows, and a flurry of hand-waving and finger-pointing indicates a wildlife sighting. “Baby tortoise,” Valentín murmurs as we come to a halt. Nestled among the short, spiky grasses and soft, fuzzy ferns that line the road, the baby lies motionless, stone-like. Nearly eighteen inches in diameter, a mosaic of bony hexagonal plates forms his shell, or carapace. A short neck, cobbled black flesh, and domed carapace identify him as a Galápagos tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra), the poster-child and namesake of the islands.

After a quick photo shoot, I reboard the bus, and we continue our journey to a tortoise reserve. Here we don black rubber boots for our trek into the muddy highlands. The gray, overcast sky and the dim light under the dense forest canopy lend a primordial, Jurassic ambience. Only the muted splats of our sodden footsteps and the soft din of buzzing insects can be heard. Native orchids and mosses drape from scalesia tree branches, and passionflower vines wind around their trunks, the ambrosial scent of their blossoms filling the damp, clammy air.

Valentín points out round yellow fruits, “beach apples” (Hippomane mancinella), lying in the muck and warns us to avoid them. Highly toxic to humans, beach apples produce painful mouth ulcers and life-threatening swelling of the tongue in unwitting partakers. How cliché: forbidden fruit, here in Paradise, I’m thinking. But the fruits are harmless to tortoises and comprise much of the reptiles’ diet. Where beach apples are found, tortoises are sure to follow.

We trudge deeper into the forest and finally get what we came for: an adult tortoise. We’ve interrupted his dinner, and a leafy schmear of fern pesto adorns his chin. He delivers us a long, enigmatic stare and then resumes his meal. Other tortoises bathing in a mud puddle greet us with frank apathy. One ambles to the water’s edge and imbibes leisurely before plopping into the mud. The tortoises are silent; only their slow, tank-like movements as they crunch through the underbrush alert us to their presence. I feel as though I’ve stepped back in time, observing ancient creatures in their native element.

A Galápagos tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra), the poster-child and namesake of the islands. Photo by Teresa Johnson. 2012.

Darwin chronicled his first encounter with the Galápagos tortoises in his travel memoir, Voyage of the Beagle. Reflecting a Briton’s typical flair for understatement, he described meeting “two large tortoises.” Adult male tortoises, which can reach more than 500 pounds, are not large, but huge—bumper cars with feet. With the nonchalance of a nine-year-old boy poking a bug with a stick, Darwin further penned, “…[a tortoise] with the flesh on it, is very good; and the young tortoises make excellent soup; but otherwise the meat to my taste is indifferent.” Indifferent? Is that a British idiom for “tastes like chicken”? The consumption of these noble creatures is hard to comprehend, but nineteenth century sailors ate boatloads of them, sometimes slaughtering as many as seven hundred during a single layover.

By his own account, Darwin attempted to ride a tortoise but he kept falling off. I find it strange that a man who spent so much time at sea should demonstrate such singularly poor balance. Even stranger is that he would treat these magnificent animals with such disrespect. But now that I’m face to face with one, I want to climb on his back, embrace his cool shell, feel his slow, plodding gait beneath me, and behold his prehistoric worldview. Of course, rules forbid this, nor would I have done so. But as we head back to the bus and a torrential rain begins to fall, the thought lingers.

Another water taxi ride carries us across the glassy turquoise waters of Academy Bay, where dozens of boats of every size and shape moor, rocking gently with the tide, their bows pointed seaward. Sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki)—smelly, hairy slugs—lounge on every available surface. Savvy boat owners barricade their low-lying sterns against the fetid squatters when they leave their boats unattended, but novices will return to find their boats invaded.

Finally, we arrive at the hotel’s dock and disembark for the last leg of a long day of travel. The equatorial sun retires quickly, like a ball rolling off a cliff, so we pick up the pace while we still have daylight, traversing a low boardwalk that carries us across a tidal pool and into a thick mangrove forest. The air feels honey-like, and tiny gnats swarm at the water’s surface; below us in the pool’s brackish water, the amphibious trees’ dense tangle of stilt-like roots extends into the soft sandy bottom.

In a narrow breach near the shore, we skirt a jagged lava outcropping, a stark reminder of Galapagos’ hellish origins and a nesting area for marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus)—the dragons of my youth. A sign requests our respectful distance. Described so, the iguanas come off as delicate and maternal, but I remember them differently: beastly horned and hissing creatures, spewing salt like fire, cousins of the Devil himself. This inhospitable place, wedged in between the mangrove lair and the stygian slag, fully at the tide’s mercy, seems a fitting place to raise their hideous young. With an odd mix of fear and hopeful anticipation, I scrutinize the dark, obsidian crags, but no iguanas are present, and we continue to our hotel.

***

And let birds fly above the earth…”

Daily excursions by yacht carry us to the surrounding islands, and today we venture to North Seymour Island, one of the few nesting areas in Galápagos for magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens). Nearly four feet long and with an eight-foot wingspan, the enormous birds are imposing creatures. A lone male overhead escorts our yacht like a sleek, black arrow pointing the way.

Once on land, we head to the birds’ roosting area, dodging steamy, terra cotta-colored mud puddles—remnants of last night’s rain—interspersed among crimson-stemmed groundcover succulents called carpetweed (Sesuvium edmonstonei). North Seymour has no trees, so frigatebirds nest in saltbushes (Cryptocarpus pyriformis), low-growing shrubs with sage-like leaves and delicate, springy branches. When one of the giant birds lands on its nest—boing—I half expect another bird to catapult into the air like a circus jump-and-pop game. Male frigatebirds are endowed with large, heart-shaped pouches under their necks called gulars that they inflate to attract females. The football-sized balloons take nearly twenty minutes to fill but it’s worth the wait. He clicks and drums while flapping his wings in a staccato beat. What girl can resist a scarlet-red heart, beating for his lover?

Whereas frigatebirds have a limited range in the Galápagos, the ubiquitous, non-descript Darwin’s finches (Passeriformes) can be found everywhere, including here on North Seymour. Many people have claimed that Darwin’s evolutionary theories were drawn from his observations of the diminutive, dun-colored birds, but Darwin, it seems, is steeped in more myths than Moses. In fact, many of his biographers assert he was pretty clueless about the finches and their divergent adaptations to their respective environments, likely because he failed to catalog the birds properly with regard to their provenance and behavior. The fourteen Galápagos-bound species weren’t even known as “Darwin’s Finches” until 1936, when a British ornithologist assigned the moniker. If Darwin held the belief that the birds evolved from a common ancestor, his early writings never reflected it.

Despite Darwin’s failings as a cataloger, his observations on Galápagos eventually helped him make the leap from naturalist to evolutionist. He went on to propose that external pressures on an organism influence the development of characteristics that promote survival in a particular environment. I recently survived the harsh environment of graduate school. What new characteristics have I acquired?

***

Be fruitful and multiply…”

It’s Sunday morning, and my husband and I are on our own for the day. As the sun breaks soft and white over the bay, we set out in a sea kayak and paddle through a small barrier reef that leads to a neighboring bayou. Tall cliffs, whitewashed with guano, surround the crescent-shaped lagoon, a glassy, limpid pool that offers sanctuary to thousands of breeding birds, including the eponymous blue-footed boobies (Sula nebouxii).

A booby’s unremarkable appearance—a mostly white body, pointed brown wings, and a salt-and-pepper head—is redeemed by two striking features: the eyes, pale yellow irises that surround pinpoint black pupils; and the feet: brilliant toothpaste-blue paddles that reflect the birds’ reproductive health. In the booby world, a boy with big blue feet is a girl’s dream come true.

As we skim across the shoals, we turn our eyes toward a low, craggy shelf and become instant voyeurs: Two boobies are performing their courtship tango, a balletic version of Dueling Banjos, with the female riffing off her partner’s movements. He high-steps to advertise his sexy blue feet, and she reciprocates; he points skyward to flaunt his long, slender beak, and she mimics; he stretches his pointed wings, then bows, to demonstrate who-knows-what, and she copies. A one-on-one foot-lifting, beak-pointing, wing-stretching-and-bowing test of compatibility.

Like besotted lovers, boobies perform their courtship maneuvers long after mating. Despite their apparent devotion, boobies hardly qualify as monogamous lovers, preferring what you might call an “open relationship,” where they regularly engage in blue-footed hanky-panky, knowing that what happens off the nest, stays off the nest, where they can expect no repercussions or rebukes.

But it’s this unique dance that sets blue-footed boobies apart from their red-footed and masked cousins on other islands. Early geographic isolation from their relatives promoted speciation, an evolutionary process that divides a single species into two or more. Their mambo is more than mere avian titillation; it ensures the purity and posterity of the species’ bloodlines, so they can reproduce, each according to its own kind.

***

And darkness was over the face of the deep…”

The boobies’ dance party having ended, we head back to the beach and venture into the nearby town of Puerto Ayora. The sound of church bells calling the devout to worship strikes an odd chord in a town where the gospel of evolution is ever-present. A Catholic church holds a prominent place in Puerto Ayora’s town square, and the Mormons’ and Seventh Day Adventists’ sanctuaries sit just around the corner. Religion is alive and well here in Galápagos, and most faiths preach Creationist orthodoxy—islands of faith in a sea of perceived heresy.

Although some religious and scientific groups in the United States have found a happy medium where a theistic evolution that embraces both views exists, others are less accommodating. Even today (as it was during the factious `60s and `70s of my youth), while the grownups sit around and debate the veracity of one view or the other, it’s the kids in biology class who suffer. A believer has her faith rug ripped out from under her while the non-believer hears hints of the “fairy tale” of Genesis. I’m not sure anybody wins.

I’m not a teenager in biology class anymore, though. I’ve studied at the feet of the finest scientists in the world, and I know that biological organisms must evolve and adapt, or die. I’ve also experienced spiritual intimacy, and I know that spiritual organisms must likewise evolve and adapt; science cannot fill the holes in my life. While the sameness of Christian ritual sometimes diminishes that intimacy, I know that within the context of that sameness, I can express creativity, process abstract notions, and extrapolate possibilities beyond my singular experience. I long for peace, a peace that came more readily when I was less enlightened. I find it amusing that believers often describe spiritual growth as enlightenment, while scoffers say believers are in the dark. It seems that both sides sit, squabbling in the shade, not fully benefiting from the lucidity of bright light.

***

Let the waters swarm with living creatures…”

Although humans have successfully evolved to live on land, a kid growing up in Florida ought to be able to handle herself in the water. So for three summers in a row, my mother sent me to YMCA day camp to learn to swim. And for three summers in a row, my swimming instructors relegated me to the Minnows, the basic class where we learned to kick and hold our breath. By the fourth summer, approaching my teen years, I decided I had had enough humiliation. No more camp, no more Minnows. I cannot swim. My body sinks like a stone.

Valentín announces that we will be snorkeling today. What? My heart sinks, just like my stony pre-teen body. I take him aside and divulge my shame. He is unfazed. “Flotation vest,” he says, and hands me an inflatable ticket to paradise.

The first indication that humans are ill-equipped to spend extended periods in an aquatic environment is the amount of gear and paraphernalia necessary to do so. I don flippers, mask, snorkel, and, most importantly, my flotation vest. “Go in feet first,” Valentín instructs. “You aren’t Jacques Cousteau,” he reminds me, Richard Gere eyes twinkling. I slip into the warm, saline waters of the equatorial Pacific and bob slightly with the assistance of my vest. After adjusting the suction cup-like mask, I take my first, tentative breaths with the snorkel. Somewhat confident in my gear’s functionality, I extend my body forward into a floating position and lower my masked face into the sea. Now parallel to the sea floor, some twenty feet below, I open my eyes.

I am baptized into a new dimension.

Gentle waves massage my body, all sound is muffled, and the world is aquamarine, hypnotic. Penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus) dive for their lunch; sea lions cavort with their mates; starfish, the size of pizzas, lounge on the sea floor; and giant cartoon-colored fish glide just beyond the reach of my outstretched fingers. I’ve found Nemo! Then, a shadow catches my eye as a female sea turtle (Chelonia agassizii), as big as a kitchen table, swims past. Only ten feet away, she seems unaware of or unbothered by my presence. I turn to follow her, and together we glide through the water, like sisters from another place and time. I feel as though I could swim with her forever, but she slips away into the depths where my human, flotation-assisted body cannot follow.

After three hours of swimming, my body is spent, but the synchronized freestyle with my distant relative has energized my soul. I feel a sense of harmony: turtle and human coexisting in a strange, sometimes threatening environment, like creation and evolution, spirituality and science. I sense I’m being re-created (evolving?) into something more compatible with my environment. But unlike the Biblical creation, so familiar in my youth, mine comes in fits and starts and lacks a clear, poetic order.

***

And there was light…”

Each day at dusk and dawn we walk to and from the dock and our hotel, through the mangrove forest, and past the marine iguanas’ lava rock nesting area. The treks have failed to yield even a single dragon, but today we cross the boardwalk at noon, the sun white and hot overhead. A few staccato movements near the rocks catch our attention. A single female, perched high on the lava, basks in the sun, her slender, spiny back cast in stark silhouette against the alabaster sand beyond. Perfectly camouflaged, she is nearly indistinguishable from her surroundings.

Thus trained, we notice other females nearby, their black, scabrous skin merging into black, scabrous rock. One darts across the crystalline beach. We keep our distance, straining our eyes for even a single movement. Scrutinized so, in the bright light of midday, these strange, alien creatures seem less menacing than I expected. Like all of the creatures of Galápagos, they have evolved to be perfectly suited to and in harmony with their environment.

Were they here the entire time? I wonder.

***

And it was good…”

Today, the seventh day of our travel, we return to mainland Ecuador. I rest by the pool at our Guayaquil hotel, a world apart from volcanoes, tortoises, and boobies. I ask my husband to take my picture by the pool, and I post it to my Facebook page with the caption, “This is what relaxed looks like.”

We order ceviche and patacones, fried green plantains, to be served poolside. As he has done before every meal we have shared for the past thirty-plus years, my husband takes my hand and offers thanks for the bounty that we are about to receive. My thoughts drift to the Creationists who created the view of Darwin as agitator, atheist, anti-Christ. Darwin likely was none of these. In his younger days, he felt a call (more accurately, a push, from his father) to ministry. Darwin attended seminary at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated at the top of his class, his sights set on becoming a country clergyman. First, however, he answered the call to his naturalist interests and embarked on his Beagle adventures. Darwin’s Unitarian Christian views figured prominently in his writing, where he frequently referred to a “Creator.” In his travel journal, Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin described his impression of the strange flora and fauna of Australia:

A little time before this I had been lying on a sunny bank, and was reflecting on the strange character of the animals of this country as compared with the rest of the world. An unbeliever in every thing beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same, and certainly the end in each case is complete.

In a later work, Variation of Animals and Plants, Darwin concluded:

But can it be reasonably maintained that the Creator intentionally ordered [the structure of each being]?

The typical Victorian on the street accepted the concept of fixed natural laws that governed the behavior of natural phenomena, whether in geology, biology, or other scientific fields. For the Christians of Darwin’s day, it wasn’t a matter of choosing between creation and evolution. Rather, it was a choice between methodologies: not did God do it, but how?

Evolution and creation were not, are not, singular static events. Speciation continues today, as some species grow apart and change due to geographic separation, environmental pressure, or behavioral modification. Recently, scientists have observed populations of snails, fruit flies, and sea urchins that are diverging, evolving into separate species over a period of just a few generations. Other species, however, are naturally hybridizing, or merging: The parent plants’ genetic materials fuse, doubling or tripling their descendants’ chromosomes and maintaining their fertility. This biological détente of sorts brings two, sometimes vastly different (and previously incompatible), species together to create a new, third species that ensures their mutual survival. The origin of at least seven new species of flowers—due to natural hybridization—has occurred since Darwin first posited his theories.

***

Three months have passed since my trip to Galápagos. I sit in a pew on a Sunday morning, my husband at my side, and begin to sing with the rest of the congregation:

From the earth, oh, praise Jehovah, all ye floods, ye dragons all…

I lift my voice, a little stronger, edging toward a third spiritual-biological species, and join the dragons in praise.

And it is good.

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Teresa L. Johnson
Teresa L. Johnson is a freelance science writer and health communications consultant. She lives and works in Woodbridge, Virginia. 

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