I got to take a break from Cassandra’s curse for a week, on a trip to the Galapagos Islands, and I only realized it when I picked the curse back up.
For ecologists, visiting the Galapagos is a pilgrimage to the holy land. We went ashore where Darwin worked, and saw the island where the Grants did much of their groundbreaking work on bird evolution. It was a privilege, awe inspiring, validating, and very satisfying. My heart is full of gratitude just thinking about it.
People lucky enough to visit the Galapagos Islands are most touched by the intimate experience with wildlife. Because the islands are so remote, animals there have had relatively little interaction with humans and as a result are unafraid of us. It’s possible to approach them quite closely apparently without bothering them. The resulting experience is so far beyond feeding pigeons in the park that it becomes transformative.
But it was as a conservation biologist, regular bearer of Cassandra-style bad environmental news, that I became aware of the burden of the curse:
- Standing on the bow of our boat moving over the night sea, the Milky Way glowing extravagantly above, I peered down into the dark water, delighted as flashes of light appeared and then flowed past. By starlight I could make out Swallow-tailed gulls flying by overhead, hunting those bioluminescent animals. This is how beautiful the world used to be, everywhere.
- The ecstasy of a playing with an adolescent sea lion in a placid bay. Setting aside guilt and inhibition about interaction with wildlife, because it wanted to play, and I happened to be there. Interaction can be simply joyful.
- The shocking rightness of witnessing wildlife carrying on its business not despite us, but with complete disregard for humans. On the rare occasion a penguin or marine iguana even looked at me in the water, it was clear I was no more interesting than a rock or anything else inedible. After the initial disappointment, how exhilarating to not matter.
Returning to the human-centric world brought my awareness to the weight of Cassandra’s curse. We’re finally talking about it now as “climate despair” or “ecological grief“. That fatigue is built of thousands of paper cuts of witness. From every little moment of noticing the natural world compromised and insulted, each building on the last, punctuated regularly by gut punches of major news of species extinction or other disasters. I spent a week in a land free of those compromises and insults, populated by citizens of a world I did not expect, just going about life as they always have. Of course, my experience was without the stresses of finding food, water and shelter. And that land is not a cruelty-free world, by any means. But it was largely free from human insult, and I experienced a week without those paper cuts. The visit provided a glimpse of being “whole”, followed by a return to the real world with awareness of what was lost. When I got off the boat and onto the plane home, I became very aware of the burden of the curse as the cuts and blows began anew. But the grief of loss of wholeness came with the embodied memory of being whole, and the knowledge of that as a real possibility.
What changed in me, with awareness of the curse? If anything, the stakes are higher now that I’ve witnessed the staggering scope of what we’ve already lost. I was inspired to write out these thoughts after reading The Crane Wife, a piece by CJ Hauser about the healing possibilities of experiencing and studying nature. I believe it is our birthright to experience being part of a natural world, and clearly people yearn for this, if only as a selfie. It is clear that to allow even a small portion of humans to experience the Galapagos would ensure its doom, but maybe we can come up with approximations that would help. Still, knowing that a bit of a “whole” world remains gives me a touchstone to access renewed urgency to study what we still have.