The tortoise knows it’s what’s inside that counts

In our Nature column, poet Ruth Padel considers the tortoise - the animal which refuses to be read.

Visiting the salt-spattered brown and blue isles of the Galapagos is as harrowing as it is wonderful. You think how life could be, or could have been. The islands were never part of any continent, so their animals evolved without the presence of human beings. There are no predators except hawks. Nothing tells these creatures how dangerous we are. You step into Eden, where the sea lion lies down with the iguana, you clear your boots of harmful non-native seeds and avoid treading on blue-footed boobies – but you are bringing in the human stain.
 
The 16th-century Spanish who discovered the islands called them Galapagos after the giant tortoises that, 300 years later, helped Charles Darwin work out how individuals and species change to fit each particular environment. “The vice-governor,” he said, “declar[ed] that the tortoises differed on different islands . . . he could with certainty tell from which island any one was brought.” When the ornithologist John Gould studied birds Darwin brought back, and told him the finches and mockingbirds from different islands differed, too, he realised how important this was.
 
But of all Galapagos wildlife, their eponymous giant tortoises were the most destroyed by human goings-on. Pirates and whalers caught them and stacked them in the ships’ holds, where they survived miserably, without food or drink, for a year. Their meat was “more delicious than chicken or beef”. Settlers introduced goats, pigs and rats; these ate tortoise eggs and destroyed tortoise habitat. Giant tortoises nearly died out: half of the original 15 subspecies are now extinct, including the Pinta Island tortoise, whose last representative, known as Lonesome George, died in 2012.
 
But though human beings destroy, they also sometimes save. Since the 1960s, in a parable of exemplary conservation and one of the most successful breed-and-release programmes in the world, the Galapagos National Park has brought seven subspecies back to viable numbers. They collect the eggs; breeding centres hatch and raise the young through their vulnerable early years, and then release them.
 
Once upon a time (says an African story), God told the animals he would award a prize for the best dance. Lion shook sparks from his mane, Ostrich perfected a feathery high kick, Impala leaped about in arabesques, Giraffe improvised a dreamy sarabande. Tortoise just drew in his head, legs and tail. “You didn’t try,” jeered the others, but God gave the prize to him. “You danced for yourselves,” God told the rest, “but Tortoise’s dance was inside himself. He danced only for me.”
 
A tortoise refuses to be read: God knows what’s going on inside. In a lovely poem by Mark Doty, children rush excitedly into a grown-ups’ dinner party carrying a wild tortoise. They know this creature can “make night/anytime he wants, so perhaps/he feels at the center of everything,/as they do”. They hope “he might, like God, show his face”. They show him to the adults, so they can experience his “prayer,/the single word of the shell,/which is no”.
 
As a symbol, the tortoise links identity to privacy. So do islands. The remaining subspecies of Galapagos tortoise now symbolise the ways in which we, too, sometimes say no. The Galapagos National Park has got rid of human-introduced feral goats, pigs and rats and is re-tortoising islands where tortoises used to live.
 
No more waiting in the hold to be dinner: the giants are back in the habitat that evolution gave them. Their slow dance may seem only for them, but it is dispersing native seeds and trampling vegetation so that light penetrates and seeds germinate. They are ecosystem engineers, bringing the habitat back to how it was before humans came. We benefit, too. We can stand like Adam in Eden and watch.
 
Ruth Padel is curating this year’s writers’ talks at ZSL London Zoo. Details: zsl.org/writerstalks 
A clue in your shell-like: as we encroach on other creatures' worlds, tortoises retreat into their own. Photograph: Frans Lanting / Gallery Stock.

Ruth is a British poet and author with close connections to conservation, wildlife, Greece and music. She has published a novel, eight works of non-fiction and eight poetry collections, most recently The Mara Crossing, which mixes poems and prose to explore migration. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Council Member for the Zoological Society of London.  See her website for more.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue