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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Tsipras' resignation has left Syriza in deep trouble

Splinter group Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal Syriza struck with its creditors.

The resignation of Alexis Tsipras on 20 August was the start of a new chapter in the havoc affecting all sections of Greek political life. “We haven’t yet lived our best days,” the 41-year-old prime minister said as he stood down, though there is little cause for optimism.

Tsipras’s capitulation to the indebted state’s lenders by signing up to more austerity measures has split his party and demoralised further a people resigned to their fate.

Polls show that no party commands an absolute majority at present. It seems as though we are heading for years of grand coalitions made up of uneasy partnerships that can only hope to manage austerity, with little room for social reform. The main parties from across the political spectrum have lost legitimacy and the anti-austerity campaign is more marginal than ever. Many fear the rise of extremists, such as members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Thankfully, that is unlikely to happen: the party’s leadership is facing a number of grave accusations, including forming a criminal organisation, and its general secretary, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, is going out of his way to appear more moderate than ever.

It is to the left of Syriza that most activity is taking place. The former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis has defected to co-found a new party, Popular Unity (an ironic name in the circumstances), joined by MPs from the radical Left Platform and, according to the latest information, Zoi Konstantopoulou – the current speaker of the Hellenic
Parliament, who had considered starting her own party but lacked time and support in the run-up to the general election, scheduled for 20 September.

Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal struck with its creditors, to end austerity (even if that means leaving the euro) and to rebuild the country. It is likely that the party will work with the far-left coalition Antarsya, which campaigned hard to guarantee the Oxi referendum victory in July and increasingly looks like Syriza in 2009, when it won 4.6 per cent of the vote in the Greek legislative election under Tsipras.

Yet it is dispiriting that few on the left seem to understand that more splits, new parties and weak, opportunistic alliances will contribute to the weakening of parliamentary democracy. It is perhaps a sign that the idea of a left-wing government may become toxic for a generation after the six months that took the economy to the edge and failed to produce meaningful change.

Despite this fragmentation on the left, the largest right-wing opposition party, New Democracy, has been unable to force a surge in the polls. Its new leader, Vangelis Meimarakis, enjoys the respect of both the parliament and the public but has few committed supporters. The apolitical alliance To Potami (“the river”) appears to have stalled on 6-8 per cent, while the once-dominant Pasok is unlikely to enter parliament without forming a coalition on the centre left, postponing its predicted collapse for a few more years.

The winner amid all of this is apathy. Many believe that a large number of Greeks won’t vote in the September election – the fifth in six years (or the sixth, if you include the referendum in July). The situation in Greece should serve as an example of what could happen to democracies across Europe that lack political unity: parties with clear ideological positions end up serving as managers of diktats from Brussels, while more extreme forces become the de facto opposition. In this harsh climate, many citizens will either abandon their politicians or, in a bleaker scenario, reject the democratic system that elected them. 

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism