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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Commons Confidential: Money for old Gove

Backstabbing Boris, a doctored doctorate, and when private schools come to Parliament.

Treachery is proving profitable for Michael Gove since his backstabbing of Boris Johnson led to the victim being named Foreign Sec and the knifeman carved out of Theresa May’s cabinet. The former injustice secretary was overheard giving it the big “I am” in the Lords café bar by my snout and boasting that he’ll trouser £300,000 on the political sidelines. I note a £150,000 Times column and £17,500 HarperCollins book deal have been duly registered. Speaking engagements, he confided to the Tory peer Simone Finn, will be equally lucrative.

Gove is polite (always says hello and smiles at me despite what I write) but it was insensitive to talk money when his companion was moaning. Finn, a Cameron crony, whined that she had been sacked as a spad and so is out of pocket. Perhaps he could lend her a tenner. And I do hope Mickey isn’t passing himself off as an “expert” to coin it.

While Nigel Farage’s successor-but-one Paul “Dr Nutty” Nuttall protests that he never doctored a CV with an invented university PhD, Ukip’s ritzy nonpareil continues to enjoy the high life. My informant spied Farage, the self-appointed people’s chief revolter, relaxing in first class on a British Airways flight from New York to Blighty. Drinking three types of champagne doesn’t come cheap at £8,000 one-way, so either the Brexit elitist is earning big bucks or he has found a sugar daddy. Nowt’s too good for the Quitters, eh?

Labour’s youngest MP, Lou Haigh, was popular in a Justice for Colombia delegation to monitor the Northern Ireland-inspired peace process there. At Normandia prison in Chiquinquira, after a five-hour drive to see Farc guerrillas cleared for release, inmates pushed past the British male trade unionists to greet the 29-year-old Sheffield Heeley tribune. What a change from parliament, where it is women who are treated as if they’re wearing Harry Potter-style invisibility cloaks.

The kowtowing is catching up with Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the SNP party animal and onetime-Tory-turned-Labour. Better late than never, I hear, she delivered a masterclass in toadying to the Chinese at a Ditchley Park conflab. Ahmed-Grovel MP avoided discussion of human rights abuses and made much instead of the joys of Scotch whisky to Beijing, and Scotland as a gateway to the UK. I trust she kept her sycophancy secret from SNP colleagues jostling in parliament a short while back for photographs with Lobsang Sangay, head of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

John Bercow is concerned that private schools dominate visits to parliament. So a bit like the Commons chamber, where 32 per cent of MPs (48 per cent of Tories) come from establishments that teach 7 per cent of pupils in the UK. 

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump