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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The film for The Lost City of Z was flown back from the jungle – and it was worth it

Based on David Grann’s book about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, the film is a beautiful, diligent portrait. Plus: Aquarius.​

Two ravishing new films with a Brazilian flavour are generous not only in length (two and a half hours apiece) but in wisdom and wonder. The Lost City of Z is based on David Grann’s book about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, who embarked in 1906 on a Royal Geographical Society expedition, only to become entranced by the legend of an advanced Amazonian civilisation. Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, delivering his lines in a mesmerising whisper) is drawn repeatedly to the jungle with his aide-de-camp, Henry (Robert Pattinson), interrupting these quests only to fight on the Somme or to return to England to impregnate his patient wife, Nina (Sienna Miller).

Fawcett raises hackles by arguing against the characterisation of the indigenous people as savages and the film repeats this democracy of spirit visually, making no distinction in mystique and allure between the various locations. Devon looks as delicious as Bolivia or Brazil; the mood in the wood-panelled conference room where Fawcett is reprimanded for abandoning one of his party is as treacherous as the depths of the jungle. This creates a continuity between the various worlds, rather than making one exotic at the expense of the other.

James Gray, who writes and directs, retains the unfashionable preference for film over digital which has defined his previous work (moody, mumbly dramas such as We Own the Night and Two Lovers). The picture was shot by Darius Khondji on 35mm, even though that added over half a million dollars to the budget and meant the footage had to be flown thousands of miles from the Colombian rainforest locations to be processed. It was worth it. The dense colours are soaked deep into the grain of the filmstock. They tell a story not available in pixels.

Gray’s screenplay weighs Fawcett’s bravery against his intolerance of ­fallibility, his racial progressiveness against the short-sightedness of his sexual politics. When Nina asks to accompany him, it’s more than he can stomach. “Men and women have performed their roles since the beginning of time,” he fumes. All at once a man fighting social orthodoxy takes cover beneath its privileges. Nina is framed against the tangled blue flowers of the wallpaper; that’s the closest she will get to his adventures. And yet it is she who invokes Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto” to urge her husband on: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?”

The diligent direction hints that Gray was aiming for the level of scrutiny found in Barry Lyndon, an impression supported by a talismanic cameo from Murray Melvin, who starred in Kubrick’s 1975 film. Barry Lyndon pops up, too, in Aquarius: the distinguished music writer Clara (the incredible Sônia Braga) has a poster for the movie in her Recife apartment. She lives alone but not lonely, visited by her adult children and attended to by a long-serving maid, Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto). A more unwelcome interruption comes in the shape of the property developers who want Clara, the last ­resident in her block, to sell up and move out.

We already know she is formidable. She wears her mastectomy scars defiantly, and the opening scene establishes that her anthem is Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”. With her black hair scraped severely into a bun, and her lips on the verge of a wicked laugh or a vinegary screw-you sneer, Clara is a tenacious warrior. Yet in these businessmen who hide their desires behind tight smiles and veiled threats, she may have met her match.

Aquarius is a leisurely character study that is also urgently political in its treatment of race, class and commerce. Its Brazilian director, Kleber Mendonça Filho, who started out as a critic, has a gift for translating psychological states into cinematic language. His
use of dissolves is haunting, his placement of figures in the frame expressive, and his zooms make you swoon. No detail escapes his eye, from restless feet jiggling under the table on a girls’ night out to strands of hair caressed by the breeze at a late-night party.

The film’s main symbol is a chest of drawers, crammed with layers of memory to which only we have been given access. It represents the sort of history that is in danger of being trampled by people who believe every principle has a price tag. The beach outside warns of shark attacks but the deadliest predators come in human form.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution