Blog by Sam Osherson, Think Galapagos Guest in March 2019
Sometimes, if we are really ready for it, a vacation can turn into something more, a kind of personal awakening that changes your outlook on things. That’s what happened on a recent two- week trip with my wife to Ecuador, arranged through Think Galapagos, where I came face-to face with my own climate denial and a recognition of what is really at stake in our changing world
Ecuador – Biodiverse Wonder
Ecuador is one of the most ecological diverse countries in the world. Volcanic activity over millions of years has shaped the spectacular geology of the Andes, which in turn has shaped the wildlife that inhabit it. Colorful Toucan barbets, scarlet tanagers, resplendent long-tailed quetzals, graceful pumas, the Andean speckled bear, glass frogs, tiny antipittas, the Andean cock- of- the rock, and hummingbirds. Dozens. Bursts of red, yellow, orange, violet, purple, zip from orchid to orchid like winged firecrackers, some with long beaks, some with short beaks, others with curved beaks like tiny Turkish scimitars.
Galapagos Islands, wildlife paradise
After a week at an open- air eco- lodge embedded in this mountain abundance, we flew five hundred miles off the Ecuadorian mainland to the Galapagos Islands, where the wealth of land and sea life was equally astounding. Aboard a small ketch, bobbing between islands, we encountered Galapagos finches found nowhere else in the world, giant tortoises, land iquanas, red and blue footed boobies, mocking birds, penguins, pelicans, herons, magnificent fork-tailed frigate birds, flightless cormorants, unique flora such as giant daisy trees (Scaleia) and the Galapagos Fern tree, varieties of sharks, whale sharks, rays, pilot whales, sea horses, marine iguanas, and sea turtles. And sea lions—seemingly everywhere.
The exotic animals were entrancing to see, but what really opened up windows within me was my relationship to those animals. On the Galapagos, our guide Diego told us that the animals we encountered in our journey through the islands would let us get as close as we wanted. He asked us to get no closer than three feet, in order to respect their privacy and space. Sea lions lay asleep on beachfront benches designed (presumably) for people.
They continued their repose as we walked by seemingly unnoticed, the sea lions unwilling to vacate their cozy perches for mere humans. Coming on deck at five am I found a sea lion asleep in our boat’s panga (zodiac). I watched a sea lion hurl himself into an unoccupied fishing boat one lazy afternoon.
Huge marine iguanas on trails and lava flows, like lazy sunbathers, did not move out of the way as we passed by; it was for us to watch our step. Giant tortoises munched on poison apple branches without so much as a glance at the awed tourists insistent on taking their picture. Curious pilot whales came and inspected our boat as they outpaced us at sea.
Immersion in the natural world
One lucky afternoon moored far offshore, Diego told me to grab my snorkel. Then he and I were alone in the water with a sea lion mother and her pup who had been investigating our boat. The two humans and the two sea mammals inspected each other, the pup as near to my mask as I could ever ask. His eyes, like mine, were wide and curious.
My wife and I live very rurally, surrounded by woods and favorite trails, yet this was an immersion in the natural world unlike any I had experienced. We could do this because humans have no predators in the Galapagos. So the boundaries felt different than on an African safari, where the sense of safe separation from the animals needs to be carefully enforced.
These cross- species moments of connection and regard felt like small flashes of enchantment and left behind a sustained, sustaining sense of gratitude. They awakened in me a sense of kinship with these animals. We are not separate from them, created on a different day; we are part of them. And they are part of us.
So much of our lives these days in the United States takes place within interiors—our homes, cars, offices, the gym, malls—disconnected from the wildness and beauty of nature. The truth that we are a part of nature is obscured by our manmade environments, which provide us comfort while also cutting us off from the reality that we are not “above” nature or separate from it.
I found myself wondering if most of us are not only unconscious climate- deniers trying to fend off our deep anxieties about what is happening to our world but also unconscious nature- deniers: sleep- walking (or sleep running) through what is all around us; not understanding how we are embedded in and dependent on the world in which we live.
The ecological problems facing us
The immensity of climate change can render it an abstraction, defined in terms of “degrees Celsius,” “species extinction rates,” “carbon absorption,” and intangible cost- benefit calculations. In Ecuador, amidst these astounding and beautiful landscapes, the reality of what is at state is stark and comprehensible.
Our local guides clearly loved the profusion and beauty of what they were showing us and their enthusiasm was infectious. “Look, over there—a violet- tailed sylph! And don’t miss the buff-tailed coronet next to it!” “Quick, there, a school of dolphins.” We were constantly urged to look and to see. The natural world was a source of everyday delight for the Ecuadorans we met.
And worry: our appreciation of the beauty all around us every day was interwoven with concern for the precariousness and vulnerability of what we were seeing. We learned from our guide in the Andean cloud forest, Santiago, that the Amazon basin—currently the largest rain forest in the world– is losing .89% of its forest cover per year, as a result of logging, cattle ranching, mining, and oil extraction. “In 100 years, it’ll be gone,” Santiago observed, gesturing out the car window at the lush foliage, “and so will we.” The “we” referred to the human species.
A constant theme was the worldwide problem of plastics, derived from the petrochemicals being taken from the Amazon basin. Plastic cannot biodegrade—ever; it just breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, which gets into our groundwater, the food chain, and even our own bodies. The relentless tide of plastic refuse– much of it from the United States– that washes through the Galapagos Islands kills turtles (who eat the floating bags, mistaking them for jellyfish) and a host of other marine life.
The world is being suffocated by plastics, particularly single- use plastics. Many cities and states are banning plastic bags, but this is just the start—the bigger problem is single use plastics that wrap so much of the stuff we buy. Santiago told us about a grassroots protest in Chile, where shoppers took off the plastic wrappers for foodstuffs, candies, and other items at the check-out counter, giving them back to the cashier.
How Galapagos alerted me to the climate crisis
Since returning home, things have been different for me. I’ve never been a birder, and still am not, but I notice every day the birds singing on the street, in the woods. I can now tell the difference between a chickadee and a nuthatch. I look at trees differently. I have written to our Congressional delegation, our Governor, and our state legislature, prodding them for more urgency and action in dealing with the climate. My language has changed: it’s no longer “climate change,” it’s now “climate crisis.”
And, in our local supermarket last week, I screwed up my courage and took off the plastic around a box of mushrooms, putting the vegetables into a cotton bag substitute. Then I politely handed the plastic to the manager, and asked him to please let the producer know that I didn’t want all that plastic anymore.
Sometimes a great trip can be even more: an unexpected wake up call to what’s at stake in our climate crisis.
Sam has written a longer version of this blog for Psychology Today in which he goes into more detail on his trip. Read it here.