The Hand of Man on the Galapagos Islands
By Michael D'Orso
Published by HarperCollins
November 2002; 0-0601-9390-5; 368 pages
January 18, 1999
The midwinter sun has just begun to climb above the flat, blue Pacific, and already the cobbled pavers that form the streets of Puerto Ayora are warm to the touch. Marine iguanas, as common here as house cats, have crawled up from the sea to begin their daylong naps on the black lava crags that rim this island of stone.
They are outside Jack Nelson's front door as well, dozing on his concrete stoop as Jack steps into the white morning light. He shuts the door softly behind him, careful not to wake his partner Romy and their young daughter, Audrey. The mottled black reptiles lie undisturbed as Jack loosens the bleached red bandanna knotted around his neck, slips a sweat-stained Panama hat on his head, adjusts his knapsack, and checks his watch.
The march is set to begin at nine, but Jack's in no hurry to get there. Nothing begins on time on these islands. If there's one thing Jack Nelson has learned in his thirty-odd years in this place, it's that nothing in the Galápagos happens when it's supposed to. This was one of the first lessons his father taught him when Jack arrived here in the summer of '67. Patience, flexibility, the capacity to adapt -- these are the qualities the old man said a human must have to survive on these islands. They are the attributes that allowed Forrest Nelson to settle this point of land nearly forty years ago, carving a couple of cement-block shelters out of magmatic debris and sun-scorched brush and calling them a hotel. The guests back then were mostly field scientists in search of a cot and some shade, or the occasional yachtsman and his crew bound west to Tahiti, or the hustlers and con men who, to this day, arrive on these islands seeking a place where neither the law nor the truth will follow.
Tourists, per se, did not yet exist here in 1961, when the Hotel Galápagos first opened for business. Six years after that, when Jack Nelson showed up, weeks still might pass between one guest and the next. Jack never dreamed he'd stay in this godforsaken place for more than a year or two. There were fewer than one thousand people on this entire island when he first set foot here. The Norwegians on their small cattle farms up the vine-tangled slopes of that extinct volcano had been around the longest, nearly half a century. Then there were the Germans and Belgians in their little hamlet across the harbor; most of them had come just before and after World War II. And here on this side, in what was no more than a scattered settlement, were the Ecuadorians, their fishing dinghies anchored in the turquoise shallows of Ninfas Lagoon.
Of course there were the scientists, always the scientists, coming and going from their base camp at the southeastern tip of the island, just beyond Jack's father's hotel. Forrest Nelson had helped build that camp for the scientists in the summer of 1960, kicking up clouds of dust as he gunned his small three-wheeled tractor up and down the dirt trail to the site. The scientists stayed at his hotel while the gravel road was put in and the first Charles Darwin Research Station dormitories were put up.
There were no paved roads back then. No electricity. The only fresh water to be found was that which fell straight from the sky, collected in downspouts and barrels and stored beneath layers of scum and dead insects. The closest mainland was six hundred miles east, where the beaches of Ecuador baked in the equatorial sun. A ham radio might be able to pick up a station now and then from Guayaquil or maybe Quito, the deejays chattering in Spanish over the buzz of the static. To hear an American voice, Forrest Nelson had to fiddle with the knobs of his shortwave, typically late at night, when the skies were clear and he just might connect with a farmer in Nebraska, or a college kid in New Orleans, or once in a blue moon, with someone closer to home, up in Southern California, the place he had left when he sailed here in the '50s. People still talk about the time old man Nelson hooked up with a guy in a garage in Long Beach, where Nelson's ex-wife and kids had continued to live after he'd left them a decade before. He asked the man for a telephone patch, gave him the number, then told the man who he was calling.
"Jack and Christy Nelson?" repeated the voice in Nelson's headset.
"That's right," said Forrest.
"Just a minute," said the voice. Next thing Nelson knew, he could hear the guy shouting at the other end of the line.
"Jack! Christy!" And in a minute or two, Nelson's son and daughter were on the wire. Turned out this man lived next door to Christy and Jack and Nelson's ex-wife Bawn.
Who could believe it? Who could believe any of this life the old man had cobbled together, here in this place where tortoises the size of refrigerators and the age of sequoias roamed through moss-festooned mountain forests, where schools of hammerhead sharks darkened the crystalline sea like squadrons of B-52s, where the shadows of Darwin himself lurked among the lava-bouldered beaches and cactus-stabbed seaside slopes.
It was a universe away from Haight-Ashbury, where Jack Nelson had been shacked up with a girlfriend that summer of '67, the Summer of Love, dropping acid and working the streets, making ends meet by selling a lid or two of grass when circumstances demanded. This was before the vampires arrived in the Bay Area -- the straight press with their hunger to label and devour, and the posers, the losers, the wanna-bes ...
Mention the Galápagos Islands to almost anyone, and the first things that come to mind are iguanas, tortoises, volcanic beaches, and, of course, Charles Darwin. That's what Michael D'Orso imagined when he first traveled there three years ago. What he discovered on these idyllic islands, though, was a tropical paradise under siege from an onslaught of desperately poor South American refugees and corrupt fishing fleets that have brought crime, crowding, pollution, and violence.
In a narrative as rich and exotic as the landscape and creatures that frame it, D'Orso tells the story of the odd European adventurers who first settled the Galápagos in the early twentieth century, of the eccentric Americans who arrived in the mid-1950s, of the scientists who dug in a decade after that, and of the ecotourism industry that has burgeoned over the last twenty years.
As he explores the conflicts on land and at sea that now threaten to destroy this fabled "Eden of Evolution," D'Orso follows a group of offbeat modern-day islanders:
Plundering Paradise is an inside look at the Galápagos as seen through the eyes of the people who actually live there. It is a story of alarm and of crisis, but also of hope, as the men and women who treasure the beauty and wonder of these ageless islands gather their forces to fight to protect them.(back to top)
Michael DOrso is a journalist whose work includes thirteen nonfiction books, usually written in collaboration. He is a former staff writer for Commonwealth magazine and the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, where his writing won numerous national honors.
DOrsos work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Readers Digest, The Oxford American, People magazine, and The Washington Post, and has been included three times in Best Sports Stories, published annually by Sporting News. A chapter he wrote on journalistic research methods was included in The Complete Book of Feature Writing (Writers Digest Books, 1991), and his writing on author Jack Kerouac has been included in Studies in American Fiction and the QPB Literary Review.
He lives in Norfolk, Virginia