By Grace Parazzoli
“The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
For the reason Emerson states so perfectly, I crave open water. Surrounded by nothing but sea, and occasional islands in the distance, without phones or internet or material possessions beyond what will fit in a backpack, I am never tired. The world feels like a very different place. Concerns about politics and the future are, temporarily and seemingly miraculously, replaced by something else. I think that something else is pure wonder.
My husband grew up sailing off the coast of Washington State, and every now and then, we leave our urban life to live on a chartered boat for a week at a time. He is captain, while some friends and I contribute odd jobs like cooking, pulling lines, and driving the dinghy that takes us onshore. The last time we did this, we visited the British Virgin Islands, where my husband had been a decade prior, and which he recalled as being lush and beautiful.
Beautiful, yes. The islands were badly hit by Hurricane Irma, and their lush vegetation is just starting to grow back. On some parts of some of the islands, houses are nothing more than floors and shards. The Bitter End Yacht Club on the island Virgin Gorda, which my husband reminisced about loving during his previous trip to the BVI, is decimated. One morning, while docked off Spanish Town in Virgin Gorda, I went on a run and found myself in a graveyard of boats, most damaged beyond repair.
But as we spoke to locals, story after story attested to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of communal bonds. Houses are being rebuilt—together. We heard people make donation requests—not for themselves, but for the local charities they had always supported. One couple on the island of Anegada spoke about the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. They had no electricity and just a few cans of food. What quite literally saved them was a pilot from Puerto Rico who flew over to the island bearing a planeful of pizza! At the time, Puerto Rico had not yet been hit by Hurricane Maria; if only we as a nation could show Puerto Rico the same kindness.
But we aren’t doing that. I realize that I may be painting a false picture in this article: one in which humans are all humanity—in the sense of compassion and generosity—and nature is a ruthless destroyer. We were only met with kindness during the trip; individually, I do tend to see only the generosity and compassion in people. Yet during the trip, there were undeniable reminders of the collective role of humankind in natural devastation. The one that is most vivid in my mind is the goats.
When we stopped on the island of Prickly Pear, the sight before us was of building foundations, fallen beams, and goats. The goats were everywhere, meandering around and occasionally stopping to scratch along a piece of debris. They are adorable animals, their symbolism less so. As Center for Global Awareness president Denise Ames wrote in her book Waves of Global Change:
Sailors used to leave goats on islands to guarantee that on their return trips, they would have an abundance of fresh meat. But with no natural predators, the goats bred faster than the sailors could eat them. Lacking natural limits, the goats ultimately devoured the island’s vegetation and over-taxed the environment to such a degree that native species could no longer survive. The multiplying populations of goats in due course starved to death. Our “island” the Earth has suffered the consequences of our goat-like instincts to consume everything in sight without regard for the future. With no natural predators or self-imposed limits, we are in peril of suffering the same fate.
Wildlife biologist Juliet Lamb has noted that half of recorded extinctions have taken place on islands. “Ever since humans began moving around the world, we’ve wreaked havoc by unleashing novel species in sensitive island ecosystems,” Lamb writes. “Rats, rabbits, cats, goats: we love species that breed fast and have voracious, generalist appetites. For an island native, it’s a perfect storm of destruction.” She discusses attempts to eradicate goat and other invasive species, a subject explored with typical profundity by the podcast Radiolab, in the episode “Galapagos.”
What hath humankind wrought? I haven’t broached the role of global warming in storm patterns and extreme weather conditions, because others have done it much better than I ever could. But in the small creatures that roam around these islands, our influence is undeniable, the uncertainty of our and our planet’s future brought back to mind.
That’s what happens when you stop looking out at the horizon, as Emerson wrote about, and start looking a little closer. The exhaustion returns.
Questions to Consider
- Do you agree with the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote? Why or why not?
- What do you think about the analogy comparing Earth to islands overpopulated by goats?
The Center for Global Awareness develops books and materials with a holistic, global focus for adult learners and educators. In February 2018, the CGA launched Gather, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection. In this unique program, adult learners form small study groups to launch conversations about pressing global issues. Please email email@example.com or visit www.global-awareness.org for more information.