Elegy for Lonesome George

He was the last Pinta Island Giant Tortoise, and he looked as sad as his name suggested, as though he knew that this day was inevitable.  Despite several attempts by conservationists to save something of his race by encouraging him to mate with genetically similar females, it was not to be.  Tortoises like George can live up to 200 years – he was estimated to be about 100, turtle middle age, when his light gave out yesterday.  The earth is one species poorer today.

In photographs, George seemed to be possessed of a quiet dignity symbolic of the planet itself – struggling serenely onwards as human malfeasance continues to, essentially, kick the crap out of it.  For all the amazing and wondrous things we have created, the remarkable feats we have achieved, our greatness is undermined at every turn by our continuing almost gleeful abuse of our only home.  The problem is we think there will always be more – more to drill, extract, chop down and scoop up.  The passing of Lonesome George reminds us of how wrong we are about that.  All things end.  One day it will all be gone.

A year or so ago I was sent an email of pictures of people collecting turtle eggs from a beach in South America.  It was an obscene, heartbreaking, rage-inducing display of images.  Turtle mothers watching helplessly as thoughtless, careless human beings snatched up hundreds of their gestating children less than a foot in front of them – so wealthy diners half a world away could eat soup.  And turtles aren’t the only ones who fall victim to this mindless gluttony:  whale, bear, tiger, elephant, rhinoceros; truly majestic creatures who are massacred to become aphrodisiacs, filets, fur coats, and erectile dysfunction remedies, or worse yet, simple trophies.

Those looking to justify this pattern of slaughter come back with “what about all the pigs, cows and chickens”?  It sucks that any creature has to die for another creature’s nourishment, and the sight of the pigs in the truck on their way to the processing plant is as gut-wrenching as the resigned expression on Lonesome George’s little face.  We can accept, grudgingly, that world will likely not stop eating meat anytime soon.  We just don’t have to be dicks about it.  We don’t have to pursue the rarest of species into the depths of their most remote habitat just to discover that they taste like chicken.  If we’re going to continue to eat steak and bacon and wings, we don’t have to cram animals into cells that make the Death Star trash compactor look positively roomy and pump their veins full of tranquilizer, antibiotics and steroids so they’ll be nice and juicy on the barbeque.  Moreover, we don’t have to keep serving them up as super-sized monstrosities that either end up in the garbage wasted or inflating our bellies and thighs to Huttese proportions.  We can choose to take only what we need and be mindful of and grateful for the life that is being sacrificed for the betterment of ours.

The story of the tortoise and the hare would be different now if it was written today.  The tortoise would take his slow and steady time only to find that the hare had not only won the race, but dug out the land around the finish line and salted the earth so nothing would grow there ever again.  The speed and sheer smugness with which we are emptying the planet of its treasures both animate and inanimate is accelerating as our sole motivation for existence now – as much as we claim to be a spiritual people – is greater economic growth.  The trouble is you can’t have infinite growth in a finite system like our earth.  And this isn’t news to anyone, even those who are the strongest advocates for capitalism without limits.  One supposes that the consolation for some of these people (barring utter ignorance on their part) is that like Lonesome George, they won’t live to see the collapse.  The babies being born today will be picking up what few pieces remain of the future.

And yet there is still a vestige of hope.  George’s body was found by a man named Fausto Llerena, who had been looking after him since he was first found in 1971.  Forty whole years, a life really, devoted to caring for an animal who could never say thank you – the reward had to have been in watching George enjoy his time as he lived out the last days of his species in solitude.  That sort of commitment proves to me that human beings possess the capacity to act as gardeners on this earth rather than strip miners; indeed, as one who inclines toward the former point of view it makes me wonder what bizarre combination of circumstances lead toward the latter – toward the kind of ass-brained mentality that thinks making fun of Prius owners is a reinforcement of masculinity.  The Pinta Island tortoise is gone now forever because of human shortsightedness, but the lesson of Lonesome George and Fausto Llerena is that it doesn’t have to happen again.  Willpower is a tremendous thing – it built pyramids and sent men to walk on the moon.  Surely it can do the same for our natural world.

Rest in peace Lonesome George.