A Time to Lament

Lament was a powerful tool once. The Iliad, perhaps the greatest of the epics of old, ends with three women’s voices mourning Hector, declaring what his death at the hands of Achilles would now mean for each of them. In Hebrew scripture, what was most often lamented was spiritual failure on the part of Israel, the resulting disorder wreaking havoc on the people and land. The prophet Isaiah condemned the wealthy who in a period of economic downturn, rather than helping their fellow Hebrews get back on their feet, bought land cheap from underneath them. They might have come out with riches from taking advantage of others’ money problems, but, in the end, they would be left without friends: “Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!”

To lament was to give voice to the pain and suffering brought on by an injustice or trauma and to grieve the cost to oneself or to the larger community. Recovering a regard for lament, we come face to face, too, with what we have not done that we should have. And maybe there is something we can do better. In my family, I need only look at my own namesake and what he did and did not do. I am named after my father who, in turn, was named after my grandfather’s favorite uncle, a district judge in Waco. I knew of the judge as a reformer, who pushed back against the Red Light district in Waco (the only such legally tolerated then in Texas), the gambling and casinos that then belied the city’s hope to become “the Athens on the Brazos,” and the ruin brought upon marriages, which he saw in divorces sought in his court. All that I’ve read in court transcripts. In 1849, when my grandfather’s Uncle Marshall was born, the country had its twelfth president, Zachary Taylor; Texas had only its second governor, George Thomas Wood; and grandfather’s Uncle Marshall’s father (my grandfather’s grandfather) had a half-dozen or so slaves to make his life easier on a family farm in East Texas. That is also a reality I need to acknowledge.

Away from the farm, too, my Great-Great Uncle Marshall would have been taught that one race, well, his, in fact, was superior to others’. In 1867, my great-great uncle moved to Gilmer, Texas, to be tutored in the law. His instructor was Oran M. Roberts, an unrepentant Confederate, born in South Carolina, schooled in Alabama, who had been a Texas Supreme Court Justice until being removed (temporarily) during Reconstruction. In 1861, Roberts had presided over the Texas state secessionist convention, its call to secede declaring “the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color … in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law.” To put actions to his words, Roberts had then taken up arms as a colonel in the Eleventh Texas (Confederate, that is) Infantry.

As for himself, my great-great uncle never said anything in support of secession, nor slavery, and had not fought in the Civil War (as had a brother), but that was, nevertheless, the culture still defended by some when he was receiving his legal tutelage. Beginning in 1870, my great-great uncle practiced law in East Texas, then in 1874 moved away from family to the Brazos Valley of central Texas, where he eventually became a district judge. In August 1905, he would oversee the trial of Sank Majors, a 20-year-old African American man accused of raping and stabbing a White neighbor woman (she would survive and live until 1963). After a short trial, an all-White jury quickly declared the young man guilty and sentenced him to death. Out of character for the time, though, my namesake yielded to the defense attorney’s objections, conceded that he, my great-great uncle, had not given the jury proper instructions before deliberation, and declared a mistrial.

The rest of the story is a miserable, ugly one. A self-righteous mob teemed into downtown Waco, encircling the courthouse. In a violent act of vigilantism, men hoisted sledgehammers against the doors of the jail. The doors were breeched. Thrust into the glaring light was the figure of Sank Majors, grim-faced, no longer under protection. I have long wondered what he felt. Surely he knew that calling for help was of no use, and that he had been abandoned to the throng, and he must have been terrified. He called out for his mother, and she yelled from behind the mob to let him know she was there. The mob laid their rough hands upon the young man and yanked and pulled him down the street to the Washington Avenue bridge, where they forced him on top a horse, strung a rope around his neck, and drove the horse out from under him. As the young man’s body dangled, people cut off fingers and tore away pieces of his clothes for souvenirs.

Theirs was an utter contempt for their captive. Like the vengeful Hamlet, though with none of his poetic lines, rather only crude epithets, they not only wanted to kill their enemy but to cast him down to damnation and hell. Hamlet would not kill Claudius in the act of prayer, lest Claudius’s soul be saved. A column printed in the Arlington Journal in north Texas captured this ignoble desire to not only mutilate the physical body but to damn another’s soul:

“Negroes have come to regard the scaffold route about the surest route to heaven. Give one a few months or a year to pray in and he can atone for all his meanness so he thinks, and swing into the eternal city to sing praises with their murdered and ravished victims through all eternity. Such executions have come to have little terror for him. But the fury of the mob is a different proposition, and fills him with holy terror. Here he is denied the soothing presence of some reverend brother with a long tailed black coat on and a bible under his arm, while his own religious devotions are rudely disturbed by kicks and blows, by curses, and by the scent of coal oil and the crackling of fagots.”

Just as with a knee against the neck of an African American man today, the worst cruelty in lynching is not physical pain, the stripes across the back, the lesions about the neck. The greatest cruelty is in stripping the other person of dignity, ripping away the humanity from another person, wanting to deface the person from very existence. Had the lynch mob been somehow articulate, the argument might have been made that a public lynching could serve as a deterrent to more crime. Amongst those not pacifist today, the right to use such force is understood as permissible only when necessary to prevent a greater evil. Where was the greater evil here? And true justice supposes that each person is to be treated equally, whether the tradesman or lord of the manor. In the case of young Sank Majors, this was not seeking after justice. Justice had already been served and been furthermore promised in a new trial. No, the lynching and disfigurement was a dehumanization, seeing the other as non personam.

To believe Konrad Lorenz, to feel that we belong, we misbehave, we insult, we curse, we even kill. Rather than doing the long, hard work to build relationships, to create community, we instead lash out at a perceived common enemy. It is a cheap and easy way to feel part of a group. We elevate our hero status in the eyes of others in a quick act of violence, whether a hateful insult (or vile tweet), the slash of a blade, the flame flaring from a barrel, or the jerk of a noose. Lorenz writes of the “holy shiver” running down the spine of the instigator, no longer thinking but infused with vitriol, enthused toward annihilation of another. Lorenz writes: “A shiver runs down the back and … along the outside of both arms … All obstacles in its path become unimportant; the instinctive inhibitions against hurting or killing one’s fellows lose, unfortunately, most of their power.” In the photos of lynchings, the faces in the crowds smile, whether in rhapsody, a sneer or a triumphant smirk, or just a nervous assent. We hear sometimes that a crowd has been “caught up” in a moment. The cliché allows us an out, an avoidance of responsibility. The cliché is not true. Rather, in a thrill that runs down the spine, we yield to evil, disregarding the other as a person. We seek to do evil, not good. The cliché of being caught up in a moment is nothing more than a soft velvet pall to cover the dark malignancy of our souls.

There are some memories that are forever dragged along behind us like some childhood object to remind us of a time when we were innocent, still protected from the world’s callousness. Other memories we steadfastly avoid. They only come to consciousness like an aching joint on a bitterly cold day. The story of Sank Majors was not a proud story for the family. I find no mention in any family letters, only in newspaper clippings from the time. Some accounts in recent years fault the judge for not taking more action, and perhaps that is so. At the time, one newspaper surmised that Majors “had been granted a new trial by Judge Surratt in order that that there might be an opportunity for the court of criminal appeals to reverse the sentence on a technicality.” And the Arlington Journal condemned the judge, my namesake, for granting a new trial, saying that, in fact, it was the judge’s decision that had “driven the people to such a deed.”

Picking among the bones of my forbearers, what am I looking for? As with most people, I suppose, I would like to find in the mythic roots of my family some lofty ideals and a nobility of mind. I look for a sense of dramatic outrage from the judge, my great-great uncle. I want to hear a loud prophetic voice bellow forcefully and powerfully from him to denounce the lynching, to condemn the violation of a young man’s body and soul. Instead, he remains, at best, but a moral reformer trying to do the right thing by a young Black man, best as the time will allow perhaps, maybe thinking himself powerless to stand up to the crowd that comes afterward. The law promised due process for each person regardless of social class or color of skin. In 1905, however, a Black man was not to be admitted into this protected group (and, we have seen, in some places is still not). Do I take any consolation that my great-great uncle had advanced so far beyond his own father’s ownership of others—and the prejudices about racial superiority still clung to by Justice Roberts and his sort? Was he stepping forward, even a few halting steps, of the marked line of his day? But in the end,  he didn’t question the system itself.

We can learn from injustice. When Sank Majors was lynched, my grandfather was a student just across town at Baylor College. For all his life, he would carry a strong concern for what is good and fair. Inspired by his uncle’s public service, maybe wanting to go further, maybe as an act of penance, my grandfather became a community organizer, seeking to improve neighborhood conditions for people regardless of color or social standing, work he would continue up to his death in 1957. He learned to question the system itself when appropriate.

Seeking after justice was mandated by his faith, too. It was part of his Christian duty, he felt, being about as influenced by the Social Gospel movement as a White Baptist in the south could be then. After hearing a talk on stewardship at his church in Dallas in 1925, he implored the church leaders, and local businessmen, to include civic duty as part of Christian stewardship. He argued that people of faith should work to rectify the underlying conditions of poverty:

“As I listened on your splendid talk on “Stewardship” I thought about the slum district of Dallas—districts where men, women and little children—blacks, Mexicans and whites—live in filth, dirt, disease and sin—physical conditions that are so depressing and so degrading that only the strongest character could ever rise above them…. The work of relieving the sick and the suffering and of bringing help to the needy, always appeals strongly to the sympathetic hearts. Is not the work of removing the cause or of removing these causes of equal importance?”

The same year, he wrote a letter in response to a query from Jessie Daniel Ames, then the director of the Texas Association for Interracial Cooperation, formed to counter lynchings and other racial injustice. He supplied Ames with suggestions of people she could contact for local help and let her know that he was “now co-operating with the commission of Dallas, which is making a special investigation of the housing problem of Dallas.” (Ames, from Georgetown, north of Austin, had been involved in the suffrage movement, and in 1919, had founded the Texas League of Women Voters, and in 1930, would organize the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.)

To distract us from seeking the good, Marlowe understood, the forces of evil do not need to construct heady arguments. They need only show us shiny objects to desire or caricatures of people to look down on and hate. Just a few weeks before he died, my grandfather wrote a letter to his Sunday School teacher, who was also one of the associate pastors at his church. I can only surmise that something had been said that was critical of people of other denominations or about people of another race (this was as the civil rights movement was gaining attention) or maybe some of both. A year before, on February 21, 1956, the head pastor of my grandfather’s church, W. A. Criswell, had addressed a South Carolina Baptist evangelism conference opposing forced integration. Criswell’s speech was meant to reassure his audience that he would not mix races in his own church. These were not accidental remarks. Criswell included as a punch line sure to get laughter from his audience: “Why the NAACP has got those East Texans on the run so much that they dare not pronounce the word chigger any longer. It has to be cheegro.” Not exactly words befitting the person heading up a major church. I can’t help but think that what my grandfather wrote was also a pointed rebuke to the way of thinking in the leadership in his church.

Too many of the virtues pinned on our puffed-out chests are just self-congratulatory nods to each other; they aren’t the honest product of any close appraisal of ourselves. Meantime, civilization groans and collapses under the throes of this smug sureness, moved to hatred by short, angry tweets that continue to rip away the humanity of the other person. “Do we serve Christ,” my grandfather asked rhetorically, “when we discuss the mistakes and misdeeds of other groups who think they are serving Him? Or do we serve Christ when we study the Bible and learn more about Him and of His love for us and about His love for all men, even His love for those men who are doing wrong?”

In his letter to his Sunday School teacher, my grandfather invoked the name of George Truett, who had led the First Baptist Church of Dallas before Criswell, from 1897 to 1947, and still, ten years later, cast a large shadow over Criswell’s tenure, some in Dallas thinking that, no matter the sonorous stirring of Dr. Criswell’s timorous preaching, and strong denouncements from the pulpit of others’ sins, he did not unite people as had Truett. This was bridge-building in the first half of the twentieth century, in public civics that would be accepted as safe and acceptable but still pushed the envelope. My grandfather recalled how one time “Dr. Truett was invited to preach the sermon at the annual meeting of the East Texas Chamber of Commerce. Every church in Marshall, White and Black, gave way for Dr. Truett. Dr. Truett’s message on ‘city building’ was addressed to all men, of all faiths. His message was addressed to the White men and to the Black men, to the Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Jews. It was one of the greatest messages that I have ever heard.”

In instructions for my grandfather’s funeral service, my father, in his own act of pointedness, had Dr. Criswell read aloud that letter to the people of different religious ilk, and color, who filled the church pews. I wonder what Dr. Criswell felt as he read aloud my grandfather’s admonitions. This was December 1957. Just a few months before, a White mob had tried to block the young children in the “Little Rock Nine” from enrolling in schools that White students attended. Only two years before, Emmitt Till had been savagely murdered and mutilated in Mississippi, an act that, no doubt, resonated with my grandfather. It would not be until 1968 that Criswell would, at least publically, renounce his statements on segregation, as he lobbied to be chosen president of the Southern Baptist Convention to start its conservative course in politics. Why can’t we just see the big picture, care for one another, and work together to help a greater cause? my grandfather was asking. Why can’t we see the other as fully human? he was lamenting. And maybe, almost certainly, he also was thinking of the young Sank Majors and what had been done to him—and maybe some of what had not been done for him and too many since.


Photo of the author at the top of the page by Byrd Williams. 


Needles’ Eyes, Wealth, Learning and Virtue

How do those who claim to be Christians today reconcile the modern world’s quest for material gain with Jesus’s severe injunctions against riches? Most notably in verses 10:25-26 of The Gospel According to Mark: “But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (King James version). 

I suspect a representative answer came from a pink-cheeked young business major when I asked that question in a core literature class years ago. Without a second’s hesitation, he told me, “Things were different then.”

And so they were. According to theologian Sakari Häkkinen, “In the Ancient world poverty was a visible and common phenomenon. According to estimations 9 out of 10 persons lived close to the subsistence level or below it. There was no middle class. The state did not show much concern for the poor.” In fact, exploiting the poor was the primary source of income for the fraction at the financial top who made their fortunes as provincial governors, tax collectors and moneylenders. By condemning the rich abusers, Jesus was, in effect, preaching to the destitute choir.

Leap ahead fifteen centuries when flourishing proto-capitalistic commerce in Europe spread the proceeds of trade, and the good life was enjoyed by an expanding middle class. As seen in the meticulous details in paintings by Jan van Eyck, Pieter de Hooch, Rogier van der Weyden, and others, material objects were prized, driving the accumulation of the profits needed to acquire them.

This new emphasis on the things of this world is explained by Harold J. Cook in Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age. Ships sailing about the known world made the acquisition and sharing of physical goods a possible goal. Scientists transformed their field by turning their attention to the study of concrete articles. Nonscientists—a larger number—attributed great value to concrete possessions. An expansion in disposable income led to a consumer revolution. A large proportion of this new wealth was spent on literal consumption. Merchants and others with the means were “acquiring well-crafted furniture, linens, antiquities, painting and sculpture, books and manuscripts, strange and lovely items of nature, and other rare and beautiful objects.” Cook concludes that “Valued objects had become ‘goods’ alongside personal virtues. As the historian of art and society Richard Goldthwaite has put it, ‘possessions become an objectification of self,’ perhaps ‘for the first time.’”

But what about Biblical condemnations of riches? In a period when Europeans took the Bible much more seriously than they do today, the affluent sought a loophole to avoid the threat of Mark 10:25-26. Would accumulations of fine jewels, linens, and spices of the East condemn the owners to forsaking eternal salvation?

The Renaissance theologian, poet, and historian Caspar Barlaeus (1584–1648) proposed an answer by defending commerce as beneficial to virtue and wisdom. His argument is explained by Cook. Before Barlaeus, Dirk Volkertsz Coornhert, in 1580, wrote that wealth and virtue were compatible if the profits were given to charitable causes or even supporting military defense. The critics of this position asked why anyone would seek profits they couldn’t keep.

Barlaeus took a different tact, defending self-interest as natural and essential to social interaction, mutually supporting others and ultimately fulfilling God’s purpose for each of us. He claimed that great wealth led to great learning and that virtue and magnificence came from the union of learning and worldly activity. Cook summarizes the core of Barlaeus’ beliefs: “It was not from doctrine but from the interactions found in buying and selling, and in the search for knowledge that was another aspect of exchange, that modesty, honesty, and natural truths emerged.”

While a camel might be stymied by the needle’s eye, a Dutch burgher would sail right through. That is, because for Barlaeus, as much as he defends the basis of capitalism, wealth was not an end in itself but rather a means to the betterment of society and human kind. In his more carefully formulated argument, he echoes my pink-cheeked student in justifying the differences of his period’s economic circumstances from the time of Jesus.

Today, we appear to be in a throwback to Galilean imbalance, with wealth burgeoning exponentially for the few. Inequality is escalating, the top 0.1 percent having as much of the bottom 90 percent. While the 90 percent don’t live in Galilean poverty, the middle class is withering, the working class falling behind, millions resentful at the loss of what they once had and seeing no promise of regaining it. Rather than following Jesus by threatening the rich with the loss of heaven, they—unaware—are closer to Barlaeus in calling for a reallocation of wealth to achieve a better society. Yet, we are a long way from the modesty, honesty, and truth that might result from a search for knowledge.



Harold J. Cook. Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age. Yale University Press, 2007. 

Sakari Häkkinen. “Poverty in the first-century Galilee.HTS Theological Studies,  2016

Photo at the top of the page: © Trustees of the British Museum.

Doctrines and Dragons

In the beginning…”

The airplane’s window, a single, oval pixel in a God’s-eye view, affords me a myopic perspective of the larger scheme below. Here, some six miles up, the boundary between cornflower heaven and aquamarine sea blurs. In subtle defiance of the divine hand that separated them, the two realms recede, one into the other, to form a single blue domain, like adjacent hues on a hardware store paint sample. In the distance, puncturing the water’s hyaline surface, tiny flecks of land—squat, umber-colored disks with smooth, domed tops that disguise their volatile past; and verdant, flattened cones with vague, central depressions that hint at erstwhile calderas—come into view. A view I’ve dreamt of seeing for nearly five decades. Afloat in a vast and void expanse of seemingly limitless sea, the Galápagos Islands appear suspended on nothing, untethered to time or space.

A flight attendant’s voice, barely audible over the engines’ din, crackles through the intercom. We’re landing.

Roughly dead center in the archipelago, Baltra Island, pancake-flat and covered in low scrub and prickly cacti, serves as our port of entry. In an open-air structure consisting of little more than a concrete slab, a tin roof, and several grossly ineffectual ceiling fans struggling against the thick, sweltry air, my husband and I receive the international greeting of all customs officials: “What is the purpose of your visit?”

I’m here for the dragons, I’m thinking.

I recall I was seven or eight years old, and my mother and I were watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau: The Dragons of Galápagos, a documentary about marine iguanas. Mom had a secret wanderlust that she fulfilled by watching wildlife programs and travel documentaries about exotic creatures she would never see, in faraway places she would never visit. We would settle into the couch in front of our brand-new color television, my head resting on her hip, while watching her favorite shows—the National Geographic series featuring the famous French conservationist and explorer, Jacques Cousteau.

In Mom’s Southern drawl, he was “Jack Cost-o,” which made him sound somewhat less exotic. Jack and his crew sailed to Galápagos in the late 1960s to observe the iguanas. And there in our Florida living room, the menacing, inky-black dragons seemed as elusive as their mythical counterparts, cliff-diving into the chilly depths of the Pacific Ocean. I knew nothing of Charles Darwin, evolution, or selective pressure; I knew only Sunday school, creation, and genesis. But over the years I would watch many documentaries and read countless books about Galápagos. I would come to know (from a distance) all the mysterious creatures of these remarkable islands. I would come to view them and Darwin and my Sunday schooling in a different, sometimes puzzling light. And I knew I would visit one day.

“Tourism,” I respond.


Let the dry ground appear…”

Valentín, our guide for the week’s activities, greets our group of five English-speaking visitors as we exit customs. Naturalist, diver, historian, translator, and cultural ambassador, Valentín is a native of Galápagos and looks like a swarthy Richard Gere. He blushes. He’s heard that before. We catch a water taxi to Santa Cruz, our base island for the trip, and then board a bus that carries us into the highlands.

Poised more than six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador, Valentín says, the islands lie near the nexus of three tectonic plates: the Nazca, on which they perch; the Cocos, to the north; and the Pacific, to the far west. They balance on a shelf of sorts, created by an upsurge of magma in Nazca’s nether regions, referred to as a “hot spot.” When hot magma meets cool ocean, land is created; create enough land, and you have an archipelago. In constant motion, Nazca operates like a massive, underwater conveyor belt, slowly transporting the archipelago to the east at a rate of about six inches per year. Nazca’s hot spot remains hot, and volcanoes in Galápagos erupt regularly. Highly active volcanoes boil in the northwest while less active ones simmer in the southeast.

As our eyes scan the horizon from northwest to southeast, evolution unfolds before us in time-lapse fashion. Volcanoes visible to the eye—islands now—represent different epochs in the Galápagos’ natural history, exhibiting different landscapes, ecosystems, flora, and fauna, says Valentín. Older islands, like Española and South Plaza, are “dying,” their plant and animal life nearly expended. Middle-aged islands, like Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, are thriving, their rich ecosystems and abundant plant and animal populations well established. And young islands, like Bartolomé, are budding, their harsh, lunar landscapes and sparse vegetation home to only the most resilient of creatures.

Valentín explains that the islands played a prominent role in Darwin’s theories about natural selection, but I’m only half listening. I occupy myself with my camera, grateful for my large hat, which shields my face from the rest of the group. Tears well in my eyes, and I struggle for composure.

Dragons—of a personal sort—torment me.

Darwin, evolution—words I seldom use. Raised in the Bible-belt South, I never heard anybody talk about “creationists” when I was a child. No, Creation, with a capital “C,” was gospel, and Darwin (who wasn’t mentioned until I was in the tenth grade) was the anti-Christ. Evolution was a dirty word. It still is for many Christians, who live in a world where only a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis is acceptable. This is the world in which I was raised.

Now, some fifty-plus years since my early Sunday-school days, I feel afloat and unmoored, like these islands beneath my feet. Our trip to Galápagos celebrates a list of good things: permanence, our thirtieth wedding anniversary; change, my husband’s retirement from the Air Force; and growth, my completion of a grueling science-intense master’s degree. But the last item on that list, growth, has engendered a sense of disquietude. My upbringing, juxtaposed against my education, feels like a bad fit. Galápagos is simultaneously a crucible of creation and an exposition of evolution. I stand on a fault line, suffering a crisis of faith.


Let the earth bring forth living creatures…”

The bus ahead slows, and a flurry of hand-waving and finger-pointing indicates a wildlife sighting. “Baby tortoise,” Valentín murmurs as we come to a halt. Nestled among the short, spiky grasses and soft, fuzzy ferns that line the road, the baby lies motionless, stone-like. Nearly eighteen inches in diameter, a mosaic of bony hexagonal plates forms his shell, or carapace. A short neck, cobbled black flesh, and domed carapace identify him as a Galápagos tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra), the poster-child and namesake of the islands.

After a quick photo shoot, I reboard the bus, and we continue our journey to a tortoise reserve. Here we don black rubber boots for our trek into the muddy highlands. The gray, overcast sky and the dim light under the dense forest canopy lend a primordial, Jurassic ambience. Only the muted splats of our sodden footsteps and the soft din of buzzing insects can be heard. Native orchids and mosses drape from scalesia tree branches, and passionflower vines wind around their trunks, the ambrosial scent of their blossoms filling the damp, clammy air.

Valentín points out round yellow fruits, “beach apples” (Hippomane mancinella), lying in the muck and warns us to avoid them. Highly toxic to humans, beach apples produce painful mouth ulcers and life-threatening swelling of the tongue in unwitting partakers. How cliché: forbidden fruit, here in Paradise, I’m thinking. But the fruits are harmless to tortoises and comprise much of the reptiles’ diet. Where beach apples are found, tortoises are sure to follow.

We trudge deeper into the forest and finally get what we came for: an adult tortoise. We’ve interrupted his dinner, and a leafy schmear of fern pesto adorns his chin. He delivers us a long, enigmatic stare and then resumes his meal. Other tortoises bathing in a mud puddle greet us with frank apathy. One ambles to the water’s edge and imbibes leisurely before plopping into the mud. The tortoises are silent; only their slow, tank-like movements as they crunch through the underbrush alert us to their presence. I feel as though I’ve stepped back in time, observing ancient creatures in their native element.

A Galápagos tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra), the poster-child and namesake of the islands. Photo by Teresa Johnson. 2012.

Darwin chronicled his first encounter with the Galápagos tortoises in his travel memoir, Voyage of the Beagle. Reflecting a Briton’s typical flair for understatement, he described meeting “two large tortoises.” Adult male tortoises, which can reach more than 500 pounds, are not large, but huge—bumper cars with feet. With the nonchalance of a nine-year-old boy poking a bug with a stick, Darwin further penned, “…[a tortoise] with the flesh on it, is very good; and the young tortoises make excellent soup; but otherwise the meat to my taste is indifferent.” Indifferent? Is that a British idiom for “tastes like chicken”? The consumption of these noble creatures is hard to comprehend, but nineteenth century sailors ate boatloads of them, sometimes slaughtering as many as seven hundred during a single layover.

By his own account, Darwin attempted to ride a tortoise but he kept falling off. I find it strange that a man who spent so much time at sea should demonstrate such singularly poor balance. Even stranger is that he would treat these magnificent animals with such disrespect. But now that I’m face to face with one, I want to climb on his back, embrace his cool shell, feel his slow, plodding gait beneath me, and behold his prehistoric worldview. Of course, rules forbid this, nor would I have done so. But as we head back to the bus and a torrential rain begins to fall, the thought lingers.

Another water taxi ride carries us across the glassy turquoise waters of Academy Bay, where dozens of boats of every size and shape moor, rocking gently with the tide, their bows pointed seaward. Sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki)—smelly, hairy slugs—lounge on every available surface. Savvy boat owners barricade their low-lying sterns against the fetid squatters when they leave their boats unattended, but novices will return to find their boats invaded.

Finally, we arrive at the hotel’s dock and disembark for the last leg of a long day of travel. The equatorial sun retires quickly, like a ball rolling off a cliff, so we pick up the pace while we still have daylight, traversing a low boardwalk that carries us across a tidal pool and into a thick mangrove forest. The air feels honey-like, and tiny gnats swarm at the water’s surface; below us in the pool’s brackish water, the amphibious trees’ dense tangle of stilt-like roots extends into the soft sandy bottom.

In a narrow breach near the shore, we skirt a jagged lava outcropping, a stark reminder of Galapagos’ hellish origins and a nesting area for marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus)—the dragons of my youth. A sign requests our respectful distance. Described so, the iguanas come off as delicate and maternal, but I remember them differently: beastly horned and hissing creatures, spewing salt like fire, cousins of the Devil himself. This inhospitable place, wedged in between the mangrove lair and the stygian slag, fully at the tide’s mercy, seems a fitting place to raise their hideous young. With an odd mix of fear and hopeful anticipation, I scrutinize the dark, obsidian crags, but no iguanas are present, and we continue to our hotel.


And let birds fly above the earth…”

Daily excursions by yacht carry us to the surrounding islands, and today we venture to North Seymour Island, one of the few nesting areas in Galápagos for magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens). Nearly four feet long and with an eight-foot wingspan, the enormous birds are imposing creatures. A lone male overhead escorts our yacht like a sleek, black arrow pointing the way.

Once on land, we head to the birds’ roosting area, dodging steamy, terra cotta-colored mud puddles—remnants of last night’s rain—interspersed among crimson-stemmed groundcover succulents called carpetweed (Sesuvium edmonstonei). North Seymour has no trees, so frigatebirds nest in saltbushes (Cryptocarpus pyriformis), low-growing shrubs with sage-like leaves and delicate, springy branches. When one of the giant birds lands on its nest—boing—I half expect another bird to catapult into the air like a circus jump-and-pop game. Male frigatebirds are endowed with large, heart-shaped pouches under their necks called gulars that they inflate to attract females. The football-sized balloons take nearly twenty minutes to fill but it’s worth the wait. He clicks and drums while flapping his wings in a staccato beat. What girl can resist a scarlet-red heart, beating for his lover?

Whereas frigatebirds have a limited range in the Galápagos, the ubiquitous, non-descript Darwin’s finches (Passeriformes) can be found everywhere, including here on North Seymour. Many people have claimed that Darwin’s evolutionary theories were drawn from his observations of the diminutive, dun-colored birds, but Darwin, it seems, is steeped in more myths than Moses. In fact, many of his biographers assert he was pretty clueless about the finches and their divergent adaptations to their respective environments, likely because he failed to catalog the birds properly with regard to their provenance and behavior. The fourteen Galápagos-bound species weren’t even known as “Darwin’s Finches” until 1936, when a British ornithologist assigned the moniker. If Darwin held the belief that the birds evolved from a common ancestor, his early writings never reflected it.

Despite Darwin’s failings as a cataloger, his observations on Galápagos eventually helped him make the leap from naturalist to evolutionist. He went on to propose that external pressures on an organism influence the development of characteristics that promote survival in a particular environment. I recently survived the harsh environment of graduate school. What new characteristics have I acquired?


Be fruitful and multiply…”

It’s Sunday morning, and my husband and I are on our own for the day. As the sun breaks soft and white over the bay, we set out in a sea kayak and paddle through a small barrier reef that leads to a neighboring bayou. Tall cliffs, whitewashed with guano, surround the crescent-shaped lagoon, a glassy, limpid pool that offers sanctuary to thousands of breeding birds, including the eponymous blue-footed boobies (Sula nebouxii).

A booby’s unremarkable appearance—a mostly white body, pointed brown wings, and a salt-and-pepper head—is redeemed by two striking features: the eyes, pale yellow irises that surround pinpoint black pupils; and the feet: brilliant toothpaste-blue paddles that reflect the birds’ reproductive health. In the booby world, a boy with big blue feet is a girl’s dream come true.

As we skim across the shoals, we turn our eyes toward a low, craggy shelf and become instant voyeurs: Two boobies are performing their courtship tango, a balletic version of Dueling Banjos, with the female riffing off her partner’s movements. He high-steps to advertise his sexy blue feet, and she reciprocates; he points skyward to flaunt his long, slender beak, and she mimics; he stretches his pointed wings, then bows, to demonstrate who-knows-what, and she copies. A one-on-one foot-lifting, beak-pointing, wing-stretching-and-bowing test of compatibility.

Like besotted lovers, boobies perform their courtship maneuvers long after mating. Despite their apparent devotion, boobies hardly qualify as monogamous lovers, preferring what you might call an “open relationship,” where they regularly engage in blue-footed hanky-panky, knowing that what happens off the nest, stays off the nest, where they can expect no repercussions or rebukes.

But it’s this unique dance that sets blue-footed boobies apart from their red-footed and masked cousins on other islands. Early geographic isolation from their relatives promoted speciation, an evolutionary process that divides a single species into two or more. Their mambo is more than mere avian titillation; it ensures the purity and posterity of the species’ bloodlines, so they can reproduce, each according to its own kind.


And darkness was over the face of the deep…”

The boobies’ dance party having ended, we head back to the beach and venture into the nearby town of Puerto Ayora. The sound of church bells calling the devout to worship strikes an odd chord in a town where the gospel of evolution is ever-present. A Catholic church holds a prominent place in Puerto Ayora’s town square, and the Mormons’ and Seventh Day Adventists’ sanctuaries sit just around the corner. Religion is alive and well here in Galápagos, and most faiths preach Creationist orthodoxy—islands of faith in a sea of perceived heresy.

Although some religious and scientific groups in the United States have found a happy medium where a theistic evolution that embraces both views exists, others are less accommodating. Even today (as it was during the factious `60s and `70s of my youth), while the grownups sit around and debate the veracity of one view or the other, it’s the kids in biology class who suffer. A believer has her faith rug ripped out from under her while the non-believer hears hints of the “fairy tale” of Genesis. I’m not sure anybody wins.

I’m not a teenager in biology class anymore, though. I’ve studied at the feet of the finest scientists in the world, and I know that biological organisms must evolve and adapt, or die. I’ve also experienced spiritual intimacy, and I know that spiritual organisms must likewise evolve and adapt; science cannot fill the holes in my life. While the sameness of Christian ritual sometimes diminishes that intimacy, I know that within the context of that sameness, I can express creativity, process abstract notions, and extrapolate possibilities beyond my singular experience. I long for peace, a peace that came more readily when I was less enlightened. I find it amusing that believers often describe spiritual growth as enlightenment, while scoffers say believers are in the dark. It seems that both sides sit, squabbling in the shade, not fully benefiting from the lucidity of bright light.


Let the waters swarm with living creatures…”

Although humans have successfully evolved to live on land, a kid growing up in Florida ought to be able to handle herself in the water. So for three summers in a row, my mother sent me to YMCA day camp to learn to swim. And for three summers in a row, my swimming instructors relegated me to the Minnows, the basic class where we learned to kick and hold our breath. By the fourth summer, approaching my teen years, I decided I had had enough humiliation. No more camp, no more Minnows. I cannot swim. My body sinks like a stone.

Valentín announces that we will be snorkeling today. What? My heart sinks, just like my stony pre-teen body. I take him aside and divulge my shame. He is unfazed. “Flotation vest,” he says, and hands me an inflatable ticket to paradise.

The first indication that humans are ill-equipped to spend extended periods in an aquatic environment is the amount of gear and paraphernalia necessary to do so. I don flippers, mask, snorkel, and, most importantly, my flotation vest. “Go in feet first,” Valentín instructs. “You aren’t Jacques Cousteau,” he reminds me, Richard Gere eyes twinkling. I slip into the warm, saline waters of the equatorial Pacific and bob slightly with the assistance of my vest. After adjusting the suction cup-like mask, I take my first, tentative breaths with the snorkel. Somewhat confident in my gear’s functionality, I extend my body forward into a floating position and lower my masked face into the sea. Now parallel to the sea floor, some twenty feet below, I open my eyes.

I am baptized into a new dimension.

Gentle waves massage my body, all sound is muffled, and the world is aquamarine, hypnotic. Penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus) dive for their lunch; sea lions cavort with their mates; starfish, the size of pizzas, lounge on the sea floor; and giant cartoon-colored fish glide just beyond the reach of my outstretched fingers. I’ve found Nemo! Then, a shadow catches my eye as a female sea turtle (Chelonia agassizii), as big as a kitchen table, swims past. Only ten feet away, she seems unaware of or unbothered by my presence. I turn to follow her, and together we glide through the water, like sisters from another place and time. I feel as though I could swim with her forever, but she slips away into the depths where my human, flotation-assisted body cannot follow.

After three hours of swimming, my body is spent, but the synchronized freestyle with my distant relative has energized my soul. I feel a sense of harmony: turtle and human coexisting in a strange, sometimes threatening environment, like creation and evolution, spirituality and science. I sense I’m being re-created (evolving?) into something more compatible with my environment. But unlike the Biblical creation, so familiar in my youth, mine comes in fits and starts and lacks a clear, poetic order.


And there was light…”

Each day at dusk and dawn we walk to and from the dock and our hotel, through the mangrove forest, and past the marine iguanas’ lava rock nesting area. The treks have failed to yield even a single dragon, but today we cross the boardwalk at noon, the sun white and hot overhead. A few staccato movements near the rocks catch our attention. A single female, perched high on the lava, basks in the sun, her slender, spiny back cast in stark silhouette against the alabaster sand beyond. Perfectly camouflaged, she is nearly indistinguishable from her surroundings.

Thus trained, we notice other females nearby, their black, scabrous skin merging into black, scabrous rock. One darts across the crystalline beach. We keep our distance, straining our eyes for even a single movement. Scrutinized so, in the bright light of midday, these strange, alien creatures seem less menacing than I expected. Like all of the creatures of Galápagos, they have evolved to be perfectly suited to and in harmony with their environment.

Were they here the entire time? I wonder.


And it was good…”

Today, the seventh day of our travel, we return to mainland Ecuador. I rest by the pool at our Guayaquil hotel, a world apart from volcanoes, tortoises, and boobies. I ask my husband to take my picture by the pool, and I post it to my Facebook page with the caption, “This is what relaxed looks like.”

We order ceviche and patacones, fried green plantains, to be served poolside. As he has done before every meal we have shared for the past thirty-plus years, my husband takes my hand and offers thanks for the bounty that we are about to receive. My thoughts drift to the Creationists who created the view of Darwin as agitator, atheist, anti-Christ. Darwin likely was none of these. In his younger days, he felt a call (more accurately, a push, from his father) to ministry. Darwin attended seminary at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated at the top of his class, his sights set on becoming a country clergyman. First, however, he answered the call to his naturalist interests and embarked on his Beagle adventures. Darwin’s Unitarian Christian views figured prominently in his writing, where he frequently referred to a “Creator.” In his travel journal, Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin described his impression of the strange flora and fauna of Australia:

A little time before this I had been lying on a sunny bank, and was reflecting on the strange character of the animals of this country as compared with the rest of the world. An unbeliever in every thing beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same, and certainly the end in each case is complete.

In a later work, Variation of Animals and Plants, Darwin concluded:

But can it be reasonably maintained that the Creator intentionally ordered [the structure of each being]?

The typical Victorian on the street accepted the concept of fixed natural laws that governed the behavior of natural phenomena, whether in geology, biology, or other scientific fields. For the Christians of Darwin’s day, it wasn’t a matter of choosing between creation and evolution. Rather, it was a choice between methodologies: not did God do it, but how?

Evolution and creation were not, are not, singular static events. Speciation continues today, as some species grow apart and change due to geographic separation, environmental pressure, or behavioral modification. Recently, scientists have observed populations of snails, fruit flies, and sea urchins that are diverging, evolving into separate species over a period of just a few generations. Other species, however, are naturally hybridizing, or merging: The parent plants’ genetic materials fuse, doubling or tripling their descendants’ chromosomes and maintaining their fertility. This biological détente of sorts brings two, sometimes vastly different (and previously incompatible), species together to create a new, third species that ensures their mutual survival. The origin of at least seven new species of flowers—due to natural hybridization—has occurred since Darwin first posited his theories.


Three months have passed since my trip to Galápagos. I sit in a pew on a Sunday morning, my husband at my side, and begin to sing with the rest of the congregation:

From the earth, oh, praise Jehovah, all ye floods, ye dragons all…

I lift my voice, a little stronger, edging toward a third spiritual-biological species, and join the dragons in praise.

And it is good.