24 April 2017

The Illusion and Reality of Isolation

Lonesome George in 2006.
The human mind sees loneliness amidst connection, and that illusion carries concrete consequences.

On a living planet, we think we're alone. Surrounded by marvels of nature, we believe everything on Earth exists for our consumption, not for its own sake. Such thinking makes us feel isolated, and as in the case of Lonesome George, it sometimes leaves other creatures facing a harsh and real loneliness.

Lonesome George, the last of a subspecies of Galapagos tortoise, died in 2012. However, today's presentation about George for this year's Earth Week at the University of South Dakota caused me to reflect on the real nature of loneliness and isolation. The presentation discussed how human activity led to the extinction of several subspecies of tortoise in the famed archipelago that inspired Charles Darwin. Centuries of hunting and careless importing of invasive species that preyed on tortoises and destroyed their habitat shoved the reptiles to the brink. By 1971, only George remained of the subspecies on Pinta Island. He lived out the last 40 years of his life in a sanctuary, facing a loneliness so real we can't fathom it.

In constructing an isolation from the rest of nature, we create situations in which we act like we are the only ones on Earth. We take what we want, and we act without thinking about the larger impacts on the web of life. And so we sentence animals like Lonesome George to the experience we fear most: sheer separation.

Despite our tendency to feel alone and act like we are, perhaps in remembering Lonesome George, we can recall our true connection to the other pieces of nature and take real action to protect the shared fate of all life on this planet. In that way, maybe we can also preserve a symbolic connection for that solitary tortoise in place of the real bond we severed.

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