Geographers constantly read the landscape for clues about a place. It is a learned skill that develops over time. As a cultural geography teacher it is the built landscape or the cultural characteristics of a place that my students and I pay particular attention to—housing styles and building materials, land use patterns and place names—but there is a story to be told in every natural landscape too.
On board the National Geographic Endeavor landscape interpretation comes easy to me. I know that I don’t need to lock my cabin door at night and that if I leave my camera equipment in the lounge it will be fine. I’ve read the landscape and the messages are clear that we are safe and so are our belongings. But when I am onshore the messages are more difficult to recognize. There is little built landscape here and while there are a significant number of clues in the natural landscape I don’t always know them when I see them! In that way, I quickly go from teacher to student learning from the naturalists what to pay attention to and how to find meaning in the clues we do discover.
Celso Montalvo, one of the onboard naturalists, points out a series of pathways that undercut the brush along the trail where we are hiking this morning on Isabella Island—I would not have noticed them if he had not pointed them out. And that is what I mean—I don’t always know what to look for or, in some cases, what I may be looking at. “These pathways were carved out by giant tortoises,” he explains, “and if you keep a close eye out and follow the pathways back through the overgrowth you may be able to see one.”
Later, he kneels down to identify and explain the characteristics of the tracks left by a land iguana: “Land iguanas are much bigger than marine iguanas and they drag their feet and their body when they move,” he says. “Were these the tracks of a marine iguana we would see only the imprint of a tail.” He explains that there is a pattern to the way that the wind will erode the tracks of a land iguana and that through careful observation we can see that these tracks are still fresh. He’s slowly teaching me to see to—and to read.
I encourage my students to be mindful of their surroundings and to pay closer attention to the physical and cultural clues around them. I tell them it will strengthen the relationship they have with their environment and help them to develop a stronger sense of place. I think it will help them to recognize problems in the environment too and to think about solutions. Through my observations in the Galapagos I have seen the human impact on the animal and plant life of the islands. I've encountered several of the invasive species that were brought by humans and that continue to wreak havoc on the flora and fauna and, in turn, I've come to learn about conservation efforts and management techniques that are helping to sustain the environment as we move forward.