A Chance in a Million

It stretched away on all sides: a shiny black crust many metres thick that snaked and cracked across the face of the earth like some revolting sore. It radiated the sun’s heat with ferocious efficiency and one felt totally basted in warm air, like a piece of meat in a convector oven. I felt my core temperature peaking as sweat ran from each and every pore, eyes stinging from the salty rivulets and the diamond-bright sunlight overhead that this cursed rock seemed to reflect upwards thwarting my wide-brimmed hat. It was hellish in its assault on the human frame, hellish in aspect and hellish in its total abnegation of life. Or so it seemed.

“Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves and crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted sunburnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life.”
Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, 1835.

A drink of water cooled and eased my over-stressed body along with a light breeze that started off the sea. Looking around I noticed the myriad patterns that this volcanic lava had assumed prior to solidifying. There was lumpy, porridge-like lava, a nightmare to walk across: there were ribbons of what looked like laced rope laid carefully beside great plates of cracked rock; and jagged fissures that dropped away into the darkness. Brittle and super sharp seemed to be the defining characteristic, that and a black hue that was stirred with traces of reddish oxide and sintered with tiny stars. Silica I later discovered is the key ingredient in determining lava’s viscosity and therefore the rate at which it will flow and the shapes into which it will subsequently cool.

A few hundred more metres and a strange, almost alien, sight appeared. In a hollow, formed by the collapse of an underground ‘bubble of gas’ cavern, water had gathered and a mini oasis of green grass and a few shrubs were growing in luxuriant defiance. There were even a pair of moorhens dabbling in the water. It seemed that even here, in the face of appalling odds, life was establishing itself.

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“The natural history of these islands is eminently curious and well deserves attention. Both in time and space, we seem to be brought somewhere near to that great fact – the first appearance of new beings on this earth”. Charles Darwin, 1835.

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Life, life, life. My own would be almost impossible to sustain out here for long. Yet many have made the long journey out to these remote islands, either passively or actively, and have found a way of surviving. Some have gone back into the water that their distant ancestors had emerged from whilst others have assumed new shapes, and/or adopted new diets. All who arrived on these remote islands found themselves subjected to the most rigorous adaptive processes in this extraordinary living laboratory of evolution. The life or death benchmark being that the more specific a plant or animal, in other words the less adaptable to brusque changes a species is, the less likely it was to survive in the Galápagos Islands.

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To imagine that once across the whole surface of our little earth, as on so many other distant planets, spread such spewed up layers of remorseless desolation. What I feel as I write this is that I am lucky to be alive and so are you.

“To live at all is miracle enough” Mervyn Peake, 1950.

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