Environmental history, as seen through tortoises

September 25, 2014

This story originally appeared on the College of Letters & Science website as part of a series that profiles new faculty members. 

Elizabeth Hennessy grounds her study of transnational histories in one amazing creature: the giant tortoise of the Galápagos Islands.

She joins the UW-Madison Department of History and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies this year as an assistant professor of global environmental history, shedding new light on how geography, culture, and science intersect in a land long associated with Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

We asked Hennessy about Darwin, teaching and, of course, tortoises.

What does it mean to be “a historical geographer and an environmental historian?”
I focus on how the development of evolutionary thought has reshaped human conceptions of, and interactions with, nature.

Science, society, and nature are all very closely intertwined — they evolve and change together. Today, the Galápagos are considered an important site for research and conservation, and a sought-after tourism destination. But 150 years ago, before Charles Darwin visited there, whalers thought the Galápagos were harsh, even evil, because of their rough terrain. I investigate how that change happened — or “evolved.”

Tell us about the “legacies of Darwin” in the Galápagos.
The interesting thing is that Darwin didn’t “discover” his theory of evolution in the Galápagos — Darwin historians have roundly refuted that myth. So why do we associate the Galápagos so strongly with Darwin, even though he stopped there only briefly?

The myth actually dates to the mid-20th century, as scientists campaigned to establish a national park and research station in the islands at the centenary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. So tourism development and conservation — which today are often framed as competing forces doing battle in the archipelago — actually emerged together at the same historical moment.

UW-Madison Assistant Professor Elizabeth Hennessy scrubs a giant tortoise
Assistant professor Elizabeth Hennessy, who studies
the transnational history of the giant tortoises of the
Galápagos Islands, scrubs one of the creatures.

You study a very interesting creature in the Galápagos.
Yes. To get at the knot that ties together histories of science, conservation, and tourism, I decided to focus on the islands’ most famous species, giant tortoises. They have been so central to Galápagos history — first as a food source for sailors, then as scientific objects, and now as an iconic endangered species. The islands are even named for the saddle-like shape of the tortoises’ carapaces — galápago is an old Spanish word for saddle.

What’s so interesting — and enlightening — about the giant tortoise?
I’m interested in why and how people’s engagements with giant tortoises have changed over time, but also how the tortoises themselves have shaped that history.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, giant tortoises were an ideal food source for whalers and buccaneers because they were relatively easy to hunt, could stay alive on board ships for a year or more without food or water, and were apparently very tasty.

Today, conservationists are using genetic studies of tortoise evolution to help restore what everyone thought was an extinct population. It’s a fascinating use of modern science to re-create “pristine” nature that paradoxically undercuts the very notion of the pristine.

Is it fun to work with giant tortoises?
Yes, the project has been great fun. In the Galápagos I shadowed tortoise scientists and national park guards, which involved a lot of hiking around looking for tortoises through mud and mist. I also volunteered at the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center, where I helped feed tortoises and sweep up after them. It wasn’t glamorous — I also spent a lot of time scrubbing gunk out of their wading pools! — but I learned a great deal.

I also read a lot of explorers’ narratives of hunting tortoises on the islands. Men would strap 60-plus pound tortoises to their backs and hike miles through dense brambles of vegetation over sharp lava rock to take them back to their ships, sometimes to eat, sometimes to take back to museums.

What classes are you teaching?
This fall I’m teaching on environmental histories of Latin America. In the spring, I’ll teach a course on animals in world history. For both classes, my students can expect to look at history in a way that does not assume that people are the only important historical actors.

What’s on your bookshelf?
Gregory Cushman’s Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World. Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction — she’ll be coming to campus this fall as the keynote speaker for the Nelson Institute’s Anthropocene workshop. And for fun, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, about memory and magic and looking back on childhood.