Tuesday, June 26, 2012



The mystique around Lonesome George is a wonderful thing. It is rooted in our eternal fascination with the end - whether it is our end or the end of a species or a way of life.
Think of movies and literature -  the last man on earth,  the only man on an island,  the  man floating in a space capsule out to the end of time.
Now Lonesome George is dead and is remembered more than the thousands of tortoises that were slaughtered for a century by sailors who regarded the giants as walking meat lockers who could be tossed in the hold until they were needed as a supplement to biscuits with worms.
 Lonesome hardly impressed with looks. Giant tortoises are more grunt than grace. But he was the last of his kind, the last of his subspecies. There may still be 20,000 giant tortoises around, but all the attempts to perpetuate a version of this goliath failed.
When my oldest son John Henry and I visited the Galapagos Islands a dozen years ago, its primitive volcanic side had not been softened by the 180,000 tourists that come each year and want a little civilization to come too. The authorities, to their credit, want nature to rule.
Lonesome was up at the top of our islands' bucket list, up there with the hammerhead sharks and the boobies, although neither he nor his rudimentary pen would have stood out in any zoo. It was a solitary visit, although they say the crowds certainly did come later to clamber over each other as they photographed endlessly while Lonesome stretched and yawned.
I can't really say I found our visit particularly noteworthy. After all, there were hundreds of tortoises around, and I can recall heaps of them in a mud patch in an open field that would not have been out of place on an Ontario farm. You could wander around them and probably through them and on them except that those of us who take the trouble to travel across the Pacific to the fabled islands like to survey the wonders of nature without poking at  shells and feathers.
Lonesome's story reads like a failed Harlequin Romance. It was 1972 when it was discovered that he was a little bit different from all the other tortoises. He came from La Pintas, one of the smallest islands in the Galapagos, and as we were famously told by Charles Dawin when he used the giant tortoises as one of his proofs for the theory of evolution, the tortoises and finches etc. from each island evolved differently because of their separation by the crashing seas.
Lonesome was said to be around 100, but no one really knows, because no one really knowns how long giant tortoises live. Maybe 200 years! There are those who dream that there are still tortoises alive in the Galapagos Islands that Darwin "rode" on his visit, according to his writings. I also seem to remember that the Darwin party ate a tortoise or two, that being the practical side of the environmental movement in the 1800s.
I found on my visit that sex play for Lonesome had been going on for five years while the world watched like peeping toms. Scientists kept introducing females of another subspecies to Lonesome, who wasn't interested. What isn't mentioned in the obits is what happened next. The zoologists figured that Lonesome was gay. Or maybe he just didn't remember the lecture on the birds and the bees that his parents gave him 100 years or so ago.
So they introduced a horny male and a hornier female and Lonesome watched their grunting copulations with interest but with no performance. That is rather remarkable because the heaving and moaning of giant tortoises are so remarkable that I recall the young women staring transfixed at a mating when Mary and I were visiting the famous San Diego zoo.
After trying to turn Lonesome into a sexual copycat, the experts went back to two females who they thought would be attractive to Lonesome if they left them together in Lonesome's unspectacular pen.. Whether he did or not is really not clear because the females laid eggs twice which were not fertile. Perhaps he needed some soft music and whatever tortoises like to drink when they want to forget that their life is just a mud pie.
The Islands are truly a magic place, reeling under the impact of the huge growth in the middle classes of the world who now have the money and time to travel to such distant lands. I would just like to remind them that in the Galapagos, you don't ask for turtle soup. It was taken off the menu a few decades ago.



Unfortunately, most traffic reports on most days tell us of an intersection or a road that has been closed for hours for  investigation of a major traffic accident.
Unfortunately, too often these reports say the jam is caused by a disabled tractor trailer. Why is the 400-401 interchanges such a magnet for this?
Unfortunately, most drivers most days creep by the wreckage or where the wreckage used to be and wonder why the traffic couldn't be moving quicker and why there seems to be lots of cops just standing around when they could be sorting traffic.
It is ever thus.
 I'm sure motorists have fumed at delays because of accidents since the first days of motoring. And we certainly have had a long history of traffic accidents, beginning when there were only two cars in the entire province of Saskatchewan and they collided one day at an intersection.
A few years ago at the annual meeting of the Ontario Safety League, a legendary copper named Cam Woolley complained to me about columns I had written about police not restoring a reasonable traffic flow at an accident scene as quickly as possible.
Woolley had 30 years with the OPP and became famous as a sergeant for his traffic anecdotes before he departed for CP24. In other words, Woolley knew what he was talking about. And he didn't think I did.
But then he conceded that he had arrived as the senior cop at accidents and wondered why the road was still closed. When he asked, the cops often conceded there was no reason. In fact, the road could have been cleared hours earlier. It just wasn't a priority for them.
I had plenty of time to think about this when I made my customary late trip home from the cottage. I watched the Jays game, and then Bill Maher, and figured that at 11.30 p.m. it would be an easy two-hour jaunt with the weekend rush cleared out hours before.
The trip took an hour longer. It did too for Mary and Mark who had left two hours before.
The problem was, 680 told me, that there was an accident in the left lane of west-bound 401 at Whitby. And when you managed to survive that, there was a really major accident featuring a huge tractor trailer that flopped like a dead whale in the right ditch.
In a reasonable world, the traffic in the passing lane should have been moving the slowest because the accident was on that side. Except that was the fastest lane, and the reason was that the radio report was wrong and and the accident was on the right side.
After 30 minutes or so, we rolled slowly past an accident scene of all manner of emergency vehicles with flashing lights which weren't doing much of anything. The emergency was over.
The next accident was really big, except it had been there for most of the day and it was now 2 a.m. There was too much time for me to witness that not much of anything was going on even though it looked like a scene from Hades.
I am not complaining about traffic speeding around scenes that are still dangerous,. The police, paramedics and firefighters should have all the time they need to help the wounded, and also a reasonable amount of time to clear the debris. But with modern digital technology that allows for the quick measurement and recording of an accident scene after the ambulances and fire trucks leave, are the Toronto police and the OPP really acting ASAP?
With the 400 series of highways carrying so much traffic, should the provincial government not have a major commission study how police act at major accidents? Perhaps we need the government to subsidize huge tow trucks located along the major highways which can quickly move wreckage to one side.
The TTC and GO process accidents, particularly the sad suicides, much faster than they did. For example, GO said the various police forces must stop squabbling over jurisdiction and also installed video cameras on locomotives to record the obvious suicides.
If only some of that approach filtered into the  policies of policing and road management. Yet 401, for example,  has been closed for hours because people have deliberately jumped on it from overpasses.
So what's the hurry anyway, police may ask? Just think of the cost in time, and the wear and tear on vehicles and tempers? What about the air pollution and all the missed deliveries and appointments? What about the accidents caused by frustrated motorists who speed madly away from traffic jams?
It just doesn't make much sense to build super roads which carry some of the heaviest traffic in the world only to have them crippled because of accidents which are allowed to fester like an untreated wound.