MUJI has launched a project touring the Galápagos Islands. It originated with the idea of discovering similarities between MUJI’s product line and the islands’ creatures with respect to individuality and evolution. We believe that observing these creatures, living with such determination in a unique and isolated environment, will help us make progress toward entirely new ways of thinking. The emergence of artificial intelligence has thrown lifestyle archetypes into flux. MUJI, born in 1980 as the antithesis of saturation and excess, is reconsidering its direction through this direct experience of the world’s transformation.
From Quito, Ecuador, we head to Baltra island, the gateway to the Galápagos Islands. Ecuador, situated directly on the equator, takes great care of the environment and living creatures, and aspires to be a nation of nature. From its capital, Quito, 2850 meters above sea level, we fly westward over the Pacific Ocean to the Galápagos Islands, reddish brown and volcanic. It is thought of as a holy land of evolutionary theory, a place where various living things, having drifted to these isolated volcanic islands in the distant sea, into an environment that demands adaptation, evolved in unique ways. These islands are like a laboratory of biological evolution.
The Galápagos Islands were designated as the first UNESCO World Heritage site and while conservation management, which once developed slowly, is now progressing, the area has suffered from destruction at the hands of humanity. We learned this at the Charles Darwin Research Institute. However, in visiting the islands, MUJI’s goal was not to learn about biology or geology. We came with the intention of directly observing creatures living in a world without human intervention. This begins with viewing without prejudice flora and fauna in a locale where exuberant life is on display. Thanks to the ocean currents, the temperature is quite cool, between 19 degrees and 24 degrees Celsius, but at the equator, the sun is intense.
We set out for Bartolome Island by boat. Gradually, beyond the dark expanse of water, appear mountains in whose sharp peaks are sensed the traces of eruption. A relatively recent eruption was the origin of this island. Having climbed to the summit, at 114 meters above sea level, I sensed close at hand the dynamism of the erupting lava and the vestiges of the submarine upheaval. The biologist accompanying us, murmurs, “Volcanic activity is a fountainhead of life on Earth; existence is born from volcanoes.”
Landing at Sullivan Bay on Bartolome’s neighbor, Santiago Island, I am enchanted by the remains of staggering lava flows stretching as far as the eye can see. The astonishing eternally enduring mystery of creation expresses itself in the scene; it is as if three hundred Michelangelos have been mobilized and have sculpted every rock on the beach. In these forms churns the energy that wells up, directly reverberating from the will to live that surges at the depths of existence. Chaos is a radiant maternal body. The biologist speaks again, saying, “I wonder if lava flow inspired the Jomon pottery motif.” Our photographer, carrying equipment ranging from an 8x10 large-format camera to the latest digital one, gazes quietly at the scene.
We arrive on South Plaza Island, a narrow sliver of land just 500 meters long, off the eastern shore of Santa Cruz Island. Scattered among the hearty clusters of sesuvium, a succulent known as Galápagos Islands carpetweed, in its autumn colors, are tall Ochiai cacti over 100 years old. In the Galápagos Islands, even on islands separated just slightly from one another, terrain, vegetation and animals differ. The land iguana that lives on this island, which eats cacti, has evolved along with the cacti. The iguana, as if protecting its territory, calmly reposes below the trunk of the cactus, which has evolved to this height to make it more difficult to eat. Numerous seabirds perched on the steep palisades that form one edge of the island showcase their different approaches to the wind and manipulation of their wings as if performing an aerial competition. As we endure stiff gusts on the cliff, we directly sense the instincts of these mighty seabirds. Invariably, Galápagos Islands sea lions sleep wherever the sunlight is strong and the breeze comfortable. On the sandy beach, a single male is surrounded by his harem, while other males, chased away, sleep on the rocks. It’s as if they’re teaching us that it’s all right to have simply sleeping comfortably as the purpose of our lives.
Near the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island, the scenery is bleak, with its lava and cacti, but as we rise in elevation, the vegetation changes. The summit in August, shrouded in fog and very humid, encourages robust plant growth. Giant tortoises climb up to the plateau from the beaches to feed on the vegetation, congregating at the El Chato Reserve. We see the tortoises as beings who are watchful rather than wise, living deliberate, enduring lives.
Apparently, when Darwin first visited, there were so many giant tortoises and iguanas it was hard to find a clear spot to pitch a tent, but because of human intervention, the number of giant tortoises has dropped sharply. During the Age of Discovery, they became food for pirates, and the vegetation they depend on for sustenance was consumed by a prolific population of goats released by early settlers. There was also a time when the islands accommodated human settlements. However, in the 1970s, Ecuador revised its policy. Now, even agriculture is prohibited. There are contradictions in the question of how to recover the nature and living creatures we have lost, or how to use human intellect to eliminate human influence, but many scholars are focusing their wisdom on this nature that we must conserve.
Traveling by boat at night, we reach the southern tip of the largest of the Galápagos Islands, Isabela. From here, we head towards Sierra Negra, which boasts a huge volcanic caldera, second only to Tanzania’s Ngorongoro crater. At this time of year, the summit is enveloped in fog so thick that we can not see the opposite edge of the crater, a full two kilometers away. As we wait patiently, it shows itself faintly through a break in the fog. Breathtakingly majestic, this region, heretofore hidden to us, reveals the forest canopy, far below our feet. Realizing that the spot on which I stood is at the brink of the precipitous crater wall, I feel an uncontrollable chill in my gut.
Returning to the boat, in the afternoon we head to the Las Tintoreras inlet. A broad expanse of rugged lava forms the shore. The light green and white lichens clinging to the deep grey volcanic rock present a strange contrast. Our biologist is an authority on lichens, and although he has studied lichens in remote locations around the world, including both poles and Africa, he thrills at the sight of so many clusters, the likes of which he has never seen before. A lounge of marine iguanas cleaves to the lava, sunbathing. Apparently, this is essential to raise the body temperature of these seaweed-eating lizards.
We explore Punta Moreno on Isabela Island’s west coast. Great numbers of marine iguanas jostle in the breakwater. A brace of flightless cormorants protects its rookery. The animals here do not fear humans. A pelican building its nest in a tree is unperturbed by the camera. It’s not that they’re used to people; it appears that they experience neither fear nor familiarity. The cormorants’ nests are likely built by the parents, transporting the materials in their beaks, piece by piece. A chick hatches within a pile of dried seaweed and pesters its parent for food. Concentric circles of excrement spread around the nest, as thick as plaster. We gaze at this picture of family life presented to us with more immediacy than is invoked by a even a diorama. It seems that the Galápagos Islands cormorant, an endemic species of this region, has few natural enemies, so, with no need to fly, it evolved short wings and developed the ability to dive through the water.
In the afternoon, we take the boat north and disembark on the sand beach of Urbina Bay. Relying on several days-old scat, we search for giant tortoises, but are not able to spot any. During this season, it seems they gather near grassy mountaintops, rarely coming down to the foothills or the shore. However, we do catch sight of several fat land iguanas in the shade of copses.
We arrive on Fernandina Island, the youngest of them all. From here, we can see all six of Isabela’s volcanoes. All of them are trapezoidal, looking like Mount Fuji with the section from the fourth station to the summit blown away. But the magnificence and grandeur of this line of mountains at a gentle distance is overwhelming. We disembarked on Punta Espinoza, like a complex peninsula overhanging the sea. An astounding number of marine iguanas cover the rock face, gradually becoming a landscape of its own.
The sand of this island is young. Scooping it up in my hands, I am easily able to understand the process by which fragments of the minerals and animals born on the islands--shells, coral, bones, lava and the like--intermingle and become sand.
In the afternoon we travel to Punta Vicente Roca, a quay on Isabela Island. We observe the quay from the sea, remaining in an inflatable boat called a panga, used for landing. On the fantastic rock face reminiscent of Gaudi’s Casa Milà, blue-footed boobies and pelicans build their nests. In the boobies’ truly magnificent fishing process, flocks spear the surface of the sea, one after another, to seize their prey. On the water, witnessing a killer whale chasing after a fur seal close to our panga, we tense, instinctively.
We land on Puerto Egas, a lava shoreline on Santiago Island. The fog comes in and the island is bathed in black. The intense sunlight softens, and we are able to settle back and view the landscape. Sea lions let their pups play in the tide pools that form on the rocks. For a while, I watch the scene, enchanted. In the distance, pelicans hunt. Red crabs dot the dark rock faces, their jettisoned shells cast here and there.
The pocked lava, massaged and rounded by the waves, lies scattered everywhere; I feel the urge to bring some home, but taking stones and even sand is prohibited. When leaving the island, you even have to wash the sand from your feet with sea water. Apparently, only locals can become Galápagos Islands licensed guides, and they must have a degree in biology, speak three languages, and have undergone specific training to receive professional certification.
This afternoon we move on to Labida Island, and land barefoot on the red sand beach. The waves catch my eye; washing in from the azure sea, they break white on the red sand beach. The water’s edge, that space between land and sea, between minerals and living creatures, feels as if it is the cradle of life.
We return to the north coast of Santa Cruz Island, marking a single revolution around the Galápagos Islands archipelago, save for a few islands in the eastern part. North Seymour Island, our last stop, is teeming with birds. They live together serenely there: the booby, who performs its courtship dance by stomping about, and the great frigate bird, who puffs up its breast like a giant red balloon, and embraces the female and the chicks beneath outstretched wings.
The birds remain calm even when approached. This experience is more refreshing than I would have imagined. The photographer notes that although when the camera is pointed at them, people and even animals register the attention with their expressions, here, that’s not the case. These creatures fear unfamiliar beings no more than necessary. Perhaps it’s because the mutual relationships among living things are stable. The giant tortoises drifted here three million years ago, the iguanas one and a half million years ago. Surely over all that time, as life forms evolved, a good balance developed, enhancing resilience in the relationships among land and water, animals and plants. At the end of the journey, I sense that this sort of balance could be the focus of my thoughts and feelings in the search for daily happiness.