The Dance of Islands and Continents

A St. Patrick's Day Parable

by Connie Barlow

Note: A shorter version of this parable is available at

Ireland is a land of no snakes. It has no slithering serpents. There are no rat snakes in Ireland; there are no rattlesnakes; there are no garter snakes. There are no snakes at all.

The absence of snakes in Ireland seems to cry out for an explanation — but only if one regards or ventures to the island from outside: from England, say, or from continental Europe. To the indigenous Celts, there would, of course, have been nothing to explain. The Gaelic peoples no more needed to explain an absence of snakes on their island home than they needed to explain an absence of kangaroos. To those who came to Ireland from abroad, however, a dearth of serpents was a striking anomaly in need of an answer.

We humans must have answers. And so arose the legend of St. Patrick and the snakes. The reason Ireland has no snakes, the story goes, is that Patrick charmed all snakes on the island to come down to the seashore, slither into the water, and drown. So Ireland did once have snakes, but it has them no more. Patrick charmed them all into the sea.

There is, of course, an alternate story available to us today to explain a snakeless Ireland. And there is a role for the sea in this story too. The story is this: During the Ice Ages, the climate became too cold and the land too frozen for snakes. All snakes in Ireland vanished, and the Irish Sea has ever since prevented their return.

* * *

On the surface, this modern story is surely less delightful than the legend of St. Patrick. The modern story is just barebones science — kind of interesting, but by no means a miracle that leaves us awestruck. Yet if we dig deeper, this little story, this facet of the Great Story, can bring us so very much more. It can bring us awe of another kind. And it can encourage us to see our own personal stories mirrored within the Earth Story, within the Universe Story.

Consider this: By understanding the story of Ireland, and of islands more generally, we can create a new story. This particular story might well be called The Parable of Islands and Continents.

* * *

Islands and Continents. Isolation and seclusion on the one; communion and challenge on the other. Islands of isolation and seclusion; continents of communion and challenge. Together, islands and continents have brought into being the vast diversity of Earth life — from the delicacies and whimsies of island life to the robust and terrifying extravagances of continents. Together, islands and continents are metaphors for the polar needs within our own souls: delicacy and strength; isolation and challenge.

On islands, life is free to explore myriad forms without the crush of competition. A fly can afford to lose its wings on a little island, a bramble its thorns. One ancestral kind of finch swept by storm to the Galápagos Islands evolved into a score of forms, some of which now seem more wrenlike or jaylike than finchlike. Yet they are all still finches: Galapagos finches.

The only mammals that could make the long journey to isolated New Zealand were bats. Only bats were able to cross the vast expanse of Pacific Ocean from the continents of Asia or Africa to reach New Zealand. Until humans arrived with their rats and cats and dogs and rabbits and sheep and deer — all formidable competitors born and bred on the continents — there were no land mammals at all on New Zealand. It was as if the Age of Mammals had never come to these islands. New Zealand remained in a time warp. There the Age of Reptiles lingered.

Over the course of millions of years, the lizards of New Zealand evolved into a splendid diversity of forms. Here, too, a distinct lineage of reptile that had once coexisted with dinosaurs throughout much of the world was able to hold on until the present. This particular reptile, which is neither lizard nor dinosaur, held on long, long after its Mesozoic colleagues had vanished everywhere else. This unusual creature, this living fossil, is New Zealand's tuatara. The tuatara might be thought of as a kind of little dragon, almost magical in its persistence for sixty-five million years. And this little dragon possesses an extraordinary kind of "third eye", buried beneath a thin layer of skin on the reptilian forehead.

Praise Earth for the lizards and tuataras of New Zealand! And for the finches of the Galapagos! Praise Plate Tectonics and the churning depths of this planet for these biological treasures!

Acrobatic lemurs swinging in the trees and shrewlike insectivores tunneling in the duff are ancient forms of mammals that were once widespread throughout the continent of Africa. But then the monkeys and the rodents evolved. The monkeys drove their fellow primates — the lemurs — to extinction, and the rodents severely limited the diversity of shrews and other insectivores. Fortunately, before those challenges came to pass, a huge strip of southeastern Africa pulled away from the mainland and headed out to sea. This was Madagascar. Aboard were lemurs and insectivores. No monkeys, no rodents.

So, praise Earth for Madagascar! The acrobatic lemurs would have been long gone without this island refuge, and there would be no such thing as a tenrec. Praise Plate Tectonics for the gift of isolation! Diversity thrives!

Diversity thrives on continents, too, but acre for acre it tends to be less than on an equivalent land mass of isolated islands. There are too many opportunities for creatures to mingle and joust upon a continent. The stronger, or the wilier, or the more secretive survive on the continents. And they then fan out across the landscape. What continents provide is a diversity polished by the most intense pressures of existence. Challenges breed challengers on continents. Continents breed lions, and tigers, and bears (oh my!) — and weasels and cats and pigs. Continents also breed robins and monarch butterflies with talents for avoiding these formidable predators.

Now consider this: if instead of Earth's jumble of continents and islands, all the land surfaces were gathered into a single mass, a single gigantic continent, if there were no barriers posed by oceans and seas so that all forms of life met and mingled, it is estimated that Earth would have given rise to only about a sixth of the diversity of life it now holds. Just one sixth!

So praise be to islands and continents! Praise be to a living planet that supports the grand evolutionary dance of islands and continents.

* * *

There is one problem today, however. Islands may still be islands on a map, but they are isolated no more. Rats and cats and weasels — all formidable predators that evolved on continents — these continental predators are now destroying New Zealand's extraordinary lizards and tuataras. Meanwhile, humans — the most menacing of all continental creations — are hunting lemurs to extinction on the island of Madagascar.

Predators are not the only dangers nurtured on continents. Parasites that evolved on continents can wreak havoc when they appear on islands, too. A century ago, a sailor dumped the old contents of a water bottle into a Hawaiian stream before refilling it with fresh water. The dumped water contained mosquito larvae, and those larvae held parasites that infest birds with malaria. Hawaii's birds had no evolved resistance to avian malaria. And so, many beautiful Hawaiian birds have recently gone extinct, owing to a single human act as seemingly innocent as refilling a water bottle.

Forty years ago, another sailor stationed on the island of Guam in the South Pacific released his pet snakes into the tropical forests. Before that moment, Guam's forests were snake-free. The released snakes multiplied, feasting on nestling birds. Within two decades, Guam had lost most of its unique species of birds. Oh, if there had only been a Patrick on the island of Guam who could charm the alien snakes into the sea!

* * *

The isolation and seclusion of islands has for hundreds of millions of years offered possibilities for giddy experimentation — evolutionary brainstorming, if you will. On islands creativity is welcomed and the critic is put on hold, ignored, silenced. But the island creations that result are vulnerable to contact with life forms forged on the great continents, life forms that have been repeatedly tested and challenged by myriad creatures arising from vast, interconnected landscapes.

Even lesser continents can be biologically invaded and colonized by creatures from more expansive lands. North America and Eurasia have long been exchanging life forms between themselves, whenever climate allowed migration through the polar regions of close contact. But South America had remained isolated by a substantial seaway until about three million years ago. Then, when the Isthmus of Panama finally arose from the sea, South America lost its precious isolation. Its marsupial cats were vanquished by jaguars and pumas coming down from the north. Deer and tapirs and rodents from the north would soon fill its forests. South America is now really a land of northern mammals newly adapted to the south.

Islands as whirlpools of delicate and prolific creativity. Continents as cauldrons of more selective creativity honed by the rigors of competition and challenge.

How do we bring forth islands in our psyches to nurture our own creative energies when they are most delicate, most vulnerable to inner and outer critics? In what ways do we give novelty a chance to arise within our minds in fresh and foolish form? To whom do we turn in our own lives when we wish to spiral, rather than crush, new ideas and arts? As Brian Swimme has said, we need to nurture small groups "where radical intuition can be explored in supportive community." (Canticle, #7)

Then later, how do we hone those ideas and arts so that they might survive, even thrive, when exposed to the rigors and challenges posed by the grand continents of life and culture? As Brian has also said, it doesn't help if we get "too comfortable." For evolutionary growth of our own, "we shouldn't be looking for comfortable situations."

How can we thus create by drawing upon the best of both worlds? How might we, too, engage in the creative dance of islands and continents?


CONNIE BARLOW is a science writer and author of The Ghosts of Evolution, Green Space Green Time, and Evolution Extended.


Excerpt (p. 29) from "The Mind As Nature," by Loren Eiseley. John Dewey Society Lectureship #5, Harper & Row, 1962.

"A person too early cut off from the common interests of men," Jean Rostand, the French biologist, recently remarked, "is exposed to inner impoverishment — like those islands which are lacking in some whole class of mammals." Naturally, there are degrees of isolation, but I would venture the observation that this eminent observer has overlooked one thing: sometimes on such desert islands there has been a great evolutionary proliferation amongst the flora and fauna that remain. Strange shapes, exotic growths, which, on the mainland, would have been quickly strangled by formidable enemies, here spring up readily. Sometimes the rare, the beautiful, can only emerge or survive in isolation. In similar manner, some degree of withdrawal serves to nurture man's creative powers. The artist and the scientist bring out of the desert void, like the mysterious universe itself, the unique, the strange, the unexpected.

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