September 2015
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Turtle Dreaming

by Jonathan Wallace

I went for a run after someone to whom I remain susceptible made a highly distressing symbolic gesture. It was too late in the day, too hot, and I was driving myself too hard; I quit when I was still a mile from home, a defeat. Almost immediately, I saw a hatchling snapping turtle walking on the shoulder of the road. I might not have seen her if I hadn't quit. I picked her up and took her home.

I sometimes see adult box turtles walking on roads here in East Hampton (about ten in the last twenty years). In my childhood, these were the subject of immediate larceny, rare, beautiful. In the intervening five decades, I have learned that you carry them across the road in the direction they are walking, and a few feet into the woods on the other side, and then release them, hoping they will not turn back and be run over.

I didn't do that with the snapper because she was so obviously thrown away by nature, likely to be picked off by a crow or hit by a car in minutes, or to die of dehydration in a day or two because, as far as I knew, she was not near any fresh water. A specialist in rescuing injured turtles on Long Island says on her web site that you never take a healthy wild turtle home, no matter how small it is. A philosophy of always letting nature take its course . I failed to respect the numbers game to which evolution has customized most turtle species: hundreds of hatchlings are born so that a few may survive. In one of his plays, Tennessee Williams has someone describe a massacre of newly hatched sea turtles by gulls in the Galapagos, a spectacle of such horror that it confirms the character's suspicion there is no God.

Human intervention in animal survival often does take place in an atmosphere of sentimentality and anthropomorphization. Here in East Hampton, deer populations increase and are sometimes "culled". The deer in years of overpopulation invade yards and are hit by cars as they range further afield searching for food. An outspoken anti-cruelty contingent maintains that every deer is precious, and has induced the town to test a deer capture and sterilization program that costs about $1,000 per deer. Complicating the issue is that human intervention everywhere has put every animal population out of balance in some way or another. Turtles evolved to survive crows and dehydration, not cars. We have reduced the deer habitat to a mere fraction of what it was, sliced it with roads and highways, eliminated the large predators which kept them in check (the foxes out here mainly died some years ago of mange, for which we may still have been indirectly responsible in some obscure way we don't yet understand). Where we ourselves have harmed animals, nature is not actually at work, and arguments against interfering become more diffuse. We have understood for a century that many species will not survive without our help. Deer and snapping turtles, however, don't fall into that category.

Although I haven't kept any since I was a child, I knew a few things about water turtles: their water must be kept scrupulously clean, or they will get eye infections which are often fatal. It is therefore best to feed them in a separate container, rather than let the food pollute the water they live in. I learned that the great majority of turtles sold in pet stores, especially babies, probably die within a year, recapitulating the odds in nature. Most people who buy little turtles never really grasp the rules about nutrition, temperature, sanitation, environment. Many baby turtles which survive have deformed shells, as a result of being kept in too small a container and fed the wrong diet. In my childhood, when you bought a baby red-eared turtle, the pet store sent you home with a completely inappropriate small circular plastic tank and dried ant eggs which provided no nutrition. A different aspect of the cruelty and dishonesty of the pet trade was highlighted on the turtle rescue web site I visited. People buy adorable two inch long Sulcata tortoises without realizing that, properly kept, they will live 130 years and grow to two hundred pounds. A few years later, they try to give them away, but there is a glut on the market and even the zoos don't want them.

The little snapper had a bulge on her lower shell (plastron) which I vaguely remembered was a sort of umbilical, some left over nutrition from the egg. I put her in water in a small plastic storage container and researched her on the Internet. I bought her a ten gallon tank and some commercial baby turtle pellets the sites recommended.

In the weeks she has lived on my kitchen counter, the turtle has already changed and grown. She was very sleepy and passive at first, and went completely still when picked up. Now, her head and face have changed, become of more adult proportions, less hatchling-like, and she startles more easily, swimming wildly whenever I approach the tank.

When you pick them up,wild turtles often look around, baffled by the force which has lifted them off the ground. Last year, when I helped an adult box turtle cross the same road where I found the snapper, it looked me in the eye, and I said, "You've been someone's pet, haven't you?" The little snapper, when she calms down again, seems to watch us while we are near the tank.My brother emailed asking if she has a personality. That's hard to answer, but any animal aware of a human has the beginnings of one.

The little snapper has assumed an outsize role in my life, as a reminder of mystery, a lesson in human esthetics, a symbol, and an organizing principle.

Observing her, I am astonished by the process through which some millions of molecules cohere into a hatchling turtle, which is born knowing how to exercise its turtle-ness. As she swims, startles, snaps at food pellets, I think what the job of being a turtle involves, and how unconscious she is of that role. I have never been able to imagine why there is life, or a universe, and have known since I was quite small that "because of God" is what I call a door-stop answer, meaning "stop thinking now". Jacques Monod wrote in Chance and Necessity that life is a startlingly efficent kluge, as if random chance had grabbed up handfuls of chemical and genetic materials and slapped them together, somehow to work as a bizarrely designed machine. The little turtle seems an amazing kluge,and rather beautiful.

However, by human esthetic standards, she and her whole species are ugly. I realize in looking at her that we have developed, across time, some ideas about beauty that we apply, quite unthinkingly, to the whole range of objects and phenomena. I suppose that if I arose one morning and found in my yard an alien artifact, as to which I had not the slightest concept of its function, I would at once see it as beautiful or ugly, based on the same standards I apply to a vase or a car. Species such as painted turtles and Eastern box turtles are beautiful because they are sleek,well-delineated, active and colorful. Snapping turtles are fat, shapeless, and brown, and don't swim as much, so are easily disliked before you even reach their reputation as aggressive biters.

Turtles represent wisdom, longevity, stability and order (I have a turtle tattoo on my shoulder which I selected to stand for these things). Possibly, as I get older, I am becoming more silly and superstitious. Though I was always offended by the statement "Everything happens for a reason", I increasingly recognize that life and metaphor are indistinguishable. I felt hurt by someone who is a bit of a snapping turtle, went for an angry run, found the little snapper walking on the shoulder of the road. She has helped me to stop centering on the anger, and reminded me of a theme in my thought and writing, to which I may not always be as loyal as I think: that help is not, should not be, based on strict reciprocity. The little turtle will never send me a thank you note, or buy me dinner, and she certainly will not care for me in old age. We help others (human or otherwise) to close a loop with ourselves, to be that person to which we aspire, or for the chemical satisfaction of having helped.

The other day,I drove a 220 mile round trip to feed the little turtle. My wife was supposed to be at our house, but had a dental emergency which took her into the city. Young snapping turtles are supposed to be fed almost every day. It was a ridiculous distance to go, but very satisfying. In the end, its my life, my decision what is worth driving that distance for, and I was happy to do it. When I read self pitying diatribes about the meaninglessness, the unbearable lightness, of life, I am always reminded that my own at all times has felt highly meaningful; and I also remember that life is a BYOM enterprise (you bring your own).

The little snapping turtle brings to mind the fox's lesson in The Little Prince: like the rose, she becomes special because of the time and love invested in her. This is subjectively true--one can love a tree or an automobile the same way, I suppose--but it also seems to me that even animals of quite limited "intelligence" are changed, made special, by interactions with humans. A turtle can adapt to being part of a human family, aware of and comfortable with the people around it. That turtle, like the rose, is now different from the mere mass of turtles who have not had the experience. We ourselves change, differentiate, as a result of loving and being loved.

The aboriginal Australians call their clans, named after a spirit animal, "dreamings", which itself expresses a human association based on shared metaphor. I think of myself as a proud member of the Turtle Dreaming.