Turtles All the Way Down A writer considers the fate of turtles, and our own.

 

I have always wanted to take in another turtle, but I think with some animals you only get one shot. I was in elementary school. She must have been a box turtle. (But what kind: ornate? Three-toed?) I found her in the yard, or perhaps the park down the street, which had a fairly tame stream. I named her, somewhat uncreatively, Tammy, but I was very young—and I loved her. I remember (or think I remember) how she would sway her head back and forth slowly, almost creakily, articulating a wobbly sinusoid, first to one side, then the other, as she surveyed everything but the strawberry I had set before her. The gesture felt ancient, disdainful, outside of time.

Then suddenly—or so it seemed—she would crack her beaked snout, revealing the pink of her inner mouth, a shock of color amidst a muddle of brown and green and black—so like the bright berry she was about to tear into. I fed her lettuce by hand, too, and that moment when she went from scanning to snapping was electric.

Tammy would sway her head back and forth slowly, almost creakily, articulating a wobbly sinusoid, first to one side, then the other, as she surveyed everything but the strawberry I had set before her. The gesture felt ancient, disdainful, outside of time.

Other memories: her slight overbite; her high, round shell; scaly legs; sharp claws; a triangular afterthought of a tail. She would let me stroke her head with my finger. I have no idea why I thought she was female—surely just a guess. Even now, her smell defies description: a musty mix of old dirt and wet leaves, with a slight tang of rot.

 

•  •  •

 

Some facts: turtles see colors, smell through their noses and mouths, and have questionable hearing. Some grow to be 1,500 pounds; others never weigh more than a deck of cards. Though the term refers to creatures that primarily live in water, most people use “turtle” to also include tortoises (strictly terrestrial-dwellers) and terrapins (swampy inhabitants of both water and land). To adopt their famous defensive posture, turtles retract their necks straight into their shells, or tuck them in sideways—though sea turtles can’t do either. Their necks are always sticking out.

Turtles have been to space and live on six of the seven continents. (Sorry, Antarctica.) They are uncanny navigators; sea turtles swim great distances using the earth’s magnetic fields, the minerals in their brains acting as compasses. All turtles have a firm sense of place. Vets do not recommend that you adopt a wild turtle. Removing a turtle from nature causes stress; they crave the familiar. If displaced, they will attempt great and perilous journeys to return to their native habitat, a phenomenon called “homing.”

Their very presence is a reproach; they do not multitask but move deliberately, each sluggish step a rebuke of our distracted, hurried days. They measure us against the ages, then blink and look away.

Turtles make odd pets. Their ways are not ours. Even in the egg, they take cues from their environment. Hotter nests hatch females; cooler nests hatch males. Their sex is betrayed by the color of their eyes. Turtles do not raise their young. Their affection is hard won; they do not kiss or jump or play.

Toothless contrarians, they are out of synch with the human world—they were here first and run on an older, slower clock. There  is something fusty in the lingo: carapace, plastron, scute. Their very presence is a reproach; they do not multitask but move deliberately, each sluggish step a rebuke of our distracted, hurried days. They measure us against the ages, then blink and look away.

And yet in one regard turtles seem like model citizens of today. Faced with the ancient dilemma of fight or flight, they take a third path—ducking their heads and sheltering in place—which strikes me as a perfectly modern (if ultimately inadequate) response to an anxious, overwhelming age.

 

•  •  •

 

The three-toed box turtle is the state reptile of Missouri, where I have lived for the past five years. The large city park at the end of my block is home to box turtles, snapping turtles, and red-eared sliders—plus a playground with a number of giant turtle statues. This summer, the city drained one of the waterways to repair a bridge. The turtles are expected to have more space next year.

My 6-year-old shares my affinity. She sleeps with a stuffed turtle, among other plush creatures. At the pool, she clings to my back as we swim—turtle-style—underwater. Her elementary school has a box turtle club that so far she has been too young to join. They are part of a zoo program that tracks turtles in the park by tagging them with radio transmitters. Each turtle emits its own frequency. The club’s blog professes fondness for Georgette, whose front left leg was taken off by a predator. The Facebook page for the zoo’s turtle project mentions that, upon finding a new turtle, volunteers administer a “personality test”—but I have no idea what that is. I wonder how my turtle neighbors are feeling these days.

My daughter is desperate for a pet, any pet. (We once kept a ladybug for months—and even took it with us on spring break.) We walk in the wooded part of the park all the time, but we have never come upon a turtle. The brush is pretty thick. The other day, a friend gave me a line on a bunch of turtles hanging out by a small waterfall, but by the time I showed up, they were gone.

 

•  •  •

 

Perhaps the best-known meditation on all things chelonian is Edward Hoagland’s 1968 essay, “The Courage of Turtles.” These days, its opening—which I find so endlessly strange and alive—usually needs some explanation: “Turtles are a kind of bird with the governor turned low.” (What’s a governor? ask my students, who know even less about engines than I, not having grown up tinkering with go-karts and lawnmowers.) The line establishes the speaker’s poetic eye, while also tipping his rhetorical hand: this essay is going to have its own governor turned low, its anger and conviction throttled down to a purr of modest appreciation. And yet this is but a pose—the piece becomes a slow burn. Hoagland never rants; he simply catalogs what he sees, and by doing so mounts a devastating critique of how we treat nature.

If, as Simone Weil suggests, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” then Hoagland is a most generous essayist, for he subjects the turtles he has known, loved, and lost to remarkably tender scrutiny. To Hoagland, turtles are “personable beasts,” ungainly underdogs—both funny and philosophical—that “manage to contain the rest of the animal world.” They are also quite human. He tells us, “Turtles cough, burp, whistle, grunt and hiss, and produce social judgments.” A pet wood turtle haunts his house like “some grand, concise, slow-moving id.” He attempts to see the world in a series of turtles, or, perhaps more precisely, turtle deaths, as the animals are betrayed (by us) again and again. (Their ponds drained, the turtles become entombed in the mud; their bodies painted and sold as novelties—“Kiss me, Baby!”—they grow to be crushed by their own shellacked shells.)

Hoagland is perhaps most keenly aware of his own culpability and cruelty. Toward the essay’s end, he buys a turtle on the streets of New York, but the rescue attempt sours. The creature comes to exasperate him—and so he decides to free it by tossing it into the Hudson River (which ends up being too deep and rough for the terrapin to swim). Though I have read the ending countless times, I am always caught by the compressed emotion of the final line, as Hoagland abandons the struggling turtle he has unwittingly drowned: “But since, short of diving in after him, there was nothing I could do, I walked away.” Even our essayist will not take the plunge. Rage, frustration, regret—all remain muted. Instead, Hoagland fixes his attention on his own savage indifference.

 

•  •  •

 

The essayist laments his mistakes and misjudgments, but how well can we ever really know another creature? Our hearts and minds are so different. But what if we shared the same language? One of my earliest school memories involves taking turns at the class computer, an Apple II that would chug and clank and beep as it booted up its green monochrome screen. Operating the computer was high stakes; none of us had one at home, and pressing the wrong button led to embarrassing noises that would signal the teacher that we had made the thing go haywire. I remember the red light that glowed sinister as the drive loudly grinded the floppy “diskette,” plus the satisfying plunk of the keyboard—each stroke heavy with import—that was so much more like a mechanical typewriter than the ultrathin wafers we tap on today.

I must have been in first or second grade. The lesson: something about geometry, or maybe the first inklings of computer science. The game was called Logo, which referred to its programming language (designed in 1967 and named after the Greek word for “thought”)—but we called it “the Turtle,” because the goal was to move a triangle around the screen. (The triangle, which was shaded a bit on the nose and left a ghostly green trail, was supposed to be a turtle with a pen attached to its shell.) By giving it commands—right 90, forward 20, left 45, back 10, and so forth—you could draw lines, shapes, even pictures, if you had the patience. None of us were very good (what did we know of angles, Cartesian coordinates, and recursive routines?) but we diligently plodded through a series of worksheets, typing out command after mystifying command. (In actuality, the game turned out to be an exercise in careful transcription.)

 

I like the idea of letting children loose to inhabit an animal’s mind—if anyone can do it, they can—but of course we were not really supposed to understand the turtle as a turtle, to crawl into its shell and start smelling through our mouths. The turtle was just a gimmick, something cute and familiar to spirit us into an unnatural world.

I recall being thoroughly confused. What made this triangular a turtle? What made a word a command? What was the point? It turns out Logo was meant not only to teach simple programming but to encourage what its designer, Seymour Papert, called “body-syntonic reasoning.” Kids, he thought, would pretend to be the turtle—that is, see the game from its point of view and thus intuit its movements, turn by torturous turn. Draw a box. Draw a star. To do so required a leap of imagination, a perceptual shift. I like the idea of letting children loose to inhabit an animal’s mind—if anyone can do it, they can—but of course we were not really supposed to understand the turtle as a turtle, to crawl into its shell and start smelling through our mouths. The turtle was just a gimmick, something cute and familiar to spirit us into an unnatural world. The goal was not to transform ourselves into beasts but machines—to become the computer, to think how it thought, to learn its limitless and yet limited logic, which (had we in fact grasped how to play the game) would allow us to write and debug our own code.

The first Logo turtle was a real-life robot on wheels that drew pictures on the floor, but its popularity took off after it shed its shell for a purely digital onscreen form. I am surprised at the number of Logo fans still around. What remains hazy for me was apparently a big deal in the history of early childhood education. There are more than a few turtle videos and simulators. Papert’s own daughter grew up to be an artist who uses the turtle to draw algorithmic shapes.

On one site, I found the manual for the turtle’s first release for the Apple computer. The instructions start off charmingly (almost achingly) rudimentary. (“The keyboard is like a typewriter. Type any word or sentence to get a feel for the touch of the keyboard.”) Were we ever so young? A few pages in, more commands come rushing back—showturtle, hideturtle, and the ever-useful clearscreen (whew—teacher didn’t see!). Later chapters involve drawings of startling complexity. A medium is born, and it seems a short leap from the popularization of the turtle to the rise of the mouse—creatures nosing their way (and ours) through virtual space. But first just imagine having to spend class time acclimating children to the digital world! After 139 pages, the manual abruptly signs off with a final command—“Have fun”—that sounds coy, even smug. The turtle knows we are already hooked.

 

•  •  •

 

I once spent a week hunting fossils in the North Dakota Badlands with a paleontologist, who—despite the drama of digging for larger beasts (your T. rexes, Triceratops, Velociraptors, and so on)—loves ancient turtles most of all. He has amassed a world-class fossil collection: shells painstakingly pieced together; drawers of skulls, feet, mandibles, and tails, at least one of which was nightmarishly long; a cluster of turtles still half-buried in the dirt; a delicately curled five-clawed foot made up of countless perfect little bones.

Turtles are plentiful and leave a vivid fossil record, since their bodies are mostly plate and bone. It is remarkable, evolutionarily speaking, how turtles fused their ribs into a shell, an adaptation that originally might not have been for protection but for digging (to seek refuge from the heat). From the Badlands, I brought home a shard of fossilized shell—with a dappled surface and spongy cross-section—that rests on a bookshelf in my office and reminds me of a bleak, dusty week when extinction seemed so near. Meanwhile, the paleontologist has spent years excavating a “turtle graveyard,” the bed of what was once a body of water that has surrendered some 100 shells. The unlucky creatures were trapped and killed by drought—a hot, slow death.

In many ways, turtles seem obviously, eternally doomed—such easy prey. And yet these hardy burrowers survived the global cataclysm that killed off the dinosaurs: an asteroid collision that caused a massive thermal pulse that scorched the earth and turned the climate cold (by blocking out the sun) and then hot (through the release of CO2). The paleontologist once bragged, “Turtles—they’re bomb-proof.”

From the Badlands, I brought home a shard of fossilized shell—with a dappled surface and spongy cross-section—that rests on a bookshelf in my office and reminds me of a bleak, dusty week when extinction seemed so near.

Of course they are not human-proof. We poach them for their shells, or to become food, medicine, or pets. We kill them for sport. We have so radically encroached on their environment—the land, the sea—that more than half of turtle species are in danger of extinction. In the past four decades, the seas have lost 80 percent of their turtles—a true turtle graveyard. Meanwhile, our own numbers have doubled.

And yet our days might also be winding down. Climate catastrophe has been looming for a while, but the predictions of late seem particularly dire: mass deaths, rising oceans, famine, floods, disease, and drought. At home, a president criminally in denial, while in the Antarctic an iceberg the size of Delaware calves into the sea.

 

•  •  •

 

Last year, some three decades after I learned Logo, my wife and I took our daughter to Disney World, where I met another high-tech turtle. Our trip started with Epcot, the utopian theme park. We visited the international pavilions and rode Spaceship Earth, Mission: Space, and (my daughter’s favorite) Space Mountain.

The turtle was waiting for us the in Future World aquarium. Friends had told us he was not to be missed, so we used one of our “fast-passes” to cut to the front of the line. After a short wait, we entered an auditorium. Our seats faced a giant “window” (which was really a screen) that offered a brilliant view into an animated aquarium. Soon, a sea turtle appeared and started talking to us. From his stoned affect and surfer lingo, we recognized him as Crush from the Finding Nemo franchise. The show was basically a live question and answer session meant to foster understanding between the human and turtle worlds. Crush started off with his own little joke on point-of-view—“Hey, look at all the humans in the human tank!”—before fielding questions from the audience as he paddled back and forth. He delighted my daughter by singling her out for extended conversation, during which he mocked us, her parents, for having only one kid. (A sea turtle can lay over 100 eggs in a nest.)

The turtle was charming and full of facts; the hidden “cast member” who played him was quick on his feet. But the real star was the digital puppetry: the speech coming from the turtle’s mouth (which was synched with the actor’s at 60 frames per second) was perfectly fluid. The show ended with a final plea for everyone to be good to the earth we all share. It was an exciting, perhaps even enlightening, exchange, but I kept thinking it odd that we were basically watching TV—and not the actual sea turtles (both green and loggerhead) swimming out in the tanks. At the time, my daughter was six, old enough to know that the characters she met were not real, but my wife and I noticed she was willfully suspending her disbelief on that trip. Gone were the usual questions; she never asked how the magic was pulled off—she just went along. Maybe part of her still thinks she spoke to a turtle that day. She mentioned him again just this morning at breakfast, and I did not have the heart to ask any questions of my own. She is getting so old. There are things—beyond even turtles—I want to preserve before they are gone.

 

•  •  •

 

What is the point of writing about other creatures? Aren’t we always really just talking about ourselves? Remember Thoreau on animals and what we ask of them: “They are all beasts of burden, in a sense, made to carry some portion of our thoughts.” Among the pitfalls of the human ego, anthropomorphism ranks high. We are wise to acknowledge the limits of our science, our understanding, our empathy—very rarely can we escape our own point of view. For example, see the burdens I have already laid on turtles in this essay, how I have turned them into harbingers of doom, or symbols of lost innocence (or artifice or solipsism or human cruelty), when in fact they do not  need any of that extra baggage: they are already suffering right here, right now. Shouldn’t that be enough? Why can’t I leave them alone? Why try to trick you into feeling something for them, if you do not already?

 

•  •  •

 

I cannot remember how my beloved Tammy died. I recall other losses: goldfish overfed, parakeets that flew the coop, cats that got so old they finally stopped coming home. But what about Tammy, who burns so bright in my memory? I remember her empty terrarium haunting my room for a while. But was it something I did—beyond stealing her from the wild? My mind remains blank. She went wherever turtles go when they die. I never replaced her.

Among the pitfalls of the human ego, anthropomorphism ranks high. We are wise to acknowledge the limits of our science, our understanding, our empathy—very rarely can we escape our own point of view.

In a number of ancient traditions, the world is believed to rest on the back of a giant turtle, which leads to the epistemological question of what might be supporting that turtle, which leads us to the solution an old woman supposedly proposed to Bertrand Russell at one of his lectures in 1927: “Oh, you see—it’s turtles all the way down.” Such is the endless wonder of faith, always able to conjure one turtle more.

When I am worn out, I find myself reaching for this kind of close-looped logic. As the parent of an inquisitive daughter, I try to be truthful, but occasionally I will end up shrugging and say: Just believe me, kid, end of discussion—it’s turtles all the way down.

 

•  •  •

 

Despite my frequent mention of my daughter, I am not one of those people who thinks that having a child gives you any privileged insight, or a greater moral stake in the world. But I am sure that loving something does: a river, a piece of music, an animal, another person. If you want anything beyond yourself to endure, then suddenly you are part of the greater conversation.

Which is why it bothers me that lately, for some people, science has moved into the realm of belief. How can you call climate change an article of faith, not fact? Is it greed, or laziness, or our own savage indifference that makes us equivocate, turn a blind eye? Despite what we have learned—all our brave new technology—we seem farther from turtles than ever before. Yet when it comes to the planet, the old woman is right in a way. Look at the body count—it’s turtles all the way down.

And so, yes, I think with some animals you only get one shot. My daughter likes turtles, and so do I. But a few weeks ago—at last—we got her a pet. A puppy. At night, she puts him in her bed and cups his soft muzzle in her hands, and I hear her whisper to him, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” and I wonder if that will ever be enough.

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