Trust of an Old Turtle
Today I saw a baby snapping turtle in my yard. I have seen other baby ones and each time I am much struck by their sense of purpose, but more so by what seems to be a serene confidence in what the future holds for them. I suspect good parenting. Here’s a photo of one from several years ago:
But let’s take a look at the parents—it is, after all, Father’s Day. Once I found a very large snapping turtle on my side deck. Moss grew on its back. It was three feet long and at least two feet wide. Things grew out of the moss on its back as if out of a forest floor. It had been stopped by the balusters of the deck railing, but kept pushing itself pointlessly forward, its huge neck thrusting into the air on the other side of the balusters, its head under the illusion of freedom.
Apparently the snapping turtle seeks out water when it is time to lay eggs. My Oswego Township home is on a ridge and below the ridge is a creek—Rice Creek, named after Asa Rice, the last name of my town’s first resident. Around the creek are thousands of wild lilies. The female turtles are called to this creek where they were probably born, and where their offspring will most certainly be born. And the male turtles return often, as though prodigal sons.
But the big turtle trapped on my deck had lost his way. He was incalculably ancient. These turtles can live to be 150 years old. That’s about five full generations of human beings, and a lot of time. 150 years ago the Civil War had been over for one year; Jesse James and his gang robbed their first bank; and Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, was born. It is a long time to be alive on this planet. However, this turtle (whom I think of now as my turtle) could not find his way, although until I met him he’d found his way for so long a forest floor had grown on his back.
I resolved to help him. I put on some thick leather gloves I use for my wood stove. I put on some sturdy shoes. It is worth mentioning that at this time I had been lifting weights for almost 7 years, and hefted 20 pound weights in each hand every other day. My muscles were as strong as they will ever be.
I put a hand on the turtle’s shell and he immediately struck back at me, his enormous jaws snapping. It is a creature that has not been misnamed. He hissed. He snapped. I tried again, putting my hands further back on his shell—this was difficult because it meant most of his weight was forward at an awkward angle. Nevertheless, I was strong enough.
I picked him up. I don’t know what he weighed but it was almost as much as I could lift. All seemed well. I would take him to the forest edge and release him. But there on the deck, away from all safety, he began to thrust his neck and all of his legs toward the ground as though he were a submarine firing missiles. His head and neck disappeared into his shell, then whump, he shot them out toward the ground with all his might. There was a terrible rhythm to this, as though I were practicing a demanding dance step that involved carrying my partner, but this turtle was practicing a felonious assault.
I was reminded of a time my dad, whom I adored, picked me up to make me take a nap. I did not want to take a nap. I became instantly limp, a dead weight. I hung in his arms until he felt secure, and then shot my limbs suddenly toward the ground, and then plummeted out of my dad’s arms and sprained my wrist. Of course, I should have trusted him.
So I was a step ahead of this turtle. I did not drop him. I stood on the deck and let him fling himself toward the ground. They are stubborn creatures, like we are, but we don’t hold a candle to them: they can hold their breath for six months. Just when I thought my strength would give out, the old boy relaxed. He’d had enough of the fight. Against all odds he acceded his will to his own powerlessness. And that’s how I saved him.
So I’m thinking of my turtle today, not the babies. One day, perhaps even this year, I’ll see him again, lumbering toward Rice Creek, wild lilies riding on the moss of his ancient back. Those times I feel myself in the grip of a hard fate, it is worth remembering this turtle with a forest on his back. He had been right to relax in my hands, against all instinct. He had been right to give himself over to whatever might be next. He had been right to trust in the world. As Toni Morrison wrote at the end of Song of Solomon: “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”