Sunday, April 26, 2009

Dodging Turtles

Now the going was easy, and all the legs worked, and the shell boosted along, waggling from side to side. A sedan driven by a forty-year-old woman approached. She saw the turtle and swung to the right, off the highway, the wheels screamed and a cloud of dust boiled up. Two wheels lifted for a moment and then settled. The car skidded back onto the road, and went on, but more slowly. The turtle had jerked into its shell, but now it hurried on, for the highway was burning hot.And now a light truck approached, and as it came near, the driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it. His front wheel struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a tiddly-wink, spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway. The truck went back to its course along the right side. Lying on its back, the turtle was tight in its shell for a long time. But at last its legs waved in the air, reaching for something to pull it over. Its front foot caught a piece of quartz and little by little the shell pulled over and flopped upright. The wild oat head fell out and three of the spearhead seeds stuck in the ground. And as the turtle crawled on down the embankment, its shell dragged dirt over the seeds. The turtle entered a dust road and jerked itself along, drawing a wavy shallow trench in the dust with its shell. The old humorous eyes looked ahead, and the horny beak opened a little. His yellow toe nails slipped a fraction in the dust.
--John Steinbeck

Friday, my birthday, I got up at my usual time in the morning to prepare for the exam in my 9:00 class. After breakfasting on cake (thanks, parents!) I drove off on my usual commute. On left side of the road I saw a dark shape, so I slowed and glanced over to see the ambling form of a box turtle. It had been many months since I’d seen one, since winter seems to lead to the seasonal disappearance of reptiles, so I smiled fondly at the old familiar sight. Cresting a hill as I continued on my way, I saw a second tortoise right in front of me. I slammed on my brakes and all of my books and papers flew heavily into the back of my seat and crashed to the floor. Then, turning a corner into a wooded stretch, I had to swerve around a third turtle. What biological signal told them that April 24th was the day to reappear, as suddenly as the reversal of a magician’s vanishing act?

The funny thing about the animals is the symbolism they’ve taken on. Simultaneously ridiculed for their sloth and praised for their perseverance, they nevertheless hold great significance in the stories we tell. Slow and steady wins the race, after all.

And there have been times in my life when I’ve felt very much like a box turtle, severe red eyes glaring out from under the lip of my domed organic dwelling. It’s not so much about hiding behind one’s proverbial shell as it is about plodding on and on and on. Despite the obstacles, setbacks, trials and tribulations, or just life in general—despite discouragement and feelings of doubt, uncertainty, or hopelessness, just keep trying to cross the road, one scaly clawed foot at a time. And when someone picks you up, carries you away, stuff you in a box and tries to shove lettuce down your throat, well, just bear it with a smile and an unfailing sense of optimism. Promise is on the other side of that stretch of gravel, so how can you live save by chasing it?

Returning that afternoon, I passed through that same stretch of road to see that one turtle hadn’t been so lucky—its shell smashed, caved in, redness oozing from the broken shards. Pity.


ihateyoupetersmythe said...

I was hoping your post would end in something involving breastmilk. Pity. But school is almost over, yay?

Mozart said...

Now I'm picturing Kevin Marren proudly brandishing his Tupperware container of moldy month-old grapes and presenting it to Mrs. Roberts with a grin. "See? The grapes of wrath!"

Thanks a lot.

Anonymous said...

It makes me almost unbearably sad to see a crushed turtle. The just didn't evolve to dal with fast-moving cars.

(If I'm remembering right, there is a myth about the world being balanced on the back of a great turtle.)

Mozart said...

I do believe you're right.

A quote from Stephen Hawking:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"