This is the first installment of a five-part post.
Always itâ€™s the same: the woods are leaf-fatted, midsummer.Â Low-growing Mayapple and ginseng creep among roots of massive white oaks whose limbs form their own green-clouded groves.Â Ferns half my height unroll from fiddleheads.Â Fiddleheads, with their scrolled fronds, put me in mind of unborn thingsâ€”pale, web-footed, half-creatures in dark, damp places, curling over upon themselves. All around lies the litter of conversion, of life changing over to death, changing to seedbed, to mushroom clusters, to a pink shock of Ladyâ€™s-slipper orchid against decadent leaves.
My familiarity with this place is so deep that, even though Iâ€™m asleep, I know Iâ€™ve entered a region of my personal Dreamtime. Many peoples have Dreamtimes, though perhaps not so many as used to.Â For Aboriginal Australians, Dreamtime is an ancestral era when totemic creatures walked the land, chanting the world into existence. Dreamtime is also a state of being.Â The Australian landscape thrums with vibrations, jiva or guruwari, seed vitality, the resonant blastosphere of the present containing the past and the future; the land Dreams. Relation arcs between highly charged placesâ€”sacred placesâ€”and individual consciousness, and this, too, is the Dreaming.Â For the Aborigines, Dreaming is believing.
My Dreamtime is like that, a place-time in my soul that keeps current origin images from my childhood in rural Piedmont Virginia. Where I live now, in the bone-bared west, there are no places like our old weeds and woods.
I hurry down a path, the only strip of earth not overrun with green growing.Â I feel a childâ€™s desireâ€”anxious, anticipatory.Â I come to a sluggish stream.Â Sometimes itâ€™s a small pond, sometimes a large puddle.Â I wade in and peer into the water, which may be clear as a windowpane or muddy as a storm, and there are the turtles.
Perhaps the sight of them arouses the reptilian part of my brain, because I know them.Â Their bone backs curved like river cobbles, dappled like the bottoms of sun-flecked pools. Their stout, scaly legs, tipped with fine clawsâ€”legs of plodding, ancient design.Â Their retractable necks.
Without thinking, I catch them.Â I donâ€™t know why.Â In the dreams, I donâ€™t question my motives.Â Itâ€™s not obsession or any form of predation.Â Simply, the turtles are there and I catch them: spotted turtles, eastern painted turtles, and the occasional indefinite specimen, something thatâ€™s just elemental turtle.
Part of it might be a need to touch the carapaces.Â To get the gist of a turtle you really have to feel the curve of the shell against the palm of your hand, filling your hand; you have to get its heft, like a stone, only alive and kicking.Â Then there are multifarious shell colors and patterns. Itâ€™s as if each animal has chosen a kaleidoscopic variation on this or that motif: star clusters in deep space; flower petals mixed with loam and old leaf; algal strands and shadows.Â Whorled like topographical maps, turtlesâ€™ shells seem to bear record of where they have been and how long they stayed.
Living in arid Utah as I do now I need to revisit these creatures swimming the headwaters of my earliest consciousness.Â So the Dreamtime takes me to them.Â When I catch the Dream Turtles and look upon their shells, I feel something beyond satisfaction.Â Itâ€™s as if to touch and to gaze upon a turtle shell is to receive a Rosetta stone that keys other matter for meaning.Â One thing: turtles present the domes of their backs skyward, as if waiting for the world to settle there.Â So it was that some cultures believed life began or was remade on the shells of turtles.
A Hindu myth of the worldâ€™s cycle tells how water overcomes the world every millennium, destroying all but the most basic silts and elements of life.Â At such times, Vishnu enters into a new incarnation, one fitting for this water worldâ€”Chukwa, the turtle.Â In a no doubt suitably ornate vessel that recalls in mystical detail the backs of modern turtles, he gathers a mixture of elements necessary to re-spawn the world.Â When this period of reborning is over Chukwa fixes to the spot, supporting Ma-pudma the elephant, or four elephants, who in turn bear up the reborn Earth.
An Iroquois creation story tells also how the turtle, a water creature, made possible the creation of land.Â As in the Hindu tale, the worldâ€™s surface is fluid.Â But according to this Dawn of Earth story, the animal inhabitants fail to build good ground until they lay their mud and sticks on Turtleâ€™s back.Â Turtle magnifies their efforts by growing and becoming North America: Turtle Island.
In a Chinese myth, a turtle is the world.
Some might think such origin tales lacking in finesse, childish, unscientific, rather uneconomical in the creation scheme of things.Â But I get it.Â Part of my brain engages and applies the truth in these old, old stories.Â Obviously, turtles have sustained a very long relationship with the earthâ€”older than our own, by most traditional accounts and by all scientific ones.