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Cosmic Turtles, Part Two

by Patricia | 1.26.10

Beside serving as the foundation of the world, Turtle surfaces in folk literature as the trickster’s trickster. It may surprise some to learn that Turtle has the smarts necessary to get the best of flimflammers like Jackal and even Anansi, the trickster spider, but then surprise is part of the strategy.

Conning the con is not Turtle’s preferred manner of being-in-the-world.  Usually, Turtle acts in this role only to help less imaginative creatures protect precious resources—water or food, for example—or to correct social imbalances, or perhaps to mete out comeuppance, which is also a way of restoring order to the world locally and at large.  Someone must show the clever ones that they don’t, as they suppose, run everything.  Someone has to teach the Anansis, Jackals, and Coyotes that there’s more going on than even they, the wry ones, can imagine and restore them to their proper places when they become too destructive or powerful.

In one African tale, all the animals in a village labor to dig a water hole to relieve a severe water crisis.  But at night, Jackal, who didn’t lift a finger to help, sneaks in from the desert to drink at the well. Then he muddies the water so no one else can use it.  The other animals complain but don’t know what to do to.  It is Turtle who solves the problem.  Smearing a sticky substance on his shell he submerges in the pool, and when Jackal sneaks in to steal and foul the water, up comes turtle from below and bumps against him.  Poor Jackal!  He sticks to Turtle’s carapace like a fly to sap.  Turtle parades the stuck Jackal before the others who laugh and jeer at him, then he delivers him to Lion’s den.

In a Yoruba tale from Nigeria, Anansi the Spider twists rules of etiquette to avoid sharing his yams with travel-weary Turtle, who arrives just at dinnertime.  As Turtle opens his mouth to bite into a yam, Anansi says, “In my land, we wash our hands before we eat.”  By invoking this and other rules of good manners, Anansi keeps Turtle from the yams until the spider has himself more or less eaten all.  Turtle knows he’s been slighted but understands that two can play this game.  Likewise drawing upon rules of hospitality he invites Anansi to dine at his house.  Anansi does not imagine that anyone is as clever as he is; also, he’s greedy.  Anxious to eat well at someone else’s table, he arrives at the river’s edge where Turtle lives and there faces a dilemma.  Turtle’s house lies on the bottom.  To get to the food, Anansi must sink through the water.  Anansi tries to sink himself but nothing works.  Finally he fills his coat pockets with rocks.  He sinks down and arrives at Turtle’s table where the feast has been laid.  Wide-eyed with gluttony, Anansi reaches for his first bite.  But Turtle says, “In my land, we remove our coats before we eat.”  Anansi removes his coat and floats up out of reach of the food, losing not only his meal but also a perfectly good coat.

In a Cherokee tale, Turtle and Coyote race to see who will win Turtle’s dinner.  Turtle may be slow, but he’s no fool.  He knows Coyote intends to cheat him so he turns back before the race is over and secures the meal for himself.  Thus Turtle cons the con artist.  Another good Cherokee story presents Turtle as a master of illusion.  Turtle outsmarts Rabbit in a race over five hills by locating one of his turtle relatives on each of the hills, fooling Rabbit into thinking he is seeing something he isn’t.
Some might wonder at such a stolid, slow-moving creature achieving revered trickster status, but as a former hunter of turtles I share this reverence for Turtle’s ability to gain the upper hand.  Because once upon a time, Turtle tricked me.

7 Responses to Cosmic Turtles, Part Two

  1. J. Max Wilson

    Thanks for these two Turtle posts Patricia. They really resonated with me and successfully conjured that magical turtle feeling from my childhood experiences with turtles.

    Don’t know if this really fits, but I am also reminded of J. R. R. Tolkien’s poem “Fastitocalon”:

    Look, there is Fastitocalon!
    An island good to land upon,
    Although ‘tis rather bare.
    Come, leave the sea! And let us run,
    Or dance, or lie down in the sun!
    See, gulls are sitting there!
    Beware!
    Gulls do not sink.
    There they may sit, or strut and prink:
    Their part is to tip the wink,
    If anyone should dare
    Upon that isle to settle,
    Or only for a while to get
    Relief from sickness or the wet,
    Or maybe boil a kettle.

    Ah! Foolish folk who land on HIM,
    And little fires proceed to trim
    And hope perhaps for tea!
    It maybe that his shell is thick,
    And floats now in the sea
    With guile;
    And when he hears their tapping feet,
    Or faintly feels the sudden heat,
    With smile
    HE dives,
    And promptly turning upside-down
    He tips them off, and deep they drown,
    And lose their silly lives
    To their surprise.

    Be wise!
    There are many monsters in the sea,
    But none so perilous as HE,
    Old horny Fastitocalon,
    Whose mighty kindred all have gone,
    The last of the old Turtle-fish.
    So if to save your lives you wish
    Then I advise:
    Pay heed to sailors’ ancient lore,
    Set foot on no uncharted shore!
    Or better still,
    Your days at peace on middle-earth
    In mirth
    Fulfill!

    Fastitocalon is a retelling of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem, which we curiously now often call “The Whale” even though it too invokes terms that would indicate a turtle-fish-monster. The Anglo-Saxon Fastitocalon in turn seems to be based on allegorical legends of the “Aspidochelone” which medieval bestiaries describe as a giant turtle-type monster. (“Aspidochelone” comes from Greek: “Asp” – “Turtle”).

    My wife tells stories of a giant snapping turtle from her childhood in the south.

    Thanks again!

  2. Patricia

    Max, fun comment! Thanks for the poem, I enjoyed it.

    Ah yes, giant snapping turtles, the alligator snappers of the south. I have a few snapping turtle stories. Usually, I just caught the baby ones, which are quite docile and don’t bite. But I did tangle with a few larger ones, including a turtle of mid-size length and girth I discovered unaccountably wandering through a forest with no water anywhere nearby. I picked it up by the tail, and it swayed in the air snapping unerringly at my knees. A challenging creature to carry away from my body at arms’ length.

    Glad to find a fellow turtle-appreciator. Back in the day I kept close company with snakes, and I spent quality time with toads, frogs, and some lizards. But nothing made it into my dreams quite in the way turtles did. My husband remarks that I learned everything I know and needed to know from the wise turtles.

  3. greenfrog

    Turtles come in three types in my head.

    The first: black-and-yellow shelled box turtles that would unexpectedly wander through my backyard in Maryland. I never knew where they were coming from, where they were going. Sometimes they just were there. I’d carry them around, fully boxed in for a few minutes to show my sister, my brothers, my parents, then return them to the woods.

    The second: silver-dollar-sized red-eared sliders that my friends got as gifts and kept as pets for as long as they’d live. I wanted one, but my parents didn’t think that a good idea for the turtles. We had a decidedly carnivorous Siamese tomcat.

    The third: snapping turtles we’d bring to light by randomly sweeping the bottom of brown-water ponds with bamboo that we’d harvest from subdivision creeks where it had invaded. The snapping turtles cooperated with the effort by biting anything that moved — bamboo included — and not letting go until they saw daylight.

  4. Patricia

    Box turtles, yes! Thanks for mentioning them, g.f. You called up a story I cut from this essay. It’s long, but I can’t resist:

    I’ve worn my prettiest going-to-meetin’ outfit to church—a yellow cotton skirt and vest over a frilly white blouse. Beneath my ensemble my petticoat shines. I am layer upon layer of cleanliness. I am laundry fresh off the line. I am the topmost leaf on a tree, scrubbed to a shine by seven passing thunderstorms.

    It’s a sticky, southern summer day. When church ends, I’m not so fresh but am no less presentable than anyone else. On the drive home I’m thinking about turtles. The minute the car jerks to a stop in the driveway I fling open the door, jump out, and run through the weeds in my frock. At the back edge of our four and a half acres of weeds, I cross into forest.

    Virginia forests are as hard for westerners to imagine as hard desert sunlight was for me until I came west. Along with honeysuckle and Virginia creeper, green briars mix it up with sassafras and light-greedy saplings at the boundary between cleared land and woodland. A complicated shag of decaying leaves and rotting logs covers the forest floor. At this time of year, that floor is ripe, teeming with bacteria making chemical conversions. Here and there, plush moss lies in green carpets, drinking up footsteps. There are more kinds of lichens than I can count. Fleshy orange, red, beige, white, and mottled toadstools bespeckle the ground, a few with chunks bitten out of the caps. Overhead, gray squirrels run along freeways part wood, part air. Bluejays bolt through the canopy like cyanic shooting stars.

    My goal is the drainage ditch traversing a dense section of the forest. When the ditch runs high, we kids race beer and pop cans above the beaded towers of crawfish. That’s down by the road, where the ditch collects the most run-off. Here in the forest the stream slugs through root knots and thickets. In one place, it’s not running at all—the heat has cooked it down to a brown soup. My eye studies the soup carefully until it focuses on a dome protruding from the mud: the top of a box turtle’s shell.

    According to the Peterson field guide Eastern Reptiles and Amphibians, the Eastern box turtle, Terrapina carolina carolina, ranges from southern New Hampshire on the northern end to Georgia on the southern, with the western range extending as far the southern half of Illinois and all of Tennessee and Kentucky. Here in Virginia we are deep into box turtle territory.

    Box turtles are some of the most wonderful things trundling along the face of the earth. Their high-arcing domes, each one dappled with jewels of sun-and-shadow and growth rings like in cross-sections of cut wood—they’re a pleasure to eye and fingertip.

    A wonder of natural engineering, a section of the bottom part of the shell—the plastron—operates on a transverse hinge able to shut so tightly you “can’t slide a knife blade in the crack.” That’s what they say, though I’ve run across one or two plus sized turtles whose flesh overhangs their shells so they can’t close up completely.

    Personally, I’d never attempt to work a knife-blade into the crack where the plastron shuts against the carapace. But it seems that, for many, the knife blade is a standard unit of measurement. Years later, on a visit to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, I hear this “knife-blade” standard applied again: the masonry is so tight “you can’t insert a knife blade between the stones.” The same for masonry in Central and South America: knives not insertable. It’s a form of measurement based upon what you can’t do to a thing—but, apparently, not for lack of trying.

    Sometimes we find a box turtle in the road, its carapace cracked like a stone by one of the few forces it can’t resist—the automobile. I wonder: how is it that drivers can’t avoid turtles? They don’t dart and dodge, like rabbits. They don’t bound into your path like cats, dogs, or deer.

    Whenever I find a living turtle crossing the road, or teetering on the shoulder thinking about crossing, I carry it to the other side, as far away from the asphalt as possible. I say to it: Stay away from the hard, black path. You were nearly reduced to rubble and red meat.

    Sometimes we discover turtles whose shells have been vandalized: B. H. 1952. How anybody can look upon these remarkable puzzles of color and texture and brand them with such crude, self-reflective tokens is beyond my understanding. The lifespan of these turtles is around forty years, with some individuals reaching one hundred years old or more. Perhaps carving one’s initials into the back of such a long-lived creature is a cheap shot at immortality—the same longevity envy that provokes people to carve up trees.

    This box turtle in the ditch, he’s taking a mud bath to escape the heat. To reach him, I’ll have to walk into the mud. My skirt’s hem hangs well above the mud—but what about my pretty white shoes? The question hangs for barely two seconds. Strategizing a way to reach the turtle while incurring the least amount of smudging, I stretch way out, reach into the mud, and feel for the edge of the turtle’s shell. Carefully, I work it out of sucking ooze.

    There! I got it without becoming too dirtied. As expected, the turtle shuts itself against me. Eventually it will come out, determine I’m not going to eat it, and flash over from self-defense to escape. I hold the mucky animal away from my dress as I walk the ditch, hoping to find one more turtle to fill the other hand.

    I see a muddy protrusion, like a the end of a stick angling up from the goo. I nearly dismiss it as debris but notice, that stick has eyes. The eyes are watching me. It’s another turtle—this one a little further out in the mud. I set the first turtle down and consider the dilemma: white shoes and socks—black, sticky mud. I’ll have to take more risk—accept more dirt. For two turtles it seems like a deal. I step into the mud. The stick with eyes retracts into the sludge. Feeling around I find the shell and unmuck a second turtle.

    Satisfied, I turn homeward, only to spy a third mostly-buried turtle, then a fourth, then a fifth. Two more to make seven! In and out of the mud five more times. Now I must find something to carry my treasures home in. My brothers will never believe I found so many if I can’t present proof. More than that—to touch, to consider seven box turtles at a time—it’s too much!

    Looking down at my skirt, I realize what a fine apron it could make. I pluck up the hem, forming a pocket in the neat, yellow fabric, and heap the seven muddy turtles in it. I’ve struck it rich! Here I am, my skirt brimming with muddy turtles, my single biggest box turtle catch ever! It gives whole new meaning to the phrase, “Sunday best.”

    Of course there’s niggling doubt that my mother will appreciate this delightful assortment of Terrapina carolina carolina with anything like the adoration I feel for each and every turtle in the pile. But maybe if I show her how lovely they are beneath their mud, how excitingly unlike us, except, maybe in their helmet homes, a little like our skulls—maybe she will coo over them, say how wonderful and necessary it was that I found them. Maybe she’ll agree we are all the better for it and overlook the sullied church dress.

    Maybe.

  5. J. Max Wilson

    Back in the day I kept close company with snakes, and I spent quality time with toads, frogs, and some lizards.

    :) Me too: anoles, chameleons, iguanas, garter snakes , boa constrictors, tiger salamanders, toads and frogs, box turtles. Some of my fondest memories are of creeping through knee deep mud to catch garter snakes, leopard frogs, and mudpuppies (salamander larva) up Southfork in Provo Canyon and catching tadpoles up in Washington with my cousin, turtles in Missouri… (Don’t get me started on all of the mammals, birds, fish, and invertebrates)

    When I proposed to my wife (who also loves animals), I arranged with the Monte L. Bean museum at BYU for a private tour of their live reptile collection in the basement. They let me place my own Chameleon among the lizards and snakes they have there with the wedding ring in the cage with him. My wife: “Hey there’s a ring in this one…it looks like my ring.”

  6. Patricia

    Some of my fondest memories are of creeping through knee deep mud to catch garter snakes, leopard frogs, and mudpuppies (salamander larva) up Southfork in Provo Canyon and catching tadpoles up in Washington with my cousin, turtles in Missouri… (Don’t get me started on all of the mammals, birds, fish, and invertebrates)

    Ah, yes. Golden times. On our weedy property we had green snakes, milk snakes, mole snakes, black racers, pilot snakes, something so big and long and gleaming blue-purple that I never caught suspected was an indigo racer, king snakes, and, at times, copperheads. Copperheads are gorgeous, and, in my opinion, rather on the intelligent side. Many venomous snakes appear to be more considered in their behavior than non-venomous ones. Lizards: five-lined skinks with their neon blue tails and fence swifts are what I remember. Leopard frogs and bull frogs around the ditch we waded hunting turtles, which included eastern painted turtles (very colorful), spotted turtles, musk turtles, snapping turtles, and some indistinctly colored turtles we could never get close enough to catch so I have no idea what they were. There were plenty of toads, of course.

    Those days of animal engagement are still a big part of me. I don’t feel the need to catch these creatures or touch them anymore but encourage my kids to do so, since full tactile involvement is how they’ll take deeper elements of such experiences into their own souls. I think the animals might learn interesting things from being handled, too. We rescue lizards and snakes from our cats.

    I am in process of learning about eye contact with reptiles (and all other animals, but am surprised to discover how important it is with lizards in particular). Lizards see and respond to our eyes quite directly; we are not so aware of theirs, or that they’ve touched our gazes. I wonder if to some degree this is because we don’t think of “lower species” as being capable of very complex responses to their surroundings. Since I’ve moved to SE Utah, where the lizard population is still very high, I’ve had some very interesting encounters with swifts, Colorado collared lizards, and especially these little brown-to-greenish-red things I haven’t identified. Those last guys are very interesting. They’re the first lizard to emerge in the spring and the last to hibernate. I’ve seen them out as early as the last week of February and as late as the second week in November, when it’s too cold for every other reptile. Wish I knew what they were.

  7. Patricia

    BTW, Max. This:

    When I proposed to my wife (who also loves animals), I arranged with the Monte L. Bean museum at BYU for a private tour of their live reptile collection in the basement. They let me place my own Chameleon among the lizards and snakes they have there with the wedding ring in the cage with him. My wife: “Hey there’s a ring in this one…it looks like my ring.”

    … is a great story. Thanks for telling it.

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