Archive for September, 2014

World turtle B

One of my favorite images from mythology is the world-supporting tortoise, common to a number of disparate cultures and traditions. It’s featured in creation stories from China, India, and more than one of the original nations of North America. Among these are the Lenape people of the Delaware Valley, the area I live in, the area they were uprooted from between two and three centuries ago.

And although I’m pretty sure that the world-tortoise has been reshaped and reassembled on its journey into our Western sensibilities, probably in the most ham-fisted way possible, its ancient core of genius is still visible.

Can’t you feel it echoing through time? Through forms?

What I mean is, in the 21st century it’s still possible to equate them—the gentle earth-green curve of a turtle’s carapace, like living obsidian, and the rounded pool of our planet’s backside, mottled with mountains and deserts and dying forests, observed from space.

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September. Walks by the lake with my kids are harder to come by, but we make them happen. We look for turtles basking on logs. One or two can still be found.

“Someday we’ll get binoculars and see them up close,” I promise the twins. But we’re talking about a sizeable investment. It’ll have to be next summer.

“Can we go to the pet store? Can we go to the pet store?”

The local Pets Plus doubles as a free-admission zoo. We go all the time but never buy anything, because as hard-hearted as it sounds we don’t currently allow pets in the house. We don’t have the money and the environment is already too chaotic. The kids hate us for it but that’s life. Anyway, you can’t buy turtles at pet stores in New Jersey, it’s a state law.

Meanwhile our resident scholars continue to gobble up all kinds of useful facts on reptiles and amphibians. They love reading about reptiles and amphibians, watching shows about reptiles and amphibians, making cardboard habitats for as yet un-acquired reptiles and amphibians. If they could forget about math and spelling and study only reptiles and amphibians all day, they’d be sleepless with delight.

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I think back to a day earlier in the year, before summer. The twins were still in first grade. I was driving a block or so away from our house and spotted a young box turtle struggling in the street. Got out, picked it up, the Great Eco-Savior in his gas-guzzling Oldsmobile.

Jubilantly I anticipated the end of the school day. I couldn’t wait for those kids to get off the bus and hear about the living treasure we had at home.

It seemed to go as planned. We brought the critter out of its Tupperware motel and let it crawl in the backyard a while. Then we took it down to the lake (after I called various state and county agencies to determine the best option) and let it go, off to one side of a trail.

With some belated reading I learned that our release site might have been too wet. Box turtles like dry places and, worse, they don’t do well in the reorientation department – you’re supposed to put them back exactly where you find them. I regretted it but didn’t say anything to the kids.

The fact is there really weren’t any other choices. I wasn’t going to put Shelly back on the street or plunk him/her down on somebody’s front lawn.

Now and then one of the twins will say, “I wonder how Shelly’s doing.” “Fine, I’m sure,” I respond. My wife reassures me that Shelly is tougher than I think.

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I “rescued” another turtle several years earlier. It had dragged itself halfway across Route 29 north of Titusville and I pulled over to get it. I knew even less about turtles then. Squeamish that it would be half-crushed or asphalt-fried or something, I almost didn’t want to pick it up. But it was in good shape. I looked around for the best place to take it, finally choosing a stream at the bottom of a fifteen-foot embankment.

Down, down, down – the helpless terrapin’s descent, secure as it was in my grip, had to have been alarming. In retrospect I realize it didn’t want to swim or bathe. It wanted to scratch its way along the sun-soaked cement, it wanted to be up in the daylight. But the stream was the best I could do at the time, ignoramus that I am.

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So it would seem for all self-congratulatory episodes in life. We think of ourselves as carriers of compassion and knowledge, but what are we really carrying? Aren’t we the ones being carried? Will we ever outgrow the bone-headed Dutch missionary, scribbling in his journal about the inferior cosmologies he encounters?

It’s hard to say. We ride along, we gawk, we get out and try to help. We barely comprehend what’s at hand. We resume our trivial journeys through the universe.

And yet what’s wrong with trivial, if we’ve accepted it, if we realize that small is big and big is small? Seasons pass and we wait faithfully and ritualistically on street corners for the slow yellow vessels that bring us our children. We might complain about the rain or the cold or central New Jersey’s blast-furnace heat, but the ritual is steeped in love. The bus doors fold open and for a moment love is the only thing we know. We offer rides home on our aging, curving backs.

We allow cities to grow there, we develop complex cultures and new ways to communicate as we travel, we build schools and highways and mazes of bizarre information. We pray that it’s all useful, helpful to the innocent people we’re delivering.

The sun goes down and small silhouetted hands point skyward next to ours. The Hunter, the Great Bear, the Little Dipper – they all rotate in the obsidian, full of warnings and reassurances about the world we stand on.

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Arrows in the Branches

Looking UpSummer came and went like a migrating herd.

The children watched it pass, noting its panicky red-gold coloration, feeling increasingly disillusioned as tail after tail vanished over the fence. It was difficult to say how many children lived in the backyard. Not even the children knew. Maybe two dozen.

Birthdays came and went as well. A gift of lasting value—the only one, most of the children believed—was a bow and arrow set. The kind made of rubber and plastic. By some miracle they managed not to fight over it and took turns shooting.

Tall shadows bumped and shuffled in the house. Not having much to say or offer, or at least convinced that this was so, they only acknowledged the movements of the children now and then, bumping, shuffling, raising eyebrows. The way adult animals monitor cubs in the wild when they’re too exhausted to give fang-to-fur guidance. It didn’t matter, the children didn’t pay these shadows any mind, didn’t communicate with them, not in any meaningful sense. They were apparitions of no significance. Ghosts to be summoned when a need arose.

Now and then an arrow lodged in a tree’s branches. When this happened the children would bang on the sliding glass doors and a shadow hunched over a computer would get up and grunt open the calcified door frame. It would get a ladder from the shed and retrieve the arrow with ungainly movements. Step up. Step up. Step down.

Can’t it move any faster? thought the children. We have a trajectory. We have school in the morning.

Even so the pattern was set, with Arrows in the branches! a constant complaint. Paths were laid out, paths in the grass and between the trees and between the houses. Life followed these paths, it wasn’t open for debate. If you couldn’t keep track, if your aim was off, you had to try again and again or you’d never survive.

Eventually the children came to see the inside shadows as painted figures, moving only when colors shifted on TVs and computer screens. They were stony, ancient, fragile in sunlight. The shadow who got up to get the arrows wasn’t any different. We make him, said the children to each other. If we stop, he stops, so don’t stop.

But night seeped in and everybody had to quit and go to sleep. Children crawled into shelters, mumbled stories to each other, reassured themselves of a future. Far away summer could still be herd, stampeding and screaming and perishing. Inside, the computer phantom hunched, pressed buttons, looked things up and tried to learn. It looked up SMS and quantitative UX and arrow and trajectory, but nothing made any sense.

At two in the morning a child woke up quick and alert, remembering a final missile dangling from a knot of leaves. It was still up there. But we don’t have anybody now, thought the child. I might have to do this myself.

Autumnal chill had settled in. The shed seemed like a long walk away, and there wasn’t any light. When would it be light out?

Open your ears, everyone.

This is the sound of a cave door sliding open.

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