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Western Pond Turtle
Thank you to Alli, who was always smiling with me.
Thank you to Derek, who helped me shape the first visual
scope of this project.
Thank you to Kathrine, who always had advice and
encouraging words, and wrote me a beautiful haiku.
Thank you to Brad, who pointed me towards Loon Laughter.
Thank you to Johanna, who suggested I take a look in
Thank you to Vanessa, who always had a positive attitude
and a sense of humor.
Thank you to Craig, who was my academic advisor,
confidante, and part-time psychiatrist through this process.
Thank you to all my friends and acquaintances who lent
their creativity in the form of western pond turtle haikus.
Thank you to the entire class, who as a group bonded
together in a very special display of academic fellowship that
I have so rarely felt in any other classes.
Thank you to Laurie, who taught me how to leave the
library and read the poetry of the ground beneath my feet.
This journal, like the project itself, takes on a
labyrinthian form. It mirrors my research and
discovery process, in that it takes twists and turns,
leaves the reader in unexpected places, and maybe
occasionally loses sight of itself to take advantage of
the alluring sidetracks that pop up now and then. But
as my father would say, “All roads lead somewhere if
you follow them long enough”, and such is the case
with this journal. All of my thoughts, musings,
research tracks that supposedly led nowhere… they all
need a place between these pages because they all
played a definitive part in shaping my thought
processes and giving me the imagination and creativity
that allowed me to “unpack” the western pond turtle.
In these pages is a process. I did not just write a
paper, or complete a school assignment. I changed the
way I view the world around me.
Table of Contents.
Part One: Reading the Animal…………………………………………… ..Page 1
Part Two: Put Your Fingers in the Dirt and Feel Your Habitat.......Page 31
Part Three: The World on Your Back…………………………………....Page 65
i tried to save the turtles
they died anyway
better to die in water
-Viki Reka Kissi
Part One: Reading the Animal
Little western pond turtle
Just hanging on your little rock
Watching fish swim by
EXPLORATION: STEPPING OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM
English 490. Section 005. Day 1.
We stand in a group in a small patch of damp earth, bunched together and
tucked into a patch of shrubbery outside of the Buchanan buildings. Professor
Laurie Ricou is quiet as he gazes into an old blue baseball cap full of shredded bits of
paper. We are waiting for his instruction, but he takes his time, calculating the
silence and cherishing our confused anticipation before finally extending the blue
cap towards us. Calmly he tells us to close our eyes and select a paper, thereby
setting ourselves on a course of literary exploration and personal adventure that
will carry us for the next three months.
And so it begins.
You see I really have no idea what I have just gotten myself into with this
English Literature class. I admit, when perusing the course descriptions for
potential majors seminars, I was strangely drawn to the vague course description,
notable for its romantic adjectives and glaring omission of any decisive reading list
(generally a necessary part of any English class). But it was this very departure
from the expected norm that led me into Professor Ricou’s classroom that first day
in September. As I sat down and looked at the faces of my fellow classmates and
soon-to-be collaborators, I realized that despite our clear differences in backgrounds
and diverging education paths, behind every expression of vague confusion there
was a glimmer of anticipation that belied their desire for the very same inspiration
that I was searching for. And it was for this reason that we willingly followed
Professor Ricou out of the safe boundaries of the classroom box, down the stairs, and
out the front doors of our building. It was for this reason that we did not question
him as he led us on a muddy adventure into the bushes, stopping to lovingly point
out the overripe blackberries and the leather-leafed salal plant with an affection
hardly ever bestowed on such forgotten botanical species.
I had no way of knowing this at the time, but in that moment where we each
made the decision to leave the safety of the classroom to welcome the “wilderness” of
the outdoors, we became a team. I had no way of knowing this at the time, but our
individual decisions to quiet our apprehensions of the unknown would bond us in
such a unique way, creating a classroom camaraderie that I have never before
experienced in the English Department at UBC.
…. In the shrubbery, I gaze at those bits of paper Laurie hold out to us.
Although they look humble and unassuming, I know how pivotal they are to the work
that we are about to set out to do. You see, each one of these pieces of paper is
inscribed with the name of a particular species that occurs in our habitat of the
Pacific Northwest. Not, however, the classic postcard animals that entice out-of-
towners to come and experience the wilderness of “Beautiful British Columbia”, but
rather the ones that are most often overlooked – the underdogs, the stranger
creatures, and the “Plain Janes” of the plant and animal world. So, whatever species
Little turtle guy
I once had you for a pet
Then you swam away
chooses to jump out of the hat and join me on this adventure, my job will be (to quote
Laurie) to “fall in love” with my species, and through it gain a new understanding of
my local habitat and my relationship with all living things in the world. A tall order
The hat begins its reluctant circle. I see each of my classmates/ teammates
extend their fingers hesitantly beyond the creased brim to select their very own,
soon-to-be-beloved species. One by one we go: White-somethinged Sparrow… Red
Irish Lord (whatever that is)… Vine Maple… Sea Lettuce… Millipede… It is my turn.
My fingers extend and retrieve the folded paper. I announce aloud, “Western Pond
And there he is: my buddy for the next three months, the lens through which I
will investigate the inner secrets of my habitat, my guide to the hidden places I have
yet to explore…
I’m skeptical, to be sure. But I am already hooked. Looking at the faces of the
others in the circle, I am sure that we share the same feelings. But, despite my
skepticism, I have a distinct feeling, for reasons that are meant to be a mystery, that
each of our species chose us.
Ok Western Pond Turtle, let’s make this happen.
My neck too short to
get outside the picture where
I'm sure there's some food
FIELD NOTE: Western Pond Turtle…. now what?
I suppose I thought that once my species became a little more specific, I would
have more of an idea as to how to approach this project. Unfortunately, as I stare
down at the words “Western Pond Turtle” written on my scrap of folded paper, I
realize that no such luck has crossed my path.
As I don’t know anything about turtles, or their habitat in the Pacific
Northwest, my first instinct is to launch a thorough biological and geographical
investigation into the creature. I suppose this makes a certain amount of sense,
except for the fact that this is a course on English Literature, not Biology or
Geography. I realize that I signed up for this class for the very reason that I
wanted to bend my brain and break through the boundaries of the traditional
boundaries of educational study fields, but this is proving to be much more confusing
than I expected. What does the Western Pond Turtle have to do with English
Literature? How do I marry the biological investigation with the literary analysis?
How do I present seemingly unrelated ideas coherently in the same project? How do I
find answers when I am not even sure what questions I am supposed to be asking? I
know there are infinite paths laid out before me, but I feel blind, lost, and
overwhelmed by choice.
FIELD NOTE: Imagining the questions.
Our instructions are vague and grand in their scope, yet daunting. Laurie has
asked us to, among other things, compose a literary ecology of our species; to take
adventures outside of the classroom; to surprise ourselves; to be patient and
relentless; to dream; to pursue obsessively; and to “always travel lighter than the
heart”. I cannot help but be moved at these romantic aspirations, and it occurs to me
that in four years of university I have never had a teacher attempt to bend my brain
in the ways that Professor Laurie Ricou is doing right now. I feel my limits being
tested and it is a wonderful sensation, but I also feel terribly confined by the lack of
boundaries. Perhaps as a UBC student I am like an animal that has been tamed as a pet
- after several years in numbing captivity it is finally set loose, but at that point it is
so unprepared for the responsibility of freedom that the only thing it can think of to
do is return back home. I cherish this opportunity to point the grand culmination of
my acquired knowledge back to the real world outside the classroom and towards the
Soft skin and big shell
What a wonder of the world
I think to myself
tactile ground beneath my feet, but first I need to break free from the trappings of
Despite the vague and nostalgic requirements, I realize that I need to create
some definitive questions on which to build from. Laurie’s syllabus mentions Garrett
Hardin’s first law of ecology, which simply states that, “Everything is connected to
everything else” (Harding, 200), I am caught on this idea of connection, and it occurs
to me that this may be the crux of the message Laurie is trying to impart onto us.
None of the species on our list of choices stands out as particularly amazing or
noteworthy, but the beauty of the simplest organism lies in the fact that by its very
existence it is an essential part of the ecosystem that we are all thriving within. I
start building off of this concept of interconnection within an ecosystem, and I think I
understand the driving reasoning in selecting a range of animals within our own specific
habitat is to force us to include ourselves as individuals within our analysis.
So, while I am looking at a Western Pond Turtle look at me looking at him looking
at me…. What I will really be thinking about is this:
Who are you, and how do you connect to your habitat?
How do turtles and humans connect with each other?
How do you play a part in or illustrate the grand connection we human beings forge
with the natural world around us?
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For it seems that you're getting,
Some hot tree stump love.
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"I shoulu ceitainly hate to be a muu tuitle! Be lives encaseu in a haiu shell into which he
withuiaws at the slightest hint of opposition. Be is wholly un- ieceptive: when anything
unfamiliai is piesenteu to him he iefuses to aigue oi even to examine: he just ietiies. Be is by
the natuie of his shell incapable of looking upwaiu: anu it is quite eviuent by the unvaiy- ing
ioutine of his uays that he consiueis a moluy-log muuuy-watei life the only sensible existence.
In some iemote geologic age, when fiist the maiine ieptiles weie ventuiing out upon the lanu,
he maue his choice. Bis scaly biotheis, ciawling painfully towaiu theii uieams of uiy lanu anu
wings anu the piomise of aii, left him smug anu content in the piimoiuial slime. Why be a muu
-By Stewait Euwaiu White!
Green is the best,
And you are wearing it well.
What a fancy guy.
FIELD NOTE: On the topic of names
From the invention of language comes the invention of names. The concept of
name is a purely human construction, but one that has become so necessary for us to
strike any familiarity with the world. You meet a new person, you say, “Hello my name
is…” You discover a new species of plant or animal, you are given the privilege of
naming it. A new baby is born, before anything else it is given a name. When an animal
enters a family as a pet or for work, it is provided with a name, so that it can be set
apart from the wild animals of its breed. The privilege of identity in the human scope
of consciousness is governed by the idea of name. Such a trifling matter in the scope
of all living things in the world, but absolutely essential in the way in which we find
ways to identify and engage with the species that share our ecosystem.
WHO ARE YOU?
The Western Pond Turtle
Species: Clemmys Marmorata
(“Western Pond Turtle” WAZA)
French: Tortue de l’Ouest
German: Pazifische Sumphfschildkröte
Spanish: Tortuga de Estangue del Pacifico
Danish: Vestlige Sumpskildpadde
(“Western Pond Turtle,” Arkive)
Some have calleu you Chelonia
oi Chelonii, anu 0iuei of Reptilia
some have known you as Testuuinata
oi the long-foigotten Cataphiacta
But best you be Testuuines
the name useu by Linnaeus
the pluial of the type Testuuo
uefines the gioup with ease.
-By Anueis u. I. Rhouin
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71513$ ;G$ ?<;AB<C$ 5<>$ G332B<C$ 5$
Why run from turtles
Just turn around and squish ‘em
Then go look for more
FIELD NOTE: The Question of language
Human beings have an inherent need to communicate, and as such, language and
written interpretations become our major sophisticated method of representing the
world around us. In the experience of writing on something we forge a connection to
it, and then bridge that connection in secondary experiences to whoever reads those
words and imparts their meaning onto others. In this way of forging connection
through literature, however, we are limited in the extent of the personal connection
we can experience as the lens the poet views his scene through binds us into a finite
frame. We can only experience what the poet has allowed us to, based on what he
feels is important, relevant, amazing, etc, therefore a scope of writing on a subject
does not so much reveal the truth of the subject, but the truth in the manner in which
the subject is seen.
How will the frame of poetry reveal the way in which human beings perceive the
Western Pond Turtle? Can the science of an organism and the poetry of its being ever
accurately cross paths? Where does the field guide end and the nature poem begin?
WHAT DO YOU LOOK LIKE?
Western pond turtles are relatively small turtles. Their
average length ranges from fifteen to twenty centimeters, and
they weigh between 448 and 1100 grams (“Western Pond
Turtle,” Washington NatureMapping Program).
or upper shell, is flat and low, and generally dark green to brown
from head to tail (“Living with Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,”
1). Darker spots or lines radiating from the centre of their
scutes may break up the decorative coloring on their carapices,
or they may be relatively patternless (Lovich, 2). The plastron,
or lower shell, is a pale yellow colour, and the leathery skin
Carapace: In reptiles, the top shell of a turtle or tortoise.
Plastron: In reptiles, the lower shell of a turtle or tortoise.
Scute: A large, bony plate or scale on the upper or lower shell of a turtle
turtles are following me
they follow me when
i don´t know which way to go
-Viki Reka Kissi
through which they breathe is a grey tone with
pale yellow appearing on the neck, chin, limbs,
forearms, and tail (Lovich, 2)
There exists a sexual dimorphism in the
appearance of the western pond turtle. The
carapice of the male is flatter and less marked
than that of the female, and the plastron takes a
more concave shape than its female counterpart
(“Western Pond Turtle,” WAZA). The male also has a lighter colored throat and a
longer tail than the female, and the cloaca extends
past the end of the shell where the female’s does not
(“Western Pond Turtle,” WAZA).
The feet of the pond turtle are webbed and
flipper-like for smooth swimming in the water
(“Western Pond Turtle.” Washington NatureMapping
Program). At the first sign of danger it will dive into
the water to escape beneath the surface, or retract its feet, head, and tail into the
shell for protection (“Western Pond Turtle.” Washington NatureMapping Program).
WHERE DO YOU LIVE?
The habitat of the western pond turtle is a freshwater wetlands-based area
with access to both land terrain and water (“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond
Turtle,” 1). The ideal habitat includes a permanent source of slow-moving water with
both deep and shallow areas, aquatic vegetation that provide cover and hiding places,
areas for basking, and access to undisturbed dry land for nesting. The best areas
would also include waterways corridors such as streams or small rivers that allow for
movement between turtle populations (“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 1).
Western pond turtles spend the majority of the year living in or near the water
source of their habitat (“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 2). As reptiles,
they have to regulate their temperature externally by absorbing the sun’s heat.
Periodically they will bring themselves out of the water to bask in the sun on raised
surfaces such as logs and rocks, or even on the elevated banks of the pond (“Living
With Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 2). If these basking sites are limited, turtles
Held inside your reptile skin
Leather and sharp nails
can actually stack themselves on top of each
other to take advantage of the space that is
available (Living With Wildlife: Western Pond
Turtle,” 2). Occasionally, it has been observed
that pond turtles may not take such a kind
approach to sharing sites, instead resorting to
aggression and violence, using an open-mouthed
lunging technique to bite the other turtle and
push it off its place on the perch (“Living With
Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 3)
During the wintertime the western pond turtle hibernates in the mud at the
bottom of the pond, or buried in dry land. Turtles may travel up to half a mile from
their home base in order to find a suitable site that will keep them insulated and
protected from winter predators until they are able to return to pond life in the
springtime (“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond Turtles,” 3). Western pond turtles
can live to be over fifty years old (“Western Pond Turtle.” Washington
NatureMapping Program), so protected hibernation sites are an important factor in
making sure that populations are able to live to their natural old age.
FIELD NOTE: The poetry of appearance.
Visual perception through eyesight provides the main method by which humans
assimilate information from their environment. From this idea it is no great leap to
understand how so much of the poetry written on or about turtles focuses on their
appearance – to forge a relationship the poet must first see the creature to identify
it, and then write about it to create a connection.
One example of the way description of visual appearance is used can be seen is
in the beautiful poem “What Turtle Blood Tastes Like,” by Jonas Lamb:
bay leaves and garlic
this thing will not dive again
the soup is tasty
In this poem Lamb describes a chilling young memory of crushing a turtle while
playing in a swamp with his friend. Although he does not refer to the western pond
turtle specifically, I feel that by the author placing the setting in an “algae bloom
swamp” I can infer that he is writing on either a pond turtle or a very similar
freshwater species, and that the description and emotion described in the poem are
In the poem Lamb refers to a childish ignorance and innocence, saying, “We
believed no one could see us”, and speaking in the language and phrasing of a child as
he says, “snappers’ll get yer toes”. This language lends the poem a certain naivety,
perhaps almost to excuse the chilling action and imminent death that is to follow. It is
We believeu no one coulu see us
beneath the willow temple
besiue algae bloom swamp
can't swim in theie
without shoes on
snappeis'll get yei toes
I was the fiist to lift iock
high above my heau
letting giavity, gou anu geology
on mossy uiamonu shell
sounu like gieen woou
anu sickly teais
when its beakeu mouth
we thiew it into the swamp
because it kept
looking into oui eyes
-By Ionas Lamb
Tough life for turtles
Your days are getting numbered
The ponds are gone, man
interesting to note that while the child is seen as the figure wielding the natural
forces of “gravity, god, and geology” for destruction and amusement, the turtle is
given a separate distinction from the child in that its descriptive language compares it
to basic elements of the natural world. His shell is not called green but “mossy”, and
the sound of the rock hitting his shell is not described in simple terms of sound but
specifically like “green wood / cracking”.
By isolating in a single stanza the imagery of the cracking of young green wood
with the imagery of “purple blood / and sickly tears”, Lamb is carefully connecting the
visuals of graphic death with the destruction of wood, or perhaps a tree, rather than
the turtle itself. This can especially be seen in his use of colors, as the green of the
wood and the purple of the blood provide a dramatic visual contrast akin to life and
death, almost as if the reader can see the purple blood spilling from the inside of the
tree itself. As a tree is a common symbol for the grand concept of nature, one could
say that the act of crushing the turtle is not seen as merely an act of very deliberate
destruction executed in the cruelty of a child, but an act of violence against Mother
Nature herself. In the act of wielding the power of nature against itself, the child in
the poem experiences a transition from a naïve world as a creature at peace with the
earth to a world of violence, death and consequences – a loss of innocence if you will.
This transition is completed at the end of the poem, where in a careless act the
children toss the crushed creature back into the swamp, simply because “it kept /
looking into (our) eyes”, reminding them of their crime.
In contrast to the turtle/Mother Nature connection created through the
visually descriptive imagery in Jonas Lamb’s poem, John Updike’s poem, “To a Box
Turtle”, uses descriptive language that paints the turtle in a slightly different light:
".poets have all been
ueeply affecteu by theii
physical enviionment. It
is obvious that. the
lanuscape must have a
poweiful influence upon
the ait cieateu within it."
(qtu. in venn, 99)
Timmy, maybe Tom
Doesn’t matter much to me
You guys look alike
Size of a small skull, anu like a skull segmenteu,
of pentagons healeu anu vainisheu to foim a uome,
you almost went unnoticeu in the meauow,
among its tall giasses anu seiiateu stiawbeiiy leaves
youi mottle of ambei anu umbei effective camouflage.
You weie making youi way thiough giave uistances,
youi foiefeet just baiely extenueu anu as uainty as uiieu
coelacanth fins, as miniatuie sea-fans, youi black nails
uecauent like a Chinese empiess's, anu youi heau
a tiiangulai snake-heau, eyes iingeu with uull golu.
I pick you up. Youi impeiious heau withuiaws.
Youi bottom plate, hingeu once, piesents a No
with its couiteous waxeu suiface, a maiquetiy
of inlaiu squaies, fine-giaineu anu tinteu
tobacco-biown anu the yellow of a pipe smokei's teeth.
What aie you thinking, thus sealeu insiue youiself.
Ny hanu must have a smell, a killei's waimth.
It holus you upsiue uown, aloft, unuignifieu,
youi leatheiy peison amazeu in the floating uaik.
Bow much puie feai can youi wiinkleu biain contain.
I put you uown. Youi tentative, stalk-benuing walk
iesumes. The manifolu jewel of you melts into giass.
Powei moweis have been ciuel to youi iace, anu cieatuies
less oinate anu unlikely have long gone extinct:
but natuie's tumults pool to foim a giant peace.
-By Iohn 0puike
Western pond turtle
I don’t know that much about you
Do no leave us yet
Where Lamb used his descriptive imagery to place the turtle as a sacrificial
figure, Updike uses words to describe the turtle that would otherwise be reserved for
priceless jewels and treasures, such as in saying “The manifold jewel of you”. In this
way he is thereby giving value to the creature but also commoditizing it as a
decorative artifact, rather than a creature we share our habitat with. This subject of
this poem is actually a box turtle, but language used gives a unique window with which
to see how the Western Pond Turtle could be viewed
Like Lamb, separates the human world from that of the natural as he reflects
on the turtle, saying, “What are you thinking, thus sealed inside yourself?” In these
words Updike is provided the visual of the turtle sealed into itself as well as sealed
away from the human world, forever inaccessible to our understanding. Updike
continues this idea of connection through disconnect, as he expounds upon the visual
details of the creature using comparisons to human artifacts. In discussing the
appearance of its shell, he says it is the “Size of a small skull, and like a skull
segmented / of pentagons healed and varnished to form a dome”. One can clearly
assume that Updike is referring to a human skull, as well as the manner in which it is
formed in fragmented pieces that heal around the brain after birth. He expounds upon
these humanesque projections later in the poem, referring to the turtle as a “leathery
person” and suggesting that the bottom plate, or plastron, is saying “No” to any would-
be attackers and intruders. As Updike continues to ascribe human characteristics to
the turtle, such as by calling it “imperious”, or “courteous”, it is almost as if
personifying the turtle with human looks and language is the only way for Updike to
create a relationship with it.
That is not to say that Updike’s descriptions are incorrect – in fact he provides
rich language for the reader to accurately visualize the delicate details of the turtle
while doing away with the dry prose of the average field guide. Rather than just
describe the turtle’s forefeet, Updike calls them “dried coelacanth fins”, and
“miniature sea-fans”, and the black nails are “decadent like a Chinese empress’s”. He
also ascribes a material value to the creature in his description, such as by alluding to
the obvious beauty and wealth of an exotic empress and providing such imagery as
“eyes ringed with dull gold”.
But it is important to note that even this descriptive imagery shows a kind of
ascribed value and awe, it still holds a very human quality to it. Updike always comes
back to the comparison of natural beauty with elements of the human world, such as in
saying that the turtles bottom plastron is “fine-grained and tinted / tobacco-brown
turtles die on land
if they die being wet too
it is something wrong
-Viki Reka Kissi
and the yellow of a pipe smoker’s teeth”. In his words, Updike illustrates the first
step in making a true connection to the natural world through keen attention to detail
and an appreciation for simple beauty, but at the same time displays a separation of
“us versus them” in the way that he can only see the beauty in relation to the human
world. One has to wonder, is it still “nature” if it is expressed only on our terms?
WHO DO YOU EAT?
The western pond turtle is an omnivorous reptile, thriving off the low plant and
animal life that exist in its wetlands habitat. Although the pond turtle will consume a
variety of species, its diet mainly consists of small insects, tadpoles, frog legs, snails,
leeches, aquatic beetles, dragonfly
larvae, small fish, fibrous algae, marshy
bulrushes, and cattail roots (“Western
Pond Turtle,” Washington NatureMapping
Program). If availability permits, the
pond turtle may also seek out
crustaceans, as well as scavenge the
meat from the abandoned carcasses of
dead animals (“Living With Wildlife:
Western Pond Turtle,” 2)
The pond turtle locates its food
using both sight and smell (“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 2). It will
cruise along the bottom of the pond and skim the banks of the wetland areas to locate
its next meal (“Living With Wildlife:
Western Pond Turtle,” 2). Once its food
is successfully obtained, the turtle will
submerge itself beneath the surface of
the water for eating, as it is physically
unable to swallow air. The turtle can
remain underwater for over sixty
minutes before it needs to resurface for
air (“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond
Eat some yummy leaves
But watch out for those bullfrogs
Or they will eat you
WHO EATS YOU?
Western pond turtles are most vulnerable to predators during the early
“childhood” life. It can take up to three years before a pond turtle “outgrows” its
predators – becoming large enough that its would-be attackers can no longer consume
it (“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 3). Bullfrogs, largemouth and
smallmouth bass, river otters, minks, and raccoons prey upon these younger turtles,
and are of especially great danger to new hatchlings because of their especially small
size (“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 4). Small land predators, such as
skunks, opossums, coyotes, red foxes, and dogs, also pose a great risk as they can
disrupt poorly hidden turtle nests. These land predators can detect the turtle urine in
the nest, and once the nest is discovered they will destroy all of the eggs within
(“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 4).
Although the pond turtle’s hard outer shell offers some protection, it lacks a
repertoire of more aggressive defense skills against larger predators. Its best
defense to avoid becoming pond dinner is to hide amongst the mud and vegetation of
the pond, using its brown and dark-green shell to camouflage itself within its habitat
(“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 4).
T0RTLE WITB u0NSB0T B0LES IN SBELL
0utsiue of the ponu, The westein ponu
tuitle's fieicest pieuatoi is 3#+#!(4;'&)(.
lonely life in pond
cold water and muddy soup
must come up for air
- Tessa Rowan
WHERE DO YOUR BABIES COME FROM?
Relative to its long life span, the western
pond turtle is not sexually mature until it is
approximately ten years old
Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 2) or grows to a
length of approximately eleven centimeters
(“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 4).
When the female lays her eggs in June or July
(“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 2),
she searches out an appropriate nesting site away
from the pond, generally open slopes with sparse grasses and southern exposure for
maximum sunlight and heat, which is essential to the health of the eggs (Lovich, 3). If
no such sites are available nearby, female turtles are known to travel up to 2 km in
order to find an appropriate nesting place (Lovich, 3). When the female has selected
the site, she turtle urinates into the ground in order to moisten it and make it easier
to dig into, and then with her hind legs she scoops out the loose soil (“Living With
Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 2). After about ten hours, enough soil has been
excavated to make a suitable space for her eggs. The completed nest is pear-shaped,
and is approximately four inches deep and one inch wide (“Living With Wildlife:
Western Pond Turtle,” 2). Once she is
satisfied with her work, the female will deposit
her eggs into the hole and then cover them
with the disrupted soil, forming a plug-shape at
the top of the nest (“Living With Wildlife:
Western Pond Turtle,” 2). The clutch can be
anywhere from one to thirteen eggs, depending
on the size of the turtle (Lovich, 4), and
occasionally turtles will “double clutch” in a
Lay eggs in the mud
Soon there will be little guys
Playing in the pond
nesting season. (Lovich, 4)
After the eggs have been incubated
by the summer sun, the eggs hatch around
early fall - September or October -
depending on the average temperature
during the incubation time. If the weather
has been warm and sunny, the turtles may
hatch in as early as 75 days, but if the
weather has been generally cooler and
shady, they may not hatch for up to 125
days. Enough warmth is essential for successful hatching, and if the eggs do not get
sufficient heat it is possible that they will not hatch at all (“Living With Wildlife:
Western Pond Turtle,” 3).
Once born, the hatchlings will stay in the nesting site for almost one year. This
is a crucial period for them, and undisturbed nesting sites are absolutely essential for
their survival (“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 3). When the hatchlings
have grown to be about the size of a quarter, they will leave the nest and begin to
venture out into the pond habitat, spending their early life in the shallow water among
the vegetation in order to conceal themselves from possible predators (“Living With
Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 3). After they have left the nest for good, the
nesting site still
remains a place
of importance in
travel back to
the site of their
hatching to lay
their own eggs
Turtles freak me out
But not that Western Pond guy
Get that guy a beer.
FIELD NOTE: I Am the Turtle
Humans are by nature egocentric. I think its natural to always want to see a bit
of ourselves reflected back into the natural world. In Updike’s poem he makes great
efforts to see images of his own world in the details of a turtle. But I think it is also
a natural desire to see fragments of our inner selves, desires, secrets, etc. mirrored
back at us as well, perhaps in an attempt to feel less spiritually alone in our ecosystem.
A simple yet exquisite example of this can be seen in the poem “Landscape with Mud
Turtle”, By Jennifer Atkinson, as she compares her inner emotional state with that of
a hibernating mud turtle, also known as a pond turtle (“Western Pond Turtle,”
I'u have thought my life at halfway woulu look
half-giown, half-gone, oi half-boin,
But tiy as I might I can't get fai enough off to see it.
Among the ieeus, the iocking cattails,
the hollow seeu pous of last summei's lilies,
I can't foi the life of me get a long view. Anu why shoulu I.
A uoe uiifts along the iise, fui fauing with the season,
stiff anu lithe by tuins÷the same one,
I know hei by the scai, I see often biowsing at the euge
wheie woous anu maish anu giaveyaiu lanus conveige.
What, I wonuei, uoes she see. By what maik
woulu she know me fiom otheis of my species.
When I was a giil I useu to lie uown
in the piesseu-giass hollows wheie the ueei hau slept.
I tiieu to uieam myself a ueei,
that woiuless, that meant-to-be-theie.
I piesseu the iough, live enus of theii antleis
against my foieheau anu wisheu.
Sometimes I’m nervous
Around turtles and reptiles
They look like dragons
0nuei the ponu muu, half-fiozen, uoimant among the uoimant,
tuitles bieathe thiough theii skins,
baiely, not quite ueau in theii shells. ueoues.
Come spiing, come stiongei light, they thaw,
gasping at ice ciacks, clawing at the slush anu scum,
self-iesuiiecteu. It happens eveiy yeai. 0ntil it uoesn't.
A ponu tuins maish, tuins meauow in no time flat:
silting in, not uiowning all the winublown seeu that falls,
letting the aluei anu pussy willow take ioot,
paiching the ponuweeus, uepoiting the tuitles,
the snails that cling to the lily paus' unueisiues,
anu the wateibiius that ate them.
A tiansfoimation befoie youi eyes.
Wheie I skateu in spiials one wintei, beech tiees giow:
Silvei foi silvei, not eveiything lost.
Wheie ieu-wingeu blackbiius flew up singing
victoiie, victoiie, caiuinals seaich the biambles foi beiiies
anu uogs off theii leashes snuffle up iabbits.
Aftei an ice stoim, I founu a wien stiff in the colu,
its iusset specks anu stiipes magnifieu,
its eyes shut, its beak like something caiveu
anu uiawn on. I closeu it in my hanus
anu, fool that I still am, blew thiough the gaps between my
-By Iennifei Atkinson
In her poem Atkinson takes the imagery of a wintertime pond habitat to
symbolize the desolation and confusion she feels in her middle age crisis. She says,
“I’d have thought my life at halfway would look / half-grown, half-gone, or half-born /
But try as I might I can’t get far enough out to see it.” She compares this feeling of
great transition in her life to being in a wintertime pond, trying to get a view of the
life thriving within it but blocked by “the reeds, the rocking cattails, / the hollow seed
pods of last summer’s lilies”. It is as if she cannot get a proper view of her future for
the evidence of the past weighing her down.
Like herself, the pond is in transition, and she uses the beautiful image of the
Get that turtle to a cab.
He's too drunk to drive.
pond turtles frozen beneath the surface of the pond – “barely, not quite dead in their
shells”– to symbolize her feelings of entrapment within herself. She has created an
image of a kind of limbo that exists simultaneously for the turtle as well as herself,
where neither is alive nor altogether dead. This words used to describe this kind of
dormancy, or hibernation, is similar to the language used to describe feelings of
depression, where one could feel caught in a low, dark place, unable to break free and
feel the light and warmth of life.
In nature, there is an inherent understanding that spring will follow winter, and
with that coming of warmth the turtles will “thaw, gasping at ice cracks, clawing at the
slush and scum”. But it appears that Atkinson is not so sure, as she question this
quality of self-resurrection embodies by the pond turtle as she wonders if nature can
be trusted so completely, saying, “It happens every year. Until it doesn’t”. Perhaps
this lack of faith in the continual seasonal life cycles is a reflection of a feeling of not
having a firm place of belonging in her habitat, or a feeling of “meant-to-be-there”.
The inevitability of the consistently transitional life cycle is seen so simply in other
animal species, where its identification to habitat and “meaning of life” is inherent
simply in its existence. But in comparing her inner emotional state with the life cycle
of a pond turtle, Atkinson illustrates how, as a human being, a lack of firm identity has
caused her to question whether or not the spring will come for her and break the ice
that is keeping her down.
To provide a comparison to Jennifer Atkinson’s connection between the yearly
hibernation cycle of a turtle and her own emotional troubles, the poem “To a Turtle”,
by Maxine McGray Miller places the turtle (perhaps, although not specifically a
Western Pond Turtle) as an embodiment of ambitious characteristics humans strive to
see in themselves:
Crazy black nails
Scratching from behind the glass
You want to get out
Tacituin tuitle, Spaiton of simple space,
0f what uo you think as you make slow pace
Acioss the humming highway's span.
So small a life to immeise
In the feiment of the 0niveise!
Yet, someway, you, too, aie akin to man.
What man of woius coulu moie assuie
That simple things will e'ei enuuie
Tho centuiies nevei pause:
Tho civilizations fall anu iise,
Nothing evei falsifies
The immoitality of uou's gieat laws.
Tenacious tuitle, bent on uestineu ways!
0nyieluing man no moie conveys
Bis faith in futuie uawns.
Woilu-bounu in spinning, sonant space,
Be lifts his iesolute, little face.
Salute the tuitle thiusting on.
-By Naxine Ncuiay Nillei
When reading this poem I cannot help but remember the classic children’s tale,
“The Tortoise and the Hare”, where the moral of the story always came in the faithful
chorus of “slow and steady wins the race!” In describing the turtle’s perilous journey
across a “humming highway’s span”, Miller puts her turtle in a similar David and
Goliath-style scene, placing it in the role of the unlikely underdog attempting to
survive amongst the dangerous powers that exist in the “ferment of the Universe”.
The fact that “So small a life” continues to persevere in its journey of mortal peril is a
testament to its slow and steady determination and its faith in the patterns of nature
that “simple things will e’er endure”.
Miller shows the connection she is making with the turtle and the admirable
characteristics it possesses as she says, “you, too, are akin to man”, meaning that such
Are you for real, man?
Giving turtles beer is a
crime? Since when? And why?
characteristics it possesses as she says, “you, too, are akin to man”, meaning that such
characteristics are essential for any animal, including the human kind, as they move
throughout their lives. She celebrates these qualities as seen in the turtle, and in this
way uses it a representation of the challenges and risks posed against us as we
attempt to persevere against forces beyond our control and move forward in our lives.
At the end it becomes almost a moral lesson à la “The Tortoise and the Hare”, as it is
clear that Miller not only admires these characteristics for herself, but also uses his
as an example for her readers, as she says, “He lifts his resolute, little face. / Salute
the turtle thrusting on.” Through her verbal illustration, Miller presents for the
reader an admirable creature that provides a dramatic contrast to the mud turtle
seen through the words of Stewart Edward White (“Why Be a Mud Turtle?”), who sees
the life of his turtle to be as small as the pond he lives in.
WHERE HAVE YOU GONE?
Western pond turtle populations have been steadily declining as a combined
result of loss of nesting habitat, loss of hatchling habitat, and the predation on
hatchlings by natural and introduced predators, including humans (“Living With
Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 1). Once plentiful, turtles began disappearing around
the 1980s, leaving few adult specimens remaining in the wild today (“Western Pond
Turtle,” Washington NatureMapping Program)
* Befinition of &YZY&4+,QP(:
(As coineu by Eiin Samuua, as Neiiiam anu
Webstei have yet to give it iecognition)
I knew a turtle
His name might have been Yertle
Childish me loved him
The area of the western pond turtles’ wetlands habitat has slowly and steadily
been reduced by outside forces. Wetlands draining practices have cleared the ponds
and marshes to make way for the intensive agriculture and urban development of the
ever-increasing population of humans (“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 1).
Invasive species have begun to interrupt the delicate ecosystem of the wetlands, and
the introduction of exotic predators, such as bullfrogs, opossums, and largemouth bass
have disrupted the population balance of the species thriving within it (“Living With
Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 1). It is important to not that the invasive species
are not isolated solely within Kingdom Animalia, however. Over the years, exotic plant
species, most likely escapees from some nearby backyard, have been creeping in
between the reeds and cattails of the wetlands and changing the behavior of the
ecosystem. Species such as the Himalayan blackberry and red canary grass have
disrupted the balance in wetlands vegetation, resulting in fewer of the floods and
fires that are necessary for soil health, and reduced quantity and quality of habitat
for animals such as the western pond turtle (“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond
Turtle,” 1). Commercial trapping of the
western pond turtle for food and pets is
also a very real threat facing the
species. Although it was more pressing
issue earlier in the 20
the western pond turtle was considered
protected wildlife in the Pacific
Northwest, it is still considered a
factor in population reduction
(“Western Pond Turtle,” Arkive)
As a result of these population threats, western pond turtle hatchlings are
scarce. Most populations consist of large, older turtles – the survivor of previous
generations that have now been left without younger turtles to replace them (“Living
With Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 1). In Oregon, where the western pond turtle is
most plentiful, populations generally will have only twenty individual turtles (and
sometimes even fewer), and exist isolated from each other and separated by barriers
of roadways, urban development, farmland, and drained wetlands. This isolation causes
inbreeding in turtle populations, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity and subsequent
increased vulnerability to disease and genetic irregularities (“Living With Wildlife:
Western Pond Turtle,” 1).
Crawl out the swamp,
You hump the stump,
Done,limp lil lump
ARE YOU EVER COMING BACK?
Between the destruction of its Wetlands habitat and the introduction of
species that have proved themselves to be dangerous, unnatural predators, the future
of the western pond turtle in the Pacific Northwest is looking rather bleak. Although
there are organizations, such as the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project (more on
this later), that focus on the protection and restoration of western pond turtle
populations (Slavens, 1), much of the conservation work can be done by the individual
residents of this land, right in their own backyards and communities.
Most of the wetlands habitat that is home to the western pond turtle is located
on private property. It is therefore up to the individual owners to take the initiative
to preserve these disappearing habitats in their natural state, making them suitable
places for pond turtle to survive (“Living With Wildlife: Western Pond Turtle,” 2).
One may even go so far as to take active control over predator populations, including
pets, and even building fences around nesting sites to make them less of a vulnerable
It is also important for individuals to pay a certain amount of attention should
they ever run into reptile wildlife. If one crosses the path of a little shelled creature
that could possibly be a western pond turtle, it is imperative that it is turned into a
local reptile rescue organization, such as Richmond Reptile Rescue, based out of
Richmond, B.C., and the Westcoast Society of Protection and Conservation of Animals,
located around British Columbia. Organizations such as these play a crucial role in
saving lost or abandoned turtles from an otherwise unfortunate ending by offering
veterinary care and then placing them in zoos or reptile-friendly adoptive households
that can care for the turtles for the rest of their long lives.
Chillin’ on a stump
You seem like you are pretty cool
Even with all that armor on
FIELD NOTE: Writing A Relationship
The last poems I discussed addressed the way in which the Western Pond
Turtle can be perceived through various lenses of poets, and how it can illustrate both
positive and negative characteristics within us. Certain poets have taken the human-
animal relationship one step further in their poetry by using the turtle as a symbol for
the relationship between humans and Mother Nature as a whole.
I pulleu my cai asiue touay, to watch a tiailei pass,
The neatest little tiailei job, compact in line anu mass,
Without an inch of wasteu space within its nifty fiame.
It hau no cai to pull it but it got theie just the same.
So peifectly uesigneu it was, to fit the uiivei's neeu,
It uiun't lack a single thing except it haun't speeu.
The uiivei was an awful uub, he uiun't seem to know
The tiaffic iules oi when to stop oi wheie he ought to go.
Be went iight thiough a Stop-sign on the wiong siue of the ioau.
Be uiun't see the gieat big tiuck with oveibuiueneu loau
Come whamming uown the highway like a feaiful juggeinaut.
Be heaiu the ioai but not in time to keep fiom getting caught.
These uotteu lines aie kinuei than some viviu woius to show
What happeneu to the tiailei, compact anu neat . . . but slow.
Some mangleu flesh, some bits of shell weie wieckage to explain
Why this uusty little *8.*%& will not cioss a ioau again.
-By Bon Blanuing
With his clever twist of imagery, Blanding is able to cleverly illustrate the
hopeless future of the turtle amongst the destructive machines of human civilization.
By using the extended metaphor of the turtle-as-truck, he brings the animal out of
the realm of “natural world” and applies the expectations of human life onto the animal
species. By playing with such expectations, such as the idea that everything moving on
whose shell is a hermit cave,
life can be fragile.
the highway must be a vehicle with a human driver, he opens the way for the reader to
fill in the blanks in his distanced language. When he says, “neatest little trailer job,”
or “nifty frame,” we are clearly supposed to assume that this is a truck of some sort,
and then further begin to criticize the supposed driver’s shoddy driving skills. When
Blanding writes, “The driver was an awful dub, he didn’t seem to know / The traffic
rules or when to stop or where to go”, the poem begins to read almost like some sort
of “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” warning, paving the way for the images of guilt and
death that will inevitably color the ending.
To Blanding’s credit, he manages to leave out the twist ending until the
very last line, using instead a series of dots and spaces as a visual for the “mangled
flesh” and “bits of shell” that the turtle scattered in a scene of destruction along the
highway. By using language that would not be out of place in the description of a
human car wreck, Blanding is illustrating how out of place the turtle is in our world of
highways and semi-trailers, leaving the reader with a pinch of regret as they realize
that it is, of course, we who have made him a stranger in his own habitat, ensuring that
he “will not cross a road again.”
who we name
you caiiy the weight of the woilu
on youi backs.
Fiom youi buiiows,
the mountains iise
anu the seas ieceue,
the giant mammals uisappeai
anu the conuois soai less,
the two-leggeu ones aiiive.
Foi 1u,uuu yeais
they nameu you sacieu ÷
honoieu youi piesence,
Ponds are so much fun!
Look at you swimming around
Ker-plunk! In you go
Then, the two-leggeus changeu.
The new two-leggeus
no longei nameu you
foi no ieason
anu uiu not honoi
They biought new foui-leggeus
in gieat numbeis
who ate youi foou
anu tiampleu youi buiiows anu nests.
that toie the lanu
ciusheu youi families anu homes.
Fiom youi buiiows,
Some two-leggeus giew in wisuom
Anu began to watch
Anu to caie.
They leaineu about youi lives
Anu piotecteu youi homes
They moveu the foui-leggeus
Anu kept machines away.
they name you sacieu
Anu you, ancient ones,
Who caiiy the weight of the woilu
on youi backs
Fiom youi buiiows,
-By uiace NcLaughin
See, once upon a time
There once was a turtle named Bill
He was a cool guy
Unlike Blanding’s human-centered universe, McLaughlin is able to spin a poetic
universe where the turtle (or in her poem specifically, the tortoise), reigns in a world
that revolves around the forces of nature as opposed to civilization. Although
McLauglin is using referring to a tortoise in her poem, one can still take her imagery as
an example of the way in which a western pond turtle can be seen as a sacred being
above the control of humans.
She begins her poem with the single syllable of “You-“, thereby immediately
putting the subject spotlight and the focus of the poem on the tortoise. She follows
this directive beginning with the reference to a common Native American creation
myth (Sale, vii-viii), as she says, “you carry the weight of the world / on your backs.”
In these words, McLaughlin immediately she offers the tortoise reverence and
respect, not simply as an ancient being, but almost making it into the nature version of
a Christ-like figure, holding all of the world’s problems, watching over all as time
passes over in the tangible measurements of mountains and seas. With its inherent
sacredness, the tortoise “watched / … the two-legged ones arrive,” and disrupt the
balance of animal and earth with violence and ignorance. She writes, “The new two-
leggeds / no longer named you / sacred / but killed / for no reason / and did not honor
/ tortoise.” It is interesting to note here that humans are written in using the same
language as animals, “two-leggeds” and “four-leggeds,” and it this way McLaughlin is
able to remove the human/animal hierarchy that has dominated the previous poems.
She continues this in the manner that she personifies the “machines” that “tore the
land”, thereby making it seem that people are no better than dogs and tractors when
they are acting in ways that serve to damage the natural life around them.
In her poem McLaughin tells the common story of ignorant human against sacred
animal, destructive civilization against harmonious nature. However, by continually
using distancing pronouns and monikers for the humans, such as “they” and “the two-
leggeds”, while using personal directives for the tortoise in the way that it is
continually addressed as “you”, she is able to illustrate an inner connectivity to the
natural world that is generally absent from the previous works, however they may
strive for it.
McLaughlin ends her poem with a full-circle conclusion, displaying how the
humans “grew in wisdom”. The tortoise, however, is still simply watching, continuing to
carry the wisdom of life and the natural world that he has held all along, the wisdom
that has escaped the ignorant humans. “From your burrows, / You watch.”
There used to be lots
In the marsh behind my house
Last Spring I saw three
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Turtles: sweet creatures
Salt water swims, sandy beach
You taste good in soup.
PUT YOUR HANDS IN THE DIRT
AND FEEL YOUR HABITAT
Crazy armoured shell
Your home, and your protection
Everywhere you go
EXPLORATION: A WALK IN THE WOODS
I pick my way along the trail, choosing my path alongside the errant tree
roots, noting how they snake through the soil in a perpetual search for a better place
to attach themselves. The weather is still determined to call itself summer, but there
is a chill under the shadow of the trees. Crossing my arms around body, I am
thinking I should have brought a better jacket.
Brittany is walking to my right, and she draws my attention as she stops to
point out a Red Vine Maple, her species of focus. I listen with only half my attention,
letting my mind wander to the rest of the woodlands surrounding us. I am quite sure
that I am in no danger of encountering my pond turtle here, but that does not leave
me uninterested in our current class field trip. In fact, these woodland areas around
us, also known as Pacific Spirit Regional Park, hold quite a special place for me. I
used to live close to here – just down the hill at Alma Street – and a few evenings
each week I would don my running gear and lace up my dirty shoes, and push myself
up the hill until my heart felt like it was going to burst from my chest. I would run,
never stopping, until I reached the Blanca street plateau and could stealthily
disappear through the hedges into the trail network of the Park. It was here that my
real run began.
There was something about the woods – it was unexplainable, but I could run
forever. Maybe it was the dank smell of the wet soil, or the perpetual dusky light
under the branches, but I was never tired as long as I was running on the trails,
flowing like veins bleeding through the body of the forest. I loved how the sound of
my foot hitting the earth made a muffled squishy sound, so much more soothing than
the definitive pounding that occurs on pavement. I felt some sort of a sense of
accomplishment when I could feel the flecks of mud and needles that kicked
themselves up and attached themselves to the backs of my legs, staining my socks
and shoes in an effort to be remembered. When I compare my filthy sneakers to the
pristine pairs that sparkle on the treadmills at the Fitness Worlds and Kitsilano
Workouts, I feel even though our mileage
remains on par I have accomplished
something far greater. When I pass other
runners on the trail, there is a moment
where we acknowledge with a half-smile
and nod the mutual recognition of this
secret space we are sharing – our place in
this habitat, close enough to the
boulevard of 16
that I can hear the
engines change gear, but far enough
away that it doesn’t seem real.
I see one of these eco-athletes coming up
behind us. I know that to her we are not
real – simply intruders on her moment of
You look like an old man
Like my grade seven math teacher
Sad eyes, wrinkled neck
peace. As she disappears into the branches, I am
suddenly aware of the size of the trees around us,
and that aside from the Red Vine Maple I am
completely ignorant of their species. We veer off the
path somewhat, and Laurie motions for us to stop.
Toktam, the forestry graduate student who has
graciously lent us her time and expertise for the day,
has stopped in the centre of a clearing, bracing
herself against her shovel. She begins to introduce
the ecosystem of the woods to us, talking about the
symbiotic relationships that complete up the
efficient life cycles taking place around us. She
mentions the Cedar and Douglas Fir trees (whose
names I mentally file away for later retrieval),
noting the decaying stumps that give nutrients to
the new species of plant life growing out from it.
These trees are formidable in size, but I am surprised
to find out that they are hardly the Old Growth I had
assumed them to be, and I feel the city girl in me exposing a bit of her ignorance.
I notice how comfortable Toktam looks in these surroundings. She leans on
her shovel with a sense of ease and familiarity as she begins to press the point into
the earth. After a series of mechanical motions, the shovel indentations begin to
take the shape of a square plot of land, perhaps two feet by two feet in area. Toktam
lays the shov el down, and with he r bare hands she peels away the top layer of the
soil to expose to us the hidden workings of the forest biome. She brushes away twigs
and dry leaves like friends, covering her hands in dirt. Someone points out her
obvious comfort with the soil, and she giggles, saying she has probably made “around
a thousand” of these soil plots. I have a hard time understanding why anyone would
want to dedicate their life to the study of dirt, but somewhere in my brain I make the
connection that this soil is to Toktam what the Western Pond Turtle is now to me: the
natural matter through which she strikes her relationship to her habitat. I am
suddenly fascinated by how I imagine she sees the world. I see “the woods”, but she
sees a series of interconnected soil cross-sections and biochemical make-ups. I envy
her deep knowledge of the ground we stand on.
I watch as her fingers keep working through the dirt, pointing out the depth of
the layers and nutrient levels, and identifying evidence of fires extinguished long
ago. She is familiar with the dirt, but respectful, carefully making sure not to disrupt
the earth any more than is necessary. I am captivated by how much of the history of
the park is available simply through this small plot of land. Like breaking the
surface of a pond, so many layers are hidden beneath the surface – invisible to the
unobservant person, but thriving all the same. I think in our attempts to discover
the world around us, it is a common mistake that we forget to look down and notice
Living in the mud
Soaking up the hot sun’s rays
Not a bad life
where life emerges into being. We dismiss it as the dirt beneath our feet, or the
cushioning for our expensive running shoes, but the soil carpeting our dear world
makes up the cradle from which all life is borne and absorbed back into. It holds the
energy of life, and the power of history.
I see this love and respect in the way that Toktam touches the dirt. And when
our time is up and we begin to turn away, ready to make our way back into the easy
symmetry and right angles of classroom study, I notice the delicate way in which she
returns the plot of land to its rightful place. She smoothes the edges and stamps the
corners flat, satisfied only when she has left no trace of our intrusion into the
Upon re-emergence onto the chaos of 16
avenue, I know I will remember that
the soil cushioning my feet has a story.
FIELD NOTES: Adventures at the Vancouver Aquarium
As my ongoing research has led me to realize, the current state of the Western
Pond Turtle population in British Columbia (read: all but completely extinct) has made
any attempts at “backyard” exploration rather futile. But yet I still feel that a face
to face meeting with the little guy, however I choose to get it, is essential to the
scope of this project. Not unlike my distrust of biographers who write their works
without ever having introduced themselves to their subject, I do not believe any being
can truly connect to another through the confining pixels of Google Images.
Something altogether independent of research and
information analysis occurs when two creatures meet
each other eye to eye, and it is this precise moment
of understanding, connection, whatever you choose to
call, it that I continue to patiently seek with my
Sometime in the end of last August (long
before the pond turtle had become such an integral
part of my everyday life), I purchased on a whim a
season’s pass to the Vancouver Aquarium. At the time
I had no idea what a fortunate coincidence it would
-B. L. Bavis, fiom Boney on the Boin (Bavis, 111)
Save the western turtle
There is nothing he’s done to you
He just wants to live
be, as now I realized that I held in my hand the all-access pass to the greater scope
of British Columbia’s aquatic wildlife – obviously not in their “natural” habitat, but
perhaps one as closely replicated as is possible for an urban aquarium of this sort.
Laminated card in hand, confident in my quest, I stroll up to the front counter where I
immediately find myself face to face with another species of wildlife in its habitat.
The name on her crooked tag reads “Amanda”, and her figures leans expertly against
the counter as she examines her delicate press-on nails with a scrutiny that few girls
of this age reserve for matters beyond beauty. As I make my presence known, she
interrupts her conversation with her fellow shiny-haired employee and greets me with
a friendly smile, which soon fades to mild confusion as I pose to her my question of
where in this aquatic labyrinth I might be able to find the Western Pond Turtle.
She confesses that she does not know the reptiles very well, but that we do
have a sea turtle and its really big and pretty and its, like, in the tank with the sharks
and she could totally show me if I wanted. I answer that it is not, in fact, the sea
turtle that I am looking for, although I am sure it is very impressive to the general
tourist and elementary school visitor population, but instead a small brown pond-
dwelling turtle, about the size of one’s hand, native to the Pacific Northwest. For a
moment her attention rises from her nails and her face reveals surprise and
excitement that there are actually turtles in her city. I gently correct here “are” to
“were”, but it goes unnoticed as she directs me into the “British Columbia” hallway.
Perhaps this has seemed like unnecessary description, for at first glance my
front-desk musings with cheerful Amanda have little to do with pond habitat or the
Western Pond Turtle as a species. However, as I walked into the darkened hallway to
cruise the glowing tanks, I could not help but think what a strange thing it was that I
have spent several weeks now totally immersed in the study of the pond turtle,
lamenting over its steadily disappearing population, questing for a face to face
interview, only to realize that most people have no idea this animal exists, or perhaps
once existed, in their own backyard. On top of that, not only are people not aware of
the pond turtle, they are equally if not more ignorant of its disappearance as a result
of its habitat destruction from human interference. Although it occurred to me in
speaking with Amanda that perhaps it was not so much ignorance as simply ecological
apathy. Lacking the flashy grandeur and tropical trendiness of the sea turtle, the
western pond turtle is hard-pressed to garner the same media attention as his marine
peer. Competition is fierce in the world of conservation, where the sad eyes of a
beluga tugging on your heartstrings can translate to millions of dollars in funding. It’s
true that perhaps to the uneducated eye, the pond turtle doesn’t really have it all
Reptile, they call you
Cold blood and dragon-like skin
A creature of myth
going on in the looks department, and he probably isn’t going ever going to be one of
the endangered species “guest soaps” hocked at Body Shop locations around the world.
But still, I find it a terribly sad reality that the average person in the Pacific
Northwest, even one working at an aquarium specializing in local species, knows more
about a turtle from Australia than one in her backyard.
Back in the Vancouver Aquarium, I begin to cruise the hallway lined with local
aquatic curiosities – the bored looking squid suctioned to the side of his tank, tangles
of kelp, about a zillion sea stars – but my pond turtle remained elusive. I inquire to one
of the red polo-shirted employees, and they politely sent me, through a series of
convoluted directions, directly into the “Amazon” section, of all places. There were, I
grant you, a variety of reptilian species dwelling in that muggy corner, including a red
speckle-backed freshwater tortoise. But nothing resembling the western pond turtle.
Could it be, I wonder, that nobody in this place even knows what I am talking about?
It hasn’t been that long since the pond turtle was rather common in this area; have we
come so far that we don’t even remember it anymore? Rather frustrated by my dead
ends so far, I marched my way back into the British Columbia hallway to demand
I accost the next red-shirted employee patrolling the tanks, and deciding that
he looked enough the part of “trustworthy weathered researcher” I posed to him my
question: Are there any pond turtles in this aquarium? His answer, although
discouraging, was at least definitive: No there were not. But would I like to see the
sea turtle? It was right around the corner and very big and its pretty green shell
would match my pretty green eyes oh yes it would… (Well, not exactly like this, but you
know what I mean)
I politely declined. Not that it wasn’t as grand as everyone claimed, but it just
felt like I would be rooting for the snobby
cheerleader in a made-for-TV-movie
where the plain but charming underdog
was supposed to prevail.
I always root for the underdog.
So small and so slow
I could have crushed you to death
If I didn’t look
FIELD NOTE: Widening the Lens to See the Whole Story
The pieces of writing I have come across thus far, both poetic and scientific, have
supplied me with “lenses” through which I have started to understand the way in which
the western pond turtle is seen and understood by the human species. But this is only
the beginning of the story. According to the first law of ecology, which states,
“everything is connected to everything else,” (Hardin, 200) no species exists on this
planet in isolation. So in order to truly understand what the western pond turtle is all
about and continue in my search for him, I feel that I first need to understand how he
and I share the space within our ecosystem of planet Earth. It is necessary to stand
back and “widen the lens,” if you will, in order to see the pond turtle as an active part
of his habitat and gain some slice of truth and awareness as to what kind of influence
we, as human beings, have on it. For a moment, I want to move past the limits places
upon my vision by the boundaries of the written word and forge a more primary
connection to the turtle itself through the space we share with it.
FIELD NOTE: Investigations In Woodward Library (Going Where No Arts
Student Has Gone Before)
My search for my brown-shelled buddy has led me to push the boundaries of my
own familiar UBC habitat into very foreign territory: The Scary Science Library (also
known as Woodward). A loyal Arts student to the end, I rarely find myself of the
“creative learning space” of the Buchanan buildings. To find myself so far out of
foreign territory can be a slightly nerve-wracking experience.
I left class several minutes early today in order to make this journey, as Joanna
had helpfully suggested that I check out a series of government pamphlets stored in
the reference section that catalogued and provided extensive bios on “animals of
concern” in Canada. It was a vague lead, but it was all I had. Maybe if this underdog
turtle wasn’t popular enough to earn a tank in the aquarium, I hoped at least it might
have garnered some notice from the Canadian Wildlife Service.
After several unsuccessful search attempts with several librarians, I did in fact
locate this elusive stack of government publications that Joanna was referring to.
Titled “Hinterland Who’s Who”, written by the Canadian Wildlife Service and
You were once a pet.
I used to tap on the glass.
I am really sorry.
published by Environment Canada, these pamphlets provided an extensive catalogue of
animals of concern. Beginning at 1995 and sifting through to the present, I found:
Black duck, ruffed grouse, American robin, black-capped chickadee, downy
woodpecker, killdeer, lesser snow grouse, murres, raccoon, arctic fox, chipmunk,
cougar, coyote, eastern gray squirrel, grizzly bear, muskox, North American eagle,
sharp skinned hawk, cooper’s hawk, Northern goosehawk, white-tailed deer, beaver,
pacific salmon, blue jay, cassin’s anklet, great horned owl, marbled murrelet,
semipalmated sandpiper, snowy owl, wood duck, woodchuck, greater snow goose, bald
eagle, osprey, swift fox, black bear, caribou, Canada lynx, loggerhead shrike, red fox,
whooping crane, American goldfinch, bison, canvasback, evening grosbeak, lemming,
loons, northern gammet, ptarmigan, purple martin, striped skunk, redhead, ruby-
throated hummingbird, American goldfinch, bison, bufflehead, piping plover, Atlantic
puffin, mallard, Atlantic bluebird, harlequin duck, moose, tundra swan, ring-billed gull,
peregreen falson, shorebird, herring gull, polar bear, wolf.
68 pamphlets total; 42 birds; 25 mammals; 1 fish; 0 reptiles; 0 turtles
0 Western Pond Turtles
Hope is not yet entirely extinguished as I uncover one other pamphlet in the stack
titled “Endangered Species in Canada”. Published in 1999, this pamphlet gives a
specific report on the status of Canadian endangered species as assessed by the
Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). According to
COSEWIC, animals are ranked as follows:
EXTINCT: species no longer exist
EXTIRPATED: species no longer exist in the wild in Canada, but they occur elsewhere
ENDANGERED: species are facing imminent extinction or extirpation
THREATENED: species are likely to become endangered if limiting factors are not
VULNERABLE: species are of special concern because of characteristics that make
them particularly sensitive to human activities or natural events.
I always think tropical
Well what do ya know.
Five different species of turtles appear in the “Endangered Species in Canada”
Leatherback Turtle. Endangered
Blanding’s Turtle. Threatened
Spiny Softshell Turtle. Threatened
Spotted Turtle. Vulnerable
Wood Turtle. Vulnerable.
(Western Pond Turtle. Once again, nowhere to be found.)
I am thoroughly disappointed, and I feel quite let down by the Canadian Wildlife
Service. I feel that somehow by omitting my turtle from their list of “species of
concern”, they are somehow not doing their job. Their job is all about being concerned
about animals at risk, and my animal deserves concern! I am trying to find solace at
this dead end by attempting to find meaning in its void, but I do not yet know what it
is. Suddenly the Woodward library is depressing. Another dead end.
FIELD NOTE: One Man’s Swamp is Another Turtle’s Kingdom
As it turned out, Woodward Library was not quite the dead end I first saw it to
be. Although the ancient filing cabinets of forgotten relics from the print era proved
to hold nothing of value for the western pond turtle, I was able to gain some valuable,
albeit dusty, information about its habitat (or should I say, OUR habitat) of the
wetlands ecosystem. Although I am still rather annoyed that no one is paying the
western pond turtle any specific attention in the British Columbia area, I am pleased
to see that his home is at least getting noticed…
What Are Wetlands?
Environment Canada describes wetlands as “areas that are seasonally or
permanently covered by shallow water and areas where the water table is close to or
at the surface, and there are water-saturated soils and water-tolerant or water-loving
plants. They are transition zones between land and water.” (“Working Around
Living sweet pond life
Splashing around in the grass
With your cool pond friends
By the looks of them, one would hardly know
that the wetlands are one of the most valuable and
threatened ecosystems in the world, and may be
one of the only remaining “wild” spaces. (“Working
Around Wetlands”, pg 1) Generally hiding behind
more generic names, such as “pond,” “swamp”, “that
gross muddy area”, (2) few people understand what
great complexity exists in this habitat. In Canada,
“wetlands are everywhere. They are found along
the shores of oceans, lakes, rivers, dotted across the prairies, and in countless,
poorly-drained depressions in the Canadian shield…. (and) river deltas and estuaries
near the shallow bays and inlets along our coasts.” (2, pg 1)
Why Should We Care About the Wetlands?
“Wetlands are…among the habitats richest in species.” (“Biodiversity” n/p) They
provide a unique habitat to a range of species that require the specific combination of
water and terrain for feeding, breeding, and nesting (“Wetlands, 2), such as
amphibians, reptiles, mammals, migratory birds, waterfowl, and fish. (“Working Around
Wetlands”, 3) Wetlands areas are also important in the natural processes of clean
water filtration, nutrient cycling, and flood control. (“Great Lakes Fact Sheet,” 9) In
a sense, a wetland area “acts like a giant sponge” (“Wetlands” 2) as it soaks up excess
rain-water and snowmelt and releases it during drier seasons, preventing the
potentially devastating effects of flood an drought (“Wetlands” 2)
Wetlands provide huge value and benefits at little or no cost to human society
(“Great Lakes Fact Sheet”, 8), but unfortunately, as stated by Environment Canada
Pond turtle is so fly
And although he is sorta shy
He's a damn good guy
themselves: “society has generally only realized the benefit of wetland services after
they have disappeared.” (“Great Lakes Factsheet,” 2)
Why Are the Wetlands Disappearing?
Wetlands areas are disappearing at an alarming rate due to the disruptive
actions of human interference (“Great Lakes Factsheet,” 3). Many people regard
wetlands areas as mere wasteland, and set out to drain them or fill them in to make
the space habitable for humans. (“Wetlands,” 2) In dredging ponds, draining or filling,
burning or cutting surrounding weeds and brush, building roads, highways, docks,
wetlands areas may be permanently destroyed and made inhabitable for the wildlife
that previously thrived there. (“Wetlands,” 3) Pollution in the air and water has also
become major concerns, as pesticides, weed killers, and other toxic wastes leak from
the soil and take a toll on the plants and animals. (“Wetlands,” 3)
It seems that hardly anyone raises their hand to complain when the wetlands
are leveled to make room for the latest pre-planned housing development – the kind
that makes billboard promises of health, wealth, and happiness to all who are lucky
enough to cross their thresholds. I suppose that in this time of
“more/bigger/better/now” it is easy to forsake what seems to be a trifling amount of
land for the greater good of the family in the short term. But decisions for the short
term are necessarily short sighted. In the case of a wetland area, the economic
benefit of draining or filling it to build housing developments is a trifling matter
compared to the long term economic losses that will be sustained from the elimination
of natural water filtration systems, erosion control, and sediment trapping, to name a
few. (“Great Lakes Fact Sheet,” 9)
In water and land
Crawling in and then back out
Breathing like magic
At Walden Pond
This is my pond, not mine to own but mine
To know the greatness of – to see the chill,
Gray ghost of dawn evolving from the water;
Or so it seams, and then the sunlit fog
Has curled its vapors from my sight: the pond
Lies new and silver-blue, shaking the sun’s
Light in my face.
Was that the loon’s loud laugh,
Or was the wilderness once crying out
To me? Sometimes I hear; but I don’t know
What I have heard (my thoughts were far away),
And then my mind rings clear – but not enough;
Perhaps there is a sound in silence too.
Yet never mind – the pond is fashioned from
The dawn into the day; ducks dive in depths
Of ooze and quack contentedly. I listen –
But there’s too much to hear, to hear a thing.
This is my pond, not mine to slip the sleek
Fish from, though I do at times. The line
I use seems but a cord that fixes me
To nature. Such a tie needs careful tending.
Or the small hold it has may loose itself
And at some superficial joy let go
The small hold altogether.
The day fades into night – and soon the pond
In evening lies, a breadth of burnished fire
With scattered flames against the sky in gold
And green and mauve. And then the gold is gone,
And silver-calm and silhouette have come:
My pond now has more beauty than I see
With mortal eyes. A still merganser slides
His glassy way to sheltered rest – so I
To mine, though I would gladly stay and wait.
-Henry David Thoreau (qtd. In Friesen, 2-3)
Western pond turtle
You look happy in your pond
Soon it will be farm
“… there lay the transparent pond
already calm and full of hope as in a
-Henry David Thoreau (qtd. In Friesen, 2)
“There are those to whom place is unimportant,
But this place, where sea and fresh water meet,
-Theodore Roethke (qtd. In Vanderbilt, 187)
Hey turtle buddy
Why are you trying to cross
This busy roadway?
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that little turtle
so lean, so green, what you mean?
I'm hungry now!
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FIELD NOTE: If This is Your Land, Then Where Are You?
Range maps for the Western Pond Turtle from Southern British Columbia to Baja
Little green machine!
Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! All your food gone.
Taken by big fish
FIELD NOTE: NOAH’S PET ARK
Personal Interview with Graham White, Friday November 6th
A few days ago I found myself hanging
out with my friend Craig, who has been playing
the part of academic advisor, confidante, and
shoulder to cry on in frustration during the
scope of this project. On this particular day
I was expressing my concern over the fact
that my “local species” was in fact no longer
local at all, and I was missing out on the
opportunity to truly experience it first hand.
In talking to my other classm ates who were
wrapping their projects around the idea of
“multi-sensory experience”, I felt I was at a real disadvantage because my species was
simply not available to me. At this point Craig, generally the bearer of brilliant ideas,
jumped in with the suggestion that I should buy the little miniature pond turtles from
the pet store. Although they would not exactly replicate the experience of seeing my
true species (which is rarely found in the wild, much less a pet store), it would give me
good way to personally try and create that “connection experience” through
documenting its care and behavior.
I was intrigued by this idea. I knew the turtles he was talking about –the
reptile version of the goldfish starter pets – so I set out in my quest to find one. I
found myself at the threshold of Noah’s Pet Ark, the pet destination of the West
Broadway area, where families and lonely college kids flock regularly to pick our their
new best friend. Opening the door, I was immediately hit with the musty hot smell of
wood chips and aquarium slime that so characterizes pet stores. I perused the aisles
of tanks – mostly fish and small mammals, with a few birds adding to the steady din in
the background. There were sparkly fish, big fish, ugly fish, decorative rocks in six
different colors, floating plastic plant life (just about everyway possible to make your
pet feel more at home in captivity), but no pond turtles to be found.
I located Graham White, the owner and proprietor of Noah’s Pet Ark, and
inquired about how exactly one would go about buying a miniature pond turtle. He
looked rather surprised by my question, and replied (with a mildly horrified look) that
he “does not sell pond turtles.” I inquired as to why this was the case, as I definitely
Little pond turtle
Keep trying to save yourself
I believe in you
remember some childhood friends having turtles as pets, so I assumed it could not be
too unusual a request. He went on to explain to me that it was simply his personal
policy, as the majority of people who come in to purchase pond turtles for their
curious children are simply not prepared to handle the long term care they require.
When little Mikey, Sally, or Michelle grows out of her turtle pet and the parents no
longer care to clean the aquarium, the turtles are most often released into the wild,
where more often than not, they meet their untimely demise on the highways or under
lawnmowers. He paused for a moment, clearly wanting to drive home his next point,
and went on to tell me that turtles are the number one abandoned pets in the Greater
Vancouver Area. But regardless of the turtle’s safety after it has been set free,
allowing non-native turtles (as pet turtles must be by law) to enter into the habitat can
have unsettling and potentially devastating effects on the ecosystem, for example
taking already scarce habitat and food sources from the turtles native to the area.
I immediately felt guilty, as I saw myself as one of the people who might have
bought their creature on a whim, without stopping to consider the commitment that I
would be making to its long life span. But I was newly curious, however, about the firm
rules of the reptile pet business. I suppose having never had pets growing up (allergies
and nomadic lifestyle preventing), I never gave much though to what was “allowed.” I
asked Graham, “If you do not sell non-native turtles, what about species that are
native to this area?”
Graham replied that provincial legislation prevents native species to be sold as
pets. As so many do end up being released into the wild, he tells me, it completely
disrupts all efforts of population control and stabilization. In order to have come
control over the species growth, predator control, and habitat needs, they need to
know that all wild turtles came from natural breeding in the wild, not Timmy’s broken
terrarium. In other words, Graham finished, pets stay in the home, and native species
stay in the wild.
Although I didn’t find my miniature pond turtle, I did not leave Noah’s Ark
feeling discouraged. Thanks to Graham, I was able to sidestep the trap of being an
unfit turtle owner and further contributing to the current plight of abandoned
reptiles in the area.
As I review the situation, it’s looking like I might have exhausted my resources
in the Greater Vancouver Area. I need to expand my search beyond my immediate
habitat and focus on where the turtle actually is – not where he is supposed to be,
even if that takes me far from my home and my comfort zone
Bullfrogs, kids, and guns
Better hide in the mud now
Bad day for turtles
EXPLORATION: ART IMITATING LIFE/LIFE IMITATING ART
I am late, as usual. I have
mistimed the busses, and I am afraid
that I will miss the opening of our
field trip to the Vancouver Art
Gallery. I am not yet entirely sure
how this particular adventure will
relate to our projects in progress, so I
feel this necessary need to soak up
instruction wherever it is available.
The #3 bus strains to roll me through
the less savory areas of downtown,
and I feel that I do not have the
luxury of red lights and stop signs.
We finally pull up to the last
stop, and after a few blocks on foot I
find myself in front of the Vancouver
Art Gallery. Its location directly at the heart of the downtown districts has given it
the identity of a kind of symbol that speaks to the intersection of culture that takes
place here. Inside, cherished works of high art are displayed with the respectful
sincerity of vaulted ceilings and hushed voices, while on the front entrance steps
teenage stoners kill time in between half hearted attempts at skateboard tricks. By
the side of the fountain at Hornby street, the bicycle couriers double-fist coffee and
cigarettes on a five minute break, while at the back steps the latest group of
grassroots activists attempts to rally the tourist crowd around their current cause.
On any given day, this odd cultural cross-section thrives with these personalities as
necessary ingredients for the final result. They are an urban symbiotic relationship
if you will, sharing lighters and jokes as they shift in and out of the landscape. I
catch the eye of a courier friend of mine, waving as he mounts his bike and rides
away. As I cross the doorway into the art gallery lobby I consciously remember to
include myself in this urban ecosystem.
The gallery smells cold and sterile, and I hurriedly deposit my bag and run up
the stairs and quickly as possible to catch up with the class. I find Laurie on the
third floor, the perfect picture of calm as he stands before a large print of maple
trees covered in snow. I don’t know why, but I feel like this is exactly where I
expected to find him. I think he is a bit amused by my flustered state, and he cracks
a half-smile while relaying to me the orders of the day. I am to be an art critic for the
day, he tells me, and select a piece that strikes me in such a way that I might be able
to see something in it that all others would miss. Afterwards we will regroup and
“teach” our pieces to the rest of the class. In the telling it seems to be such a simple
task, but by this time I have come to some realization of the depth of connection that
Laurie is trying to obtain from us in these field trips, and it requires a very
You open up wide
Snapping your mouth at nothing
Just feeble attempts
deliberate stretching of the mind, spirit, and imagination.
I leave Laurie to his musings on maple saplings and make my way through the
labyrinth of rooms to find the piece that will “speak to me”. The collection they are
currently showing is exquisite. I can easily see how they should elicit inspiration
from us, seeing as they are mostly representations of habitat as it illustrates the
connected relationship between man and nature. I heard once that Gary Snyder was
inspired by Japanese paintings of American habitat landscapes. I have no idea
whether this is true or not, but I can easily see how poetry could arise from these
visual expressions of space. I am lost for choice, and our time is limited. I pass by
early Canadian watercolors, bright oil images of triumphant trappers, humble
charcoal Emily Carr sketches depicting criss-cross landscapes of totem poles…. But
finally I do select, with just enough time to spare to rejoin the group downstairs for
our self-directed “art class”.
One by one we lead each other back through
the gallery space, stopping on each of the pieces
chosen for discussion so that we can impart its
hidden knowledge to the rest of the class. Ally takes
us to a lush and grandiose painting of a waterfall
encased within an overly gilded frame, and points out
the tiny spectators painted into the shadows as they
overlook the bubbles of oil foaming at the bottom.
Derrick leads us across the room to a less imposing
image of a forest scene on a hillside, and with a
manner of quiet authority he points out the areas of
new growth that interrupt the ancient trees. I am
amazed at how he can so clearly see such distinct
levels of forest age through the brushstrokes. As
each person steps up to speak about their piece, I
notice how our personal backgrounds and current
species research have leaked into our analysis of these works and shape the lens
through which we perceive the scene.
One by one we carry on, and I begin to feel a pattern emerging. It may only be
an over-reaching perception in an attempt to stretch for the desired connection, but
I am convinced that as we have travelled through the rooms our chosen works of art
have illustrated the modern history of the perception of man’s relationship to
“wilderness”. We began at the tiny figures first overcome by the power of the nature,
then the first attempts at harnessing its power as a resource. We experienced the
taming of nature for recreation, and at last the final death of the “wild” in the face of
“civilization”. And as we arrive at the end of this life cycle/gallery tour, I am
overcome by the feeling that the work of art that I have chosen provides a beautiful
and poignant visual ending to this relationship. I guide the class up to the third
floor, through room after room and finally into the smallest corner in the very back
of the gallery. Unlike the rest of the pristine whitewashed walls, the walls in this
Hey Turtle! Buddy!
I would pat you on the back
But you can’t feel it.
corner have been painted a dusky charcoal grey. Single lights exist to illuminate
each one of their featured artworks, setting them in dramatic relief from the
I stand before my selected piece: a rather small photograph in a series
depicting the remains of a decrepit work shed. We strain to see the details in the
picture; the darkness in the room makes it difficult to pick out the outlines of the
rusted chains folded over the rotting wood of the workbench. I trace my finger
around the edges, pointing out all the details that had stood out to me when I looked
at it the first time. Gradually it comes to a rest at the bottom left as it points out a
tiny folded shape in the corner. I myself had stood before this photograph for
several minutes before I saw it: a delicate vine of ivy curling itself around the rotting
bench, interrupting the decay with striking green.
I continue talking to the rest of the class, explaining that when I first noticed
the fragment of plant, I saw it not as a random part of the decaying shed, but a very
deliberate representation of a slice of nature fighting back from the boundaries of
“civilization” that have been forced upon it. Looking upon that picture, I saw what a
temporary joke that mankind is to Mother Nature. We build structures and
infrastructures and borders and boundaries, all to hold her at bay... and for a time it
seems that we are successful. But the moment we abandon our place in a landscape,
she will once more rise up and consume all evidence of our existence. Only the soil
will remember as it tells roots and stones the joke that was once called modern man.
I am pulled out of my reverie by Laurie, as he reminds us that he still has a
piece of artwork to share with us – notably also a photograph. He leads us back to
the impressively large print of Maple trees where I first found him, and we gather
around. I enjoy the aesthetics and the subject matter, but it is not until Laurie
begins his explanation of the shadows that I see the hidden detail: it is not, in fact, a
single shot, but a series of layered shots overlapped and combined to show a
fracturing of time in a single frame. I am impressed, and a little annoyed I did not
notice it myself. It brings to mind the subject of lenses – not simply the lens of a
camera, but in the way that every work of art or poetry is a vision through the
perceptual lens of its creator. The viewer/reader is bound by the details available,
forced to create their own reality from the portrayal without knowing the full story
behind the canvas, camera, book cover, etc.
We stare at the Maple trees together, but I suddenly feel disconnected from
my classmates as I come to the realization that although we share this experience,
we will always be separated by the lenses through which we see it. We are once
removed. Close but empty.
sitting on a log
a frog, a bug, some slime mold
the turtles best friends
FIELD NOTES: Meeting “Andrea”
Phone Interview, October 16
Upon leaving the aquarium the girls at the front desk were able to provide me
with a contact number for someone “Andrea,” with the face explanation that she might
be able to help me in my quest. Following up on this contact number proved to be more
difficult than expected. We played an extensive game of phone tag where my
eagerness to get a hold of her was tempered only by the frightening realization that I
really had no idea what to ask her. At this point I wasn’t even entirely sure what her
role in the aquarium was, as up to now I had only known her as the extension number of
“someone who might know more”. In my voicemails I tried to give the impression that
I was doing a very important and mature research project, and that I was also
probably very important and mature, so she should definitely take me seriously and
lend me her expertise. However, my lack of a formal interview script left me feeling a
little bit nervous when we finally were able to talk.
The elusive “Andrea” was in fact Andrea Cotter, herpetologist for the
Vancouver Aquarium. We exchanged the necessary pleasantries, but as we turned
towards the subject of the phone call it became clear that she was still a little
confused as to why I was calling her, and what it was I wanted. I guess I was still
asking myself that question too. On the surface, I suppose I just wanted more
information about where else I could find the western pond turtle around Vancouver,
but I felt like I needed something else – something that would help me reconcile my
previous disappointing experience at the aquarium.
I began with a fairly vague inquiry about the whereabouts of the turtle, asking
politely if she could recommend any other organizations or institutions where I could
continue my search for this elusive underdog. She was more than happy to help me,
and although her cheerful tone was genuine I sensed that she was a bit amused by my
dedication to finding such a forgotten creature. Andrea pointed me in the direction of
some excellent resources – some of which I had heard of already, and some of which
would prove to further me in my quest – as well as some names of people at the
Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, and the Oregon Zoo in Portland (both of which were
much more involved in western pond turtles, she explained).
As I quickly jotted these names down, it suddenly occurred to me what my real
question for Andrea was. I asked her, “If western pond turtles are at such risk that
they have essentially been eliminated from the area, why does the Vancouver Aquarium
Holding all the world’s secrets
On your carapice
focus so much more on exotic imported species, such as the giant sea turtles, rather
than put a spotlight on disappearing local species?”
She paused for a moment, perhaps to search for an answer. I heard her sigh,
and then she began to explain. She told me that in the 1970s and 1980s, when the
aquarium was undergoing a major expansion, the popular conservation topic at the time
was saving the Amazon rainforest. Whoever was holding the purse strings at the time
felt that the way in which the aquarium could contribute most to those conservation
efforts, particularly in the way of education, was to bring as much of the rainforest to
Vancouver as possible. In this way they could expose the citizens of Vancouver to the
habitat and wildlife of faraway places by letting them see it in “real life,” thereby
drumming as much international cause and concern as possible. She went on to explain
that although the Amazon rainforest doesn’t have quite the same conservationist
cache that it once did, there has been no push to expand space to accommodate for
local reptiles at risk, such as the western pond turtle and its peers. There is simply no
demand for them.
It was so disarming to realize, once again, that the turtle that I had come to
care so much about was simply not on anyone else’s conservation radar. Nobody
seemed to remember, or care where the western pond turtle had gone. I felt that my
questions had been answered to the best extent they could be at this moment. I
thanked Andrea for her time, and as we were signing off she reminded me to come in
again and “take another look at the sea turtles.”
And I said, “Of course I will, Andrea. Of course.”
EXPLORATION #4: CITY KIDS ON THE FARM
We are still walking distance from the engineering classroom buildings and
the fraternity houses, but as we pile out of our respective automobiles, all gumboots
and winter coats, and survey the landscape around us, university life seems many,
many miles away. Our latest planned excursion has taken us right to the edge of
campus and onto the rough and wild-looking grounds of the UBC farm, where
another graduate student, Andrew, has graciously lent us his time to take us on a
tour of the grounds and tell us the story of the agriculture that occupies this plot of
We group together and walk up to the main office building to meet Andrew,
also known as the academics coordinator of the farm. I pull my jacket closer around
Western Pond Turtle
Or Pacific Pond Turtle
The last of it's kind.
my neck and look around at my classmates. Ally catches my eye and smiled as she
says, “I feel like I’m in kindergarten…”
I can’t help but notice how true her innocent
statement rings. In all of our outings so far there
has been a tangible level of interest and inspiration
amongst the group of us, but there was something
about this particular adventure to the farm that
seems to be breeding a sense of excitement that is
turning us into a class full of eager and giggly
children. Perhaps it is the nostalgia of the “field
trip” and all the excitement it held as an
elementary school student, but in as I overhear
whispered comments such as “I’m so in love with
the farm,” I am convinced it is something more.
After so many hours, so many years going from
classroom box, to library box, to apartment box,
and back again, I imagine few of us can remember
when we had the last opportunity to go outside and
see the subject matter we are studying reflected
back at us in the form of living beings. The idea of
going outside and playing in the dirt is so childlike,
but so essential in making personal connections to the dynamic scope of the ideas of
ecology and eco-criticism.
Andrew asks us to gather around and he begins to introduce the farm to us.
He is a slight man, with a permanent half-smile in the corners of his eyes. As he
talks, I realize that the half-smile I am seeing is a reflection of true passion and joy in
his work. His speech is eager, and he barely takes a breath as he leads us down the
pathway towards the agricultural grounds. Having never been here before, I am not
sure exactly what to expect, but I am surprised that the landscape seems to be
missing the endless parallel lines that usually classifies a scene into farmland. But
before I can eve think to ask, “Where does the farm start?” Andrew is answering my
As he leads us like a shepherd with a herd, he sweeps his arm around the
expanse of land and announces that their goal is not to create a “farm” in the
expected, modern sense of the word, but to create an ecosystem where numerous
crops can thrive together, mimicking the growth patterns and partnerships that
occur in their natural habitats. Although it may seem like a supposedly random
assortment of crops would be an ineffectual way of making an income from
agriculture, Andrew assures us that this is in fact the most efficient way for a small
(ie: not part of a hierarchical corporate structure) farm to operate. Should the
weather lean towards too hot or too cold, or should there be a disease that wipes out
a single crop, the sustainable farmer is able to sidestep the devastation because he
has a variety of crops that may have been thriving in the process. As Andrew is
Green, brown, and patterned
Nature spent some time on you
Small but amazing
pointing out the various species of plants and animals that are involved in this
balanced farmland, I am reminded of the basic philosophy behind martial arts: if one
works with the energy, as opposed to against it, one will be more successful. I
believe the same goes with Mother Nature – there is no need to make her the
But these theories of using community habitat and ecosystem balance as
guidelines in structural planning do not stop in the field, but rather continue beyond
the apple trees and beehives and into the human community, existing barely hidden
behind the wind-breaking trees. As Andrew explains to us, the goal of the farm is to
make it a personal experience, involving the local community in such a way that we
can place ourselves in the agricultural space and feel more connected to where our
food comes from. This is your farm, he tells us. You can come here every day and
walk around, ask about the crops, or even join onto one of the volunteer crews that
work every harvest season to bring the fruit and vegetables from the ground to the
market. There are no closed doors here, he says to us, because this land belongs to
Unfortunately, the whole “this land is your land, this land is my land” attitude
is not shared by everybody, most specifically the suits who have been viewing the
farmland with dollar signs in their eyes. As Andrew explains, the obscene
structures of Westbrook condominiums threaten on a daily basis to overtake the
farm space, of which a significant amount has already been parceled off and sold.
But that is just it – taking over SPACE, rather than building PLACE, is what
motivates structures such as the Westbrook development. People who are making
decisions with only the bottom line in mind tend to forget the long-term value in
creating community connection and attachment, which is one of the basic values
that the entire UBC Farm structure is based upon. Andrew provides us with such
examples as their various education and family programs, as well as the CSA
(Community Supported Agriculture) Produce Box that can be purchased at the
beginning of the year, allowing the individual to “invest in the land,” if you will.
Looking around at my classmates, I can see some depth of emotion in
everyone’s eyes. Perhaps it is our generation, or maybe we are exceptionally
influenced by the “green culture” in Vancouver, but I think all of us would be
devastated to lose this valuable land. It is devastating to me that we may be one of
the last classes who has the opportunity to come on a “field trip” and watch our
studies in action amongst the turnips and the chickens.
As always, time was running shorter than we would have liked, and long
before we were prepared to leave we found ourselves walking back toward the
direction of civilization. Just as we were leaving the park, I noticed a big yellow
school bus pulling into the grounds and releasing a gaggle of young shrieking school
children onto the farmland. “Enjoy it while you can, kids,” I said to myself, “enjoy it
while you can.
I make a mental note to buy a CSA Produce Box next year. Once again, I am
rooting for the underdog.
Grey leathery skin
Rough scales like the dinosaurs
From another time
FIELD NOTE: The Commoditization of Nature
The UBC Farm provides an opportunity for everyone in the community to see and
experience successful sustainable agriculture in action. As Andrew presented it to us,
it is a viable and sensible alternative to the modern farming techniques, but few people
support or take advantage of it. I believe this is a result of the common don’t
know/don’t care attitude that befalls our society in this day and age. First of all, few
people truly realize the ecosystem damage sustained at the hands of modern
agriculture, only seeing instead the rippling stalks of wheat that scream “Health!”
“Prosperity!” and “Pastoral Values!” at the minivans passing by. Secondly, although
some people are aware, protecting the earth from some vague and unseen notion of
“habitat damage” is outweighed by the convenience of driving to the nearest
supermarket to pick up shiny, bug-free imported fruits and veggies. To us, the idea of
the traditional farm has become so entrenched in our symbolic memory that we forget
that real nature does not look like modern field-and-grid-style farming, that author
Freya Mathews has termed the “Euclidian approach. (Mathews, 199) As Mathews
“…it imposes a conceptual grid of straight lines on land, and land is then
parceled up into the discrete, usually rectangular “blocks” of the
surveyors plan. The blocks are treated as separate entities, generally
leveled or otherwise physically modified to constitute the black sheet
that can then accommodate the designs of its subsequent ‘owners.’ In
this process little if any account is taken of the contents even of
adjoining blocks, let alone the character of the region at large. The
bumps and curves of actual things, the particularity of the actual ground
on which we stand, is regarded as incidental, contingent: the world as it is
given to us is mere scenery, a manifold of appearances that can be
replaced and rearranged, like theatrical backdrops, to suit our
convenience.” (Mathews 199)
This grid-style agricultural system can be seen as the symbol of a cut-and-
conquer attitude held by early settlers, who “saw themselves as conquerors or ‘Lone
Heroes’ whose purpose was to enter, subdue, and make the land fruitful, bringing
culture and civilization to nature.” (Strang, 125) The success of farming in modern
Scarring in your face
Tractors? Or maybe mowers?
People have been cruel
culture has been defined purely in the terms of “maximizing agricultural productivity
and wealth.” (Worster, 85) However, such productivity seem suddenly terribly
inefficient when it is coupled with the costs of land and habitat restoration that will
be necessary to keep the ecosystem in an, albeit precarious, balance.
A perfect example of this tragic miscalculation can be seen in the plight of the
western pond turtle and its wetlands habitat. Wetlands areas have been reduced by
as much as ninety percent, and the destruction shows little sign of letting up.
(“Biodiversity”) The benefits that were once reaped naturally via the land must now
be reproduced artificially. However, as there is “no direct market for services such as
clean water, maintenance of biodiversity, and flood control,” (“Great Lakes Factsheet,
1) these ecosystem costs are hardly ever taken into consideration. That is, until
someone is looking for a turtle that was once common, and is now nowhere to be found.
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Western Pond Turtle
I would invite you over
But I can’t find you
FIELD NOTE: Looking at the Woodland Park Zoo*
(*All following factual information taken from “Western Pond Turtle Factsheet.”
Woodland Park Zoo Online)
Since 1990 they have been collaborating on a joint head-starting project “to
secure the future of the western pond turtle in Washington. With a team of
turtles are tracked to
their nests, which the
team then fits with
to protect them from
predators, and also
keep the hatchlings
from wandering away
when they have
hatched. When the
emerged from the nest
in the fall, they are
collected and taken to
the zoo facility for a
“head-start” in life. During this time they are kept warm and well fed, until they have
outgrown many of their predators and are strong enough to survive in the wild.
Although the western pond turtle is still considered an endangered species in the
state of Washington, the head-start program has so far been a huge success. When it
began in 1990, there were only two wild populations of western pond turtles left in the
entire state, numbering an estimated 150-200 turtles total. In 2006, almost 1,000
hatchlings were released into the wild from the head-start program, and observation
and recapture have proved that they are surviving well. In addition, four adult turtles
have been selected from the Puget Sound Region for a captive breeding program,
which at this time has at this time produced thirty hatchlings, most of which have
been released into protected pond habitats in Pierce County, Washington.
Always your home on your back
The sign of nomads
FIELD NOTE: The Washington State Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project*
(*All following factual information taken from “The Washington State Western Pond
The Washington State Western Pond Turtle Project was borne out of the
efforts of Frank Slavens, Curator of Reptiles at the Woodland Park Zoo, and his
partner Kate Slavens, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the
Woodland Park Zoo. From 1985 to 1990, surveys had confirmed the decline of the
species throughout the state. “Whereas the western pond turtle had been described
as ‘common’ in the Puget Sound area, it was now virtually extinct.” (Slavens, 1). With
the species already in a precarious position during the year of 1990, Dan Holland, a
researcher for the Washington Department of Wildlife who was currently surveying
the remaining turtles, witnessed a devastating respiratory disease attack the
remaining turtles in the area. Approximately 25% of the population was killed within a
matter of months.
One hopeful situation did arise from this tragedy, however, in that Dan Holland
and his crew had managed to locate six turtle nests an protect them with exclosures in
order to protect them from predatation and destruction. The idea was that these
hatchlings could be collected in September, and then “head-started” before they were
released back into the wild. The only problem arose, however, in that there was simply
no space available to house the hatchlings at the zoo, as they were already caring for
turtles that had been recovered from the epidemic. This is where Frank and Kate
stepped in, literally opening their Seattle home to the turtle hatchlings, and caring for
them in their basement from September 1990 until February 1991.
By now a thriving partnership had been formed between the Washington
Department of Wildlife, the Woodland Park Zoo, and Frank and Kate Slavens, based on
a mutual dedication to saving the western pond turtle and reverse its pattern of rapid
decline. The biggest concern in the area of western Washington was the destruction
of viable habitat and the draining of the wetlands to make room for lakeside houses,
as well as further population damage done by private poaching from the pet and
restaurant industries. On top of that, there was major concern about the rampant
population growth of bullfrogs and certain fish that had been introduced as non-native
predators into the area. “The prospect of recovery was grim.” (Slavens, 2)
Western Pond Turtle,
You are elusive and sexy,
Much like the Sasquatch.
CONSERVATION IN THE FIELD
In the summer of 1991, eight adult turtles (survivor of the epidemic), were
outfitted with transmitters and re-released into the wild, and the project team
quickly learned how to locate the turtles using telemetry. For the remainder of 1991
and through to 1993, they continued to survey the turtles, watching for nesting
females, and killing as many of the rampant bullfrogs at they could get their hands on,
day and night. From 1994 until today, the project team has grown to be a formidable
and dedicated force, incorporating a team of volunteers:
“(The volunteers) trap turtles
each spring, transmitter females,
monitor the females through the
nesting season. These volunteers
are not professional biologists;
they are people from many walks
of life sharing a love for turtles
and a dedication to the project.
They are willing to brave cold,
wet, hot, and windy weather. They
are willing to check a turtle at
0500 or 2300 or both, depending on the turtle. They are willing to
sleep in tents pitched in very old barns, eat lots of bologna
sandwiches, encounter rattlesnakes, and
smash bullfrogs. They are very special
people.” (Slavens, 3)
Between April 1
and May 15
of each year, the
team sets out trap the turtles. Each is examined,
measured, weighed, and marked with a WDFW number so
that their statistics can be charted over the years. The
adult females will have transmitters glued to their
carapaces before they are released back into the pond in
order for the team to track them to their nesting sites.
Once a female has been released, the telemetry begins
immediately. Her position will be tracked once a day until
, at which point they are tracked every two hours
Shell on your back
You can hide if you get scared
Tuck in head and legs
from 9:00 am until 9:00 pm every day until the
female has nested. This continues until July 15
The team then buries temperature and humidity
sensors next to the nests, and covers the entire
nesting site with a protective exclosure to keep
potential predators, especially bullfrogs, out. When
the eggs have hatched, the team collects the
hatchlings and transports them to either the
Woodland Zoo or the Oregon Zoo for head-starting.
The rate of survival and success of the hatchlings
re-released into the wild has been proved the
efforts of the team to be extremely successful.
Other zoos in the Puget Sound area have shown interest in starting their own
head-start programs, as well as captive breeding programs. Recovery of western pond
turtle populations looks promising, but there is still a long road ahead. “Full recovery
is a slow process with a species that naturally has low recruitment. The commitment
has been made by The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Woodland
Park Zoo, and a stubborn group of volunteers* to see it through and hopefully, within
our lifetime, we will succeed.” (Slavens, 4)
*Of which, next spring, one of them will be me!
Cannot believe how sad
Is this turtle’s existence.
Weeps alone slowly.
FIELD NOTE: Talking With Frank Slavens
I sit down at one of the tables outside the Vancouver Public Library,
successfully poaching it from some Starbucks or Blenz customer. I spread out my
notebook, and pens in front of me. I take out my cell phone and I begin to dial the
foreign area code…
After some back-and-forth correspondence, I have finally managed to arrange a
phone appointment with Frank Slavens, who, with his wife Kate, heads up the
Washington State Western Pond Turtle Project. In reading about his work, I found
myself to be so inspired by the personal investment he seemed to have in the
conservation of the western pond turtle, especially in contrast with others to whom I
have spoken that seemed to have little or no interest in its disappearance. When I
had earlier emailed him about my inquiries on what drives him to do this work, he
replied back with the almost cheeky response, “I have no idea what drives me to do
anything.” However, I was almost convinced that there had to be more to the story –
I wanted to find out what it was about the turtles, or Frank for that matter, that
inspired him to dedicate a good portion of his life to them – to open his very home to
I dial the number and let it ring. A male voice answers, slow and deliberate in
tone. I take this to be Frank and I introduce myself, trying to hide my nervousness as
much as possible. I start out by explaining the scope of my project and the
conservationist lean it has been taking, and how the Western Pond Turtle Project has
been a central focus in my research, especially in the personal dedication that he and
his wife Kate have lent to the conservation efforts….
As I pause, Frank jumps in and tells me that this is, in fact, his last year on the
project, as he intends to retire. After 19 years, he tells me, the time has come when
he feels he can step away from it and oversee it from afar. He goes on to explain that
when the project began in 1990, when he was the current reptile curator at the
Woodland Park Zoo (a connection I did not realize until now, and I file it away to ask
him about further), he and Kate would commute the 500 mile round trip from Seattle
down to the Gorge in Washington to collect hatchlings during from April 1 to July 15.
As Frank tells me, the inefficiency of this commute became apparent and they began
staying down at the field site for extended periods of time, first with tents, then
trailers, and after that a barn with electricity. As the team and the project grew,
I had a turtle
When I was young and smaller
Turtle was small too
Frank explains, more resources were needed, so six years ago a house was built so they
could stay on the site all season. As the city became further and further from their
lives, he and Kate sold their home in Seattle and moved into the field property full
time. As I hear Frank tell me about this, something about the sound of his house
reminds me about my Papa’s land, and I can’t help but romanticize it a little bit.
I point the conversation back to his comment about retiring, asking if this
means that there is no longer a need for a recovery plan, as I was quite sure they were
still listed as an endangered species in Washington state. Frank tells me bluntly that
there is always a need for more turtles, but there just is just simply no habitat.
After a pause he elaborates, explaining that the Woodland Park Zoo will be taking over
the administration of the project in conjunction with their head-start program, but at
this time they have nearly achieved the goals they set for themselves in 1990, which
calls for four populations in Oregon of which no more than 80% are adults, and three
populations in Washington of which no more than 80 % are adults. This year, 2009,
the team was able to collect 1,600 hatchlings for their head-start program – an
astronomical increase from when they started out in 1990, and definitely a testament
to the success of the project. Frank tells me that right now there are thirty
transmittored females out in the field, over half of which are head-starts, and at
least thirty more head-started turtles out in the ponds that they are not following
with transmittors. As he pauses I remark how wonderful it is that you can see them
come back – to truly see the success of the work.
I then turn the conversation from the project to the turtle itself, and my
curiosity as to why so little attention is paid to it. I recount to Frank my trip to the
Aquarium, and explain that whenever I ask about the western pond turtle, people
either don’t know what I am talking about, or they can’t figure out why I care so much
about it. I ask Frank for some insight, and he is not surprised. He tells me that they
used to be extremely common, but ever since they started disappearing in the late
seventies and early eighties, nobody ever saw them. He says to me, “They just don’t
At this comment I feel more than a twinge of compassion for my underdog
turtle friend. How are you supposed to survive in a world when nobody notices you are
I tell Frank that it has been my observation that those who are involved in the
conservation of the western pond turtle seem to be extremely passionate and
dedicated to its cause. I ask him, what is it about the pond turtle that inspires you?
King of the pond animals
Basking on your log
dedicated to its cause. I ask him, what is it about the pond turtle that inspires you?
Essentially, what drove you to be where you are? I think I can hear Frank chuckle a
little bit, and he says, “The Tokay Gecko.”
“The what Gecko?” I replied, sure that I had misheard him.
“The Tokay Gecko,” Frank says again. He explains to me that when he was a
child he saw a Tokay Gecko hanging on the side of its glass, and he thought to himself,
how do they do that….? From there, he tells me, his personal interest in reptiles was
born. He began learning about reptiles, going to the zoo…. But when he asked the
question, “Do you breed these?” The answer came back “No.”
Frank told me the thought to himself, if all of these animals are going extinct?
Why doesn’t anybody know how to breed them? That question became a driving
interest in his life, and fast forward 40 years, Frank found himself the Reptile Curator
at the Woodland Park Zoo. Frank told me that he has always had an affinity for
turtles, so when the Department of Wildlife approached him about doing captive
breeding with the western pond turtle, he says, “It seemed only logical.” Frank tells
me they were able to capture five adults, and the wild turtles currently in the field are
mostly offspring from those original adults.
I then ask Frank about a comment he made earlier, about a lack of space for the
turtles. I ask him, “Is this really a problem of habitat destruction?”
“Everything,” Frank replies, suddenly raising his tone. “Habitat destruction.
People. It’s wall to wall people.” Frank pauses for a moment, and then continues,
“They’re not gonna live there. It’s all people, concrete, pets, cars, driveways…. There
is no habitat left. Not in Everett to South of Olympia. It’s all… gone. It’s just
people. That’s all habitat, and it’s going away….” I can hear his voice soften and
trail off a little bit. “These animals need space. There’s just no space left.”
I realize that without knowing it I have found the answer as to what drives him
in his work. In only a tone of his voice, I realize that this is something that touches
Frank Slavens deeply. In talking with me about the project, he was able to rattle off
numbers and remembered facts without any lingering emotion in his voice, but
suddenly, when we get to the real factors that matter, I can hear how much he cares.
As he continues, I realize that for Frank Slavens, conservation is not a movement or a
new concern…. It just is. It is his life.
He says to me, “You just see something that needs doing, and you do it. “What
you got better to do?”
I am touched and silenced by this simple question, because the fact is, I have no
Western pond turtle.
You used to be everywhere
What happened to you?
answer to it. Nobody does. There is nothing that can be more important than saving
the world we live on, and all the species we share it with.
We end our conversation with some talk about a potential volunteer opportunity
for me to help collect hatchlings next spring. I only realize after I hang up the phone
that I had not planned anything about turtles, or the collecting of turtle hatchlings
next year…. It really just came about as an organic concern of mine – after spending
so long studying with these turtles, I really just want to lend my time and hands to
help in any way I can. As Frank might say, it’s only logical.
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My little turtle,
I made it out of clay, with
Turtle I shall play.
THE WORLD ON YOUR BACK
Sitting on your log
What are you thinking about
In your small pond world?
EXPLORATION: PAINT WITH LANGUAGE
I arrive in class today ready for our latest adventure in habitat studies.
Laurie is absent today, but in his place we have the pleasure of Laurie’s PhD student
and poet, Sonnet. (Could there be any better name for a poet, really?) We arrive
with sketchbooks and crayons in hand, armored from the weather in our rubber
boots and raincoats. We still have no idea what the task ahead of us will be, but by
this time we have learned to be prepared for whatever surprise Laurie might throw
The weather, however, proves too daunting even for us today. I doubt that
anyone is disappointed when Sonnet announces that our “Nature Art Class” will
have to take place indoors with borrowed outdoor specimens. She produces a few
potted plants, each with its own personality and aesthetics, and explains that today
we will be illustrating how what we see in them. I can’t help but remember our Art
Gallery field trip – but where in the gallery I was playing the part of art critic, here I
will actually be producing the art that expresses the very nuances of our connection
to nature, even as it is contained in the form of a potted houseplant.
Sonnet instructs us to first craft a few lines of text expressing these plants,
and then complete a series of timed drawing exercises. Upon completion of our
drawings we will then take another stab at verbal expression, the idea being that
after a multisensory exploration of the plant through artistic illustration we would
have access to a greater depth of poetry through which to express it in words.
Feeling quite like a child with my crayons spread around me, I am once again aware
of the immense value in seeing a living being up close in real life. I already feel that
my sixty-four colors will be inadequate to represent the refractions of fluorescent
light, or the transparencies of young chlorophyll flesh at the tip of each leaf. Colored
wax to paper, I trace the brilliant Crayola dye across the paper in an effort to catch
the movement in the lines and angles between stems and leaves. Never being much
of a life drawer myself, I generally tend to stick with colors and shapes that produce
an abstract energy rather than struggle in an attempt to reproduce what Mother
Nature has already perfected in her uniqueness.
I steal glances at my classmates’ papers in an attempt to see how we are
executing this creative assignment, and I am once again struck at our own perfect
uniqueness, evident in the dramatically different ways we choose to “express”
through artwork the plant species before us. Where I draw abstract representations,
another paper contains deliberate sketches that place each leaf exactly where it
should be. I see one paper that is filled to the borders with a tangle of branches, and
another that places the plant as an afterthought in a classroom scene – a
representation of its current habitat, if you will.
I sometimes forget how different the lenses are through which we each forge
our connections of place and being in the space around us. Every painting, photo or
poem is a production of these lenses, and thus becomes not a representation of the
habitat around us, but a representation of a tiny slice of the artist’s personal
Well lah di damn dah!
Wish I could carry my house.
Turtle, stuff yourself.
relationship with the world.
The time runs out and we drop our pencils and crayons, ready to share with
the rest of the class our literary and pictorial expressions of the inner spirit of
potted plants. I am so fantastically pleased and pleasantly surprised to hear the
poetic musings of my classmates. From finely detailed lyrical descriptions to verses
that would not be out of place at a beat poetry slam, I am so aware of our individual
lenses and viewpoints. I do not know if it is a direct result of our current ongoing
species project, but I feel so much more moved by the simplistic beauty that
surrounds me on a daily basis than I did ten weeks ago.
We are such creatures of our habitats.
Compass of the world
Western pond turtle's spirit
Finds true direction
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FIELD NOTE: ATTEMPTING TO UNRAVEL MYTHOLOGY
In my process of burrowing deeper and deeper into the realms of literature
relating to the western pond turtle, I realized that so much of what I was pulling out
was related to ancient mythology, specifically that of First Nations and Native
American culture (which seemed fitting considering the rich history of First Nations
and North American cultures within the geographical range of the western pond
turtle). The fact that these literary images continued to show up seemed to me a very
poignant point in the concept of “connectivity” because language, stories, and poetry
are all indicative of the relationship a group of people have with its environment, and
“each cultural group interacts with the landscape in a way that is consistent with the
particular beliefs and values that knit each of their cultural forms into a coherent
whole.” (Strang, 178) In this way mythology provides the reader with an entirely new
lens with which to explore the way in which traditional native culture illustrates its
own connectedness to their natural landscape.
Simply put, mythology is the story of oneself in a place (Lippard, 33). But
further, mythology is about dialogue with natural place (Kane, 14), and is directly
connected with the idea of the “interanimation” of a place (Bryson, 11), which linguistic
anthropologist Keith Basso describes in this way:
“As places animate the ideas and feelings of persons who attend to then,
these same ideas and feelings animate the places on which attention has
been bestowed, and the movements of this process – inward toward
facets of the self, outward toward aspects of the external, world,
alternatively both together – cannot be known in advance. When places
are actively sensed, the physical landscape becomes wedded to the
landscape of the mind, to the roving imagination, and where the mind may
lead is anybody’s guess.” (Bryson, 11)
Western pond turtle
But not of the Ninja Kind
Still hidden from us
While myths, however, provide access to an animated landscape, the factor that
truly differentiates them from poetry or other literatures is the fact that it is not
about a landscape, or people in a landscape, but it is told from within a landscape.
According to Sean Kane:
“Myths sing a map of the landscape of the hunter, but they are sung
from the landscape’s point of view. The otherness of myth ensures
that the impulses of the hunter are turned into the overall balance of
life of the region.” (Kane, 77)
This nature-centered universe differs greatly from the human-centered
universe seen in the previous poems, such as John Updike’s “To A Box Turtle,” where
turtles and the natural world were seen from a distance, as commodities, or subject to
the standards of human criticism. In poems such as Updike’s, nature is looked upon as
foreign, and the idea of supernatural power is nowhere to be seen, but in mythological
literature “it is a good idea to assume that the story is told from the viewpoint of the
supernatural.” (Kane, 79) Mythology then enables us to inquire on the subject of
human-nature connectivity in a unique way, because unlike reading the works of an
author attempting to make a connection, in mythology it is an assumed characteristic
of the story.
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Easy turtle life.
Wherever you take yourself,
Your bed comes with you.
$ Befoie oui eaith became, theie was only watei, anu the biius anu animals that swim in
it, anu the Big Tuitle. But, high above, theie was a Sky Woilu wheie the Sky People liveu.
0ne uay, the Big Chief's beautiful uaughtei was iesting in the shaue of a tall, floweiing
tiee when theie was a louu 9..:##++\ anu the tiee fell thiough a hole in the sky, anu the
beautiful giil tumbleu thiough a hole aftei it.
As soon as they heaiu the noise, the biius anu the animals anu the Big Tuitle lookeu up
- anu they saw the tiee anu the giil falling fiom the sky.
"Catch hei!" calleu the Big Tuitle. "Someone catch hei, oi she will uiown!"
Then, fiom eveiy uiiection, animals came swimming anu biius came flying uown. But it
was two white swans who flew up anu caught the giil on theii stiong wings anu caiiieu hei
The swans weie anxious. "Big Tuitle, what shall we uo." they askeu. "The giil is heavy.
We cannot caiiy hei foievei."
"Someone must uive uown to the ueep places anu biing up a little muu, "saiu the Big
Tuitle. "Anu then I can make an islanu."
"I'll go!" saiu the swift-swimming ottei. Anu uown he uiveu.
But the ottei's bieath was not big enough, anu he coulu not ieach the ueep places. So he
came back with nothing.
"I'll uo it!" saiu the flat-taileu beavei. Anu uown he uiveu.
But the beavei's bieath was not big enough, anu he too coulu not ieach the ueep places.
So he came back with nothing.
The swans weie upset. They uiun't know what to uo. "Belp us!" they ciieu. "Buiiy!
Buiiy! The giil is heavy! We can't caiiy hei much longei!"
Then an olu gianumothei toau saiu veiy quietly, "Let me tiy. I might be able to ieach
the muu." Anu she took a huge gulp of aii, swelleu iight up, anu uiveu.
Bown, uown, uown she went, anu she ieacheu the ueep places. She filleu hei mouth
with muu, anu she began to swim back. But she was so tiieu that she swam slowei, slowei, anu
(*'%%! (%#<&.. When at long last she ieacheu the suiface, hei stiength was almost gone. But
somehow she manageu to spit the mouthful of muu onto Big Tuitle's back.
Anu the muu spieau anu giew, spieau anu giew, until theie was an islanu on top of the
Big Tuitle's back. Then the weaiy swans caiiieu the giil uown, anu she steppeu ashoie.
But the muu still spieau anu giew, anu the whole soliu eaith was maue. Anu to this uay
the Big Tuitle holus the eaith on his back, anu whenevei he moves, the eaith quiveis anu it
You remind me of Squirtle,
Western Pond Turtle
I have heard several versions of this particular tale over the years, depending
on the First Nations tribe of its origins, or the creative decisions of the storyteller.
Sometimes it is a Sky Chief with a daughter, other times it is an Earth Mother alone;
sometimes another animal, such as the toad, will help the turtle bring up mud from the
bottom of the ocean, other times it is the turtle alone who succeeds in the task;
sometimes there were other worlds before this one, and other times this land is seen
as the first land that had ever come into being. But for the most part, all the versions
I have heard share the same scene – one with a supernatural Creator-type being, and a
selection of animals, and a tiny bit of mud that forms the great land resting upon the
back of the turtle – the land that the First Nations people will call home.
Although, as in most myths, the turtle is simply called “Turtle” without any
specific signifier for its breed or kind, I feel that the idea of a turtle using mud to
build a continent somehow brings to mind the idea of a pond turtle burying itself in the
mud of the earth. Although this turtle is written as originating from the ocean, I feel
that one could still apply the symbolic reference to all species of turtle, including the
western pond turtle. If the earth is made of mud, and the pond turtle lives in mud, it
seems no great leap to infer that all turtles, not simply the Great One supporting the
earth, carry within them an inherent affinity to the Creator, as well as the ancient
origins of the natural world. Interestingly, this rings remarkably true to the factual
existence of the turtle, as studies have proven that the origins of turtles date back to
the prehistoric era, or otherwise, the “dawn of time”. In this respect for the sacred
age of the earth, one can see how the turtle represents not simply a deep
connectedness with the natural world, but also a respect for what a small role the
human species plays in the grand scope of things, compared to, for example, the way in
which the Christian story of Creation is an allusion to God’s creation of man in Adam
Black shiny eyeballs
Staring at me through the glass
I feel quite guilty
FIELD NOTE: Turtle Island
In my research regarding turtle symbolism in the Pacific Northwest, I continued
seeing the name “Turtle Island” connected to references about First Nations culture
any mythology. Each time I saw that name appear in print, I kept thinking to myself,
“Where is this Turtle Island anyways…?” It wasn’t until I picked up a certain
publication (named, fittingly, Turtle Talk), that I finally received a complete
explanation. In his foreword, Kirkpatrick Sale recounts his version of the creation
myth as told by the Lakota Sioux. This legend is generally similar to that of the
Michigan people above, although in this particular version the Lakota Sioux do not
include any “Sky Princess in distress,” and it is Turtle himself who carries the mud up
to the surface. (Sale, viii). However, Sale fleshes out the ending in such a way that it
provides a beautiful glimpse into the great cultural importance carried between the
lines of the legend:
“Lastly, S/he reached down into the earth and began to form the soil
into the shapes of men and women, red earth and white earth and black
earth and yellow earth, and with one more clap of the hands, all these
came alive too, each of them given speech and understanding and power.
Then the Great Originator said to the people, ‘The first world I
made was bad, and the creatures on it were bad, so I burned it up. The
second was bad, and the creatures stupid, so I drowned it. Now I have
given you a third world, and if you learn how to live upon it with
reverence and harmony, living in peace with each other and with all your
brothers and sisters – the two-legged and the four-legged and the many-
legged, the swimmers and the fliers and the crawlers, the plants and
flowers and trees – then all will be well. But if you make this world bad,
and ugly, and unhappy, then I will destroy this world too. It’s up to you.’
And S/he named the land Turtle Island, for it was the turtle who
provided the mud from which it was made, and S/he placed it atop the
turtle so it would be forever a reminder for the people of the animal
that carries its home upon its back throughout its life, and must protect
and preserve its home because its home protects and preserves it.”
I had two turtles
Ebony and Ivory
Then I set them free!
Although its origins are firmly rooted in the ancient legend of the creation of
North America, the term “Turtle Island” has since transcended its mythological
origins and become a symbolic signifier for a greater sense of appreciation for the
sacredness of the ground beneath our feet, both in First Nations culture as well as
modern culture with a bend towards ecology and conservationism. As Sale says:
“It is a designation that defies the artificial political labels pasted on
the map by legislatures entirely distrustful of geography, and tries to
understand the continent more in terms of its basic realities, the
natural features which truly demark and define the land. It is an idea
that gives primacy, as seems right, to a remarkable testudinate order
of adaptable, long-lived, and very tough land, marsh, and ocean animals,
assigning them the sort of primacy that in other cultural myths is given
to the large, pipedal primates who walk erect.”
In the stressing of this kind of nature-
centered universe (a quality which was noticeably
absent from almost all of the turtle-focused poetry
I came across), the symbol of Turtle Island is also
stressing “the importance of the natural world and
its protection and preservation as, in its necessary
and inescapable way, our home.” (Sale, ix). In other
words, Turtle Island has become synonymous with
“ecological consciousness.” (Sale, ix). Because of
this cultural and symbolic reference, the social
movement of bioregionalism has adopted the
designation of Turtle Island to their cause, using the
image of the turtle as the face for the
environmental and conservationist causes they
advocate for. As Sale explains in Turtle Talk:
“…the turtle emblem appears on the official proceedings of the North
American Bioregional Congresses that have taken place every other
year since 1984, it is branded on to a chip of local wood that every
participant in those congresses is given to wear on a necklace, it is
The teim IB;03CB;<52B76 is a
teim coineu by conseivation
activist Petei Beig, fiom the
iuea of a IB;03CB;<, uefineu as:
"A uistinct aiea with coheient
anu inteiconnecteu plant anu
animal communities, anu
natuial systems, often uefineu
by a wateisheu. A bioiegion is
a whole "life-place" with whole "life-place" with unique
iequiiements foi human
inhabitation so that it will not
be uisiupteu anu injuieu."
Happy turtle friend
Snapping at my ten fingers
They are not your food
printed on tee-shirts and newsletters and banners and books; and the
clearinghouse center for the movement is called the Turtle Island
Office.” (Sale, ix)
Sale champions the simple image of the turtle as the ideal totem animal for such
a determined grassroots organization, as it presents itself as “they symbol of the
competitor in the race who is acknowledged to be slow and cumbersome and a little
late off the mark, but also steady and sure and determined and persistent – and who
eventually wins.” (Sale, ix). It seems fitting, then, that the animal who represents the
original creation of the earth has also now won the position of representing, in a way,
the destruction of the earth as well as its hopeful renewal in the hands of a few
concerned citizens. Hopefully the damage sustained to Turtle Island by its
unappreciative two-legged inhabitants will not be too heavy for the turtle to carry
while we attempt to right our wrongs and move forward in “a belief in hopeful
possibilities.” (Bingham & Love, xiv)
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our water is in
bottles for the sake of health.
shells can't purify.
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Shy little creature
Hiding from my dark shadow
From inside your shell
We askeu, who the lanu belongeu to.
anu wheie one pays tax.
(two gents who nevei useu it twenty yeais,
anu befoie them the wiuow
of the son of the man
who got him a patenteu ueeu
on a woikeu-out mining claim,)
laiu hasty on lanu that was ueei anu acoin
giounus of the Nisenan.
Bianch of the Naiuu.
(they nevei hau a chance to speak, even,
(anu who iemembeis the Tieaty of uuaualupe Biualgo.)
the lanu belongs to itself.
"no self in self: no self in things"
Tuitle Islanu swims
in the ocean-sky swiil-voiu
biting its tail while the woilus go
SNYBER, uARY. EXERPT FR0N "WBAT BAPPENEB BERE BEF0RE."
(T0RTLE ISLANB, 78)
Small green pond turtle
I can see your head, not now
You are so crafty
A woman giows haiu anu skinny.
She squeezes into small coineis.
She ieaches out
foi flint anu spaiks fly in the aii.
Flames tuineu loose on fielus
buin uown to the baie seeus
we planteu ueep.
The coin is white anu sweet.
0nuei its pale, peifect keinels
a iotting cob is betiayal
anu it lies in oui bloateu stomachs.
I lie in uianumothei's beu
anu uieam the eaith into a tuitle.
She caiiies us slowly acioss the univeise.
The sun waims us.
At night the stais uo tiicks.
The moon caiesses us.
We aie listening foi the sounus of foou.
Nothei is giving biith, uianumothei says.
The eaith gioans with laboi
tuining coin yellow in the sun.
I lie in uianumothei's beu.
- By Beth Biyant
Hanging out in ponds
Among all the ducks and fish
For how much longer
It was one of those uays when Nanaboozhoo was in a stiange moou. Be hau just
awakeneu fiom a ueep sleep anu was uistuibeu by the noisy quaiieling anu scoluing by the
bluejays. Be was a bit cianky: Bis sleep was uistuibeu anu besiues that, he was hungiy. Bis
fiist thought was to go uown to the village anu finu something to eat.
Enteiing the village, he came acioss some men cooking fish. They hau theii camp
locateu close to the watei anu Nanaboozhoo spieu many fish cooking ovei a fiie. Now, being
veiy hungiy, he askeu foi something to eat. The men weie happy to give him some, but
cautioneu him that it was hot. Not heeuing the waining, he quickly giabbeu the fish anu it
buineu his hanu. Be ian to the lake to cool it off in the watei. Still unsteauy fiom his ueep
sleep, he tiippeu on a stone anu fell on Ni-she-kae (Tuitle), who was sunning on the beach. At
that time, Nishekae was not as we know hei touay. She hau no shell anu was compiiseu of soft
skin anu bone.
Tuitle complaineu louuly to Nanaboozhoo to watch wheie he was going. Now,
Nanaboozhoo felt ashameu of his clumsiness anu apologizeu to Nishekae. Be wonueieu, "What
can I uo to make it up to hei." Be wanteu to uo something to help his fiienu. "I'll have to sit
anu think it ovei," he thought, as he followeu the path back to his wigwam.
Some time latei, he ietuineu to the beach anu calleu foi Nishekae. Tuitle pokeu hei
heau thiough the soft beach muu. Nanaboozhoo pickeu up two laige shells fiom the shoie anu
placeu one on top of the othei. Be scoopeu up Nishekae anu put hei iight in the miuule,
between the shells.
Nanaboozhoo took a ueep bieath anu began. "You will nevei be injuieu like that again,"
he saiu slowly. "Whenevei uangei thieatens," he continueu, "You can pull youi legs anu heau
into the shell foi piotection.
Nanaboozhoo sat besiue his fiienu on the beach anu tolu Nishekae his thoughts. "The
shell itself is iounu like Nothei Eaith. It has a iounu hump which iesembles hei hills anu
mountains. It is uiviueu into segments, like the many tiibes that aie a pait of hei: each
uiffeient anu yet connecteu to hei."
Nishekae seemeu veiy pleaseu with this anu listeneu intently. "You have foui legs, each
iepiesenting the points of uiiection: noith, south, east, west," he saiu. "When the legs aie all
uiawn in, all uiiections aie lost. Youi tail will show the many lanus that the Anishnabek have
been anu youi heau will point in the uiiection to follow."
"You will have auvantages ovei Anishnabek," he went on. "You will be able to live in
watei as well as on lanu anu you will be in youi own house at all times."
Nishekae appioveu of hei new self anu thankeu Nanaboozhoo foi his wisuom. Noving
now in a thick shell, she pusheu heiself along the shoie anu uisappeaieu into the watei.
So, evei since that acciuent long ago, Tuitle has been special to the Anishnabek. To this
uay, she continues to giace Nothei Eaith, still piouuly weaiing those two shells.
Western Pond Turtle
The Muse of Brilliant Haikus
High Five to You, Friend
This particular myth from the Michigan people demonstrates connectivity with
nature in a unique way, in that rather than using a strictly nature/animal based world
as the setting of the story, the world of Turtle Gets His Shell is comprised of both
human and animal figures sharing the landscape in equal status. Where such poems as
Lamb’s “What Turtle Blood Tastes Like” display the human/animal relationship with a
sense of vertical hierarchy, with the human placed squarely at the top, the
relationship between Nanabozhoo and Turtle are shown on a horizontal plane
characterized by respect of primacy afforded to the turtle.
By injuring Mishekae through an act of clumsiness and ignorance, he is doing an
act of injury to the Mother Earth herself, and therefore must claim an act of
retribution and repair the loss of balance in order to absolve himself of guilt. By
providing Mishekae with a new shell that has so many aesthetic connections with the
earth itself, such as “a round hump that resembles her hills and mountans,”
Nanabozhoo is not simply referencing a version of the creation myth, but also showing
an offering of respect to the natural beauty and order that exists in the landscape
before him. By then suggesting that the divisions of the shell are “like the many
tribes that are a part of (Mother Nature); each different and yet connected to her,”
he is drawing his own direct connection to the natural world, while still offering
Mishekae the sacred respect of being the creature who holds its visual representation
on its very back.
By drawing attention to this sense of natural connection through this image of
the turtle, the Michigan people are able to use the idea of the origins of its shell as a
teaching tool to model the kind of respect and kindness that should be afforded to all
species of the earth in the horizontal model of interconnectivity. The “sense of a
mutual relationship advantageous to both animal and man” (Kane, 77) then becomes a
part of the tribal custom and shared knowledge.
Swim, turtle. Swim fast.
Get away from predators
And see tomorrow
"In many Native Ameiican cultuies, each of the thiiteen moons of the yeai is saiu to holu its
own stoiy, anu each is poweieu by the tuitle who is believeu to contain the mysteiy of the
moon in the shell of its back."
(Biuchac anu Lonuon, jacket)$
A long time ago, befoie oui people liveu in tipis anu even befoie they met the buffalo,
oui people liveu on a big islanu in a place that was always waim. Things weie goou: life was
happy anu foou was easy to finu. But because life was easy, the tiibe's population giew, anu it
was not long befoie theie weie too many people foi too little foou. People began to finu less
anu less to eat anu they staiteu to fight ovei the foou that was available.
Anyway, one uay a man nameu Reu Bawk was watching tuitles in a cieek that ian into
the ocean neai his home. Reu Bawk wonueieu why theie was always plenty foi the tuitle's to
eat anu why the numbei of tuitles living in the cieek nevei seemeu to giow.
So Reu Bawk maikeu a young tuitle's shell with a white X anu watcheu this tuitle foi
uays anu uays. Finally, one uay the tuitle with the white X swam towaius the ;K35<. Reu
Bawk followeu. When the tuitle enteieu the open sea, Reu Bawk followeu in his boat. All uay
he followeu the tuitle. At last, just as the sun was setting, the tuitle anu Reu Bawk ieacheu a
new lanu, with tiees, watei, anu plenty of game foi hunting. The people theie weie veiy
Well, Reu Bawk went back home in his boat
iight away to tell his people what he hau founu.
Eveiyone iejoiceu. The new lanu meant that
eveiyone coulu live with plenty of foou without
quaiielling. Nany of Reu Bawk's tiibe loaueu theii
families anu goous into boats anu moveu to the new
lanu to live. Reu Bawk was a heio, anu the tuitle was,
fiom that time on, special foi oui people.
will nur in den See hi-nein
ist a-ber in Not
By placing the turtle in the context of holding “the mystery of the moon on the
shell of its back,” Eagle Walking Turtle is calling attention to the sacredness of the
animal in its connection to the powers of Creation. In fact, the turtle is referenced in
a later part of the myth as “Grandmother Earth,” (Eagle Walking Turtle, 46) as well as
the force guiding the rest of the animals who are seen as the subject of the myths of
the other twelve moons. This idea of sacred power is harnessed by the single turtle
who serves as the subject for the thirteenth moon, thereby giving its message that
much more weight within the context of the story.
This particular legend is unique in that rather than simply being a version of a
common story, it is told from the personal perspective of Eagle Walking Turtle, who
writes in his introduction about how he remembers his grandfather telling these
stories to him when he was a boy living on the Northern Arapahoe Indian Reservation,
“The following thirteen stories are among those that Grandpa told us
about the love and respect our people have for our animal brothers and
sisters – the four-leggeds, the ones that fly, the ones that slither in the
grasses, and the ones that swim in the waters.” (Eagle Walking Turtle, 5)
By acting as a subject in one of Grandpa’s stories, the turtle becomes
synonymous with the figure of a grandfather himself as well as the action of imparting
the traditional knowledge and natural wisdom onto the younger generation. The child is
taught to not only listen to his elders, but also to listen to the voices of the landscape.
Only by letting connecting to the natural world and letting it teach him its secrets will
the boy be successful in his life, just as Red Hawk was in the story. As he recounts in
the way in which his Grandfather ended the story, “Grandpa said that we can learn
from the turtle, who is always slow but deliberate. We, too, should be patient and
should always stop to think before acting.” As long as the younger generation keeps
connecting to the landscape and absorbing “the love and goodness of Grandmother
Turtle, our turtle,” the world will continue to stay young. (Eagle Walking Turtle, 46)
Nature made you right
Alive on water and land
Breathe easy, small one
FIELD NOTE: Place, Space, and Nativity
It has become quite clear in the analysis of these myths that even with bare
linguistic description the works of First Nations and Native American cultures provide
access to a much deeper level of connection than many of the previously examined
poems could afford. I have spent quite some time trying to unravel the question of
modernity versus nativity, and what exactly causes one culture to have such trouble
drawing a deep connection to the natural world and the animals (seen here as the
western pond turtle) that inhabit it while another culture easily experiences it as an
inherent value of their lives. Although authors may use a number of different
terminologies, there seems to be a consensus that it is a matter of place versus space.
According to Lucy Lippard, “Space defines landscape, where space combined with
memory defines place.” (Lippard, 9) In other words, space is merely seen while place
signifies an environment that has been experienced and connected with.
In the words of Lippard, “Northern Americans (White Western Society) are
inherently placeless.” (Lippard, 63) According to Freya Mathews, “Modernity is a
restless condition, a condition with discontinuity with the past and dissociation from
the future.” (Mathews, 11). A human born of such a disconnected modern culture,
although “necessarily born in a particular place…is not of that place.” (Mathews, 60)
Such a distanced view transfers the natural world from a position of being revered
and respected to that of being a material resource for consumption that is “devoid of
subjective interiority.” (Mathew, 60) Putting nature below human on the vertical
hierarchal status system forces a barrier between “human” and “wild”, or “animal”,
which prevents the making of any deep connection.
According to Mathews, “Nativist tendencies, or tendencies towards
cherishing a ‘sense of place’ have been widely identified by scholars across a range of
fields.” (79). Unlike the distance that characterizes modern culture, traditional native
cultures are built around “a deep, pervasive, ubiquitous, all-embracing affinity with
life.” (Westling, 149) Nativity “ascribes an innerness to a place as well as an
outerness,” (Mathews, 49) which aids in creating the deep connection missing from
modernist culture. This kind of inner/outer duality as well as the animation of the
natural landscape “as a living organism and nurturing mother” (qtd. in Bryson, 16) allow
for greater deeper connection and attachment to the landscape as well as the other
species that exist within it.
It is only through this attachment/connection that true relationships with the
The Pond turtel
just want into the Lake
but is in trouble
smallest members of the ecosystem can thrive with the respect and reverence, such
as seen in the previous myths. How do you notice a turtle if you only see the best way
to paver over its home? This idea lies at the heart of the bioregionalism movement.
As Marie Wilson says, “One of the avowed aims of bioregionalists is to become “native
to place” as human groups once were, before the advent of industrial civilization ” (76)
As bioregionalists have adopted the turtle emblem as their totem animal (see above),
one could say that the turtle itself has become a symbol of the greater effort to
return to placeness/nativism and the reanimation of our world. (Mathews, 72)
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Crawling so slowly
But remaining determined
We could learn from you
Eagle was veiy fast. Be iaceu all the Animal People anu beat them. Even Fox anu Wolf
lost. All the Animal People who lost these iaces became Eagle's slaves.
Eagle was Chief of all the animals, except foi Tuitle who liveu with his paitnei Nuskiat.
They weie fiee because they weie the only ones who uiu not iace Eagle. They knew they coulu
not iun veiy fast, but one night, Tuitle hau a uieam. Be was tolu, "You must iace Eagle
tomoiiow to fiee the Animal People. They must be fiee when the People-To-Be come."
In the moining, Tuitle tolu Nuskiat, "uet up! uo foi a swim! uet ieauy! We must iace
"You can not beat him, Tuitle!" Nuskiat saiu unhappily, "You can not beat him! Be flies
"I know. All of oui people lost befoie, but my uieam tolu me to iace anu win," Tuitle
Togethei the two fiienus went to Eagle's camp. Tuitle tolu Eagle, "I want to iace with
"All iight, Tuitle," Eagle answeieu. "Tomoiiow we iace when the sun comes up. If you
win, the animal people aie youis."
"Yes," Tuitle agieeu.
"If I win, Tuitle, I will keep you heie. You aie betting youi life on this iace."
As Tuitle ciawleu away, all the animal people laugheu, because they uiu not think they
woulu evei be fiee
Next uay, Tuitle met Eagle foi the iace. Eagle tolu him, choose youi place, Tuitle. I will
iace you any uistance you ueciue."
"Any place." Tuitle askeu.
Eagle ieplieu, "0ui people heai me. Any place, Tuitle."
0uickly Tuitle saiu, "Then caiiy me up in the aii, Eagle. I will tell you when to uiop me.
Fiom theie we will iace. Whoevei ieaches the giounu fiist wins the iace."
Eagle began to get woiiieu. Be took Tuitle high up. When Tuitle yelleu, "Let go!" Eagle
Be fell like a iock. Eagle tiieu to catch up to him. Tuitle stuck out his heau. "E-e-eeee!
Buiiy Eagle! I will beat you!"
Then Tuitle pulleu his heau in anu fell fastei.
The Animal People watcheu. They all shouteu foi Tuitle.
Nuskiat jumpeu aiounu anu his tail whippeu the aii.
Bis paitnei was winning. Eagle was close! Be thought, "Tuitle will hit the giounu like a
Tuitle uiu, but he stoou up anu tolu the Animal People, "Now I am Chief. You aie fiee.
uo wheie you like, Animal People. Anyhweie!"
The Animal People scatteieu. They woulu tell the People-To-Be about the fiist iaces.
Tuitle spoke to Eagle, "You know, I cannot always beat you, Eagle, but I hau a uieam,
Silly dumb turtle,
Your head small, your shell so big.
Does your flesh taste good?
anu I leaineu how to beat you. I will nevei oveitake youi speeu. You will always be the fastest
one. You will always catch what you want to eat. When the People-To-Be come, they will
uieam too, anu they will leain fiom theii uieams. Iust as I uiu."
Long ago, Tuitle liveu in a beautiful ponu. She was veiy happy because this ponu hau
eveiything a tuitle neeueu. The watei was just ueep enough, theie was plenty of foou to eat,
anu theie weie lots of nice iocks just above the watei foi Tuitle to sun heiself on.
0ne uay, as happens eveiy yeai in the noith, wintei began to come to the lanu. As she
hau uone yeai aftei yeai, Tuitle swam to the bottom of the ponu anu buiieu heiself in the thick
While Tuitle slept foi the wintei, anothei animal came walking along. It was beavei,
who hau been looking foi a new home.
"This will be peifect," saiu Beavei, "once I make some changes."
Soon he began uoing one of the things beaveis uo so well. F3#+;\!!F3#+;\ went Beavei
as he took uown one tiee aftei anothei to builu a big uam.
Be woikeu haiu foi many uays. Anu as he uiu, the watei got ueepei anu ueepei.
Aftei finishing the uam, Beavei maue himself a finu louge of muu anu sticks, then settleu
in foi the iest of the wintei. Be was veiy happy.
The moons came anu went, anu spiing ietuineu once moie to the lanu. The biius sang
anu the ice melteu away. Then Tuitle woke up. Ciawling out fiom unuei the muu, she began to
swim towaiu the suiface of the watei. But she hau to swim highei, anu highei, anu highei,
By the time Tuitle maue it to the suiface, she iealizeu that the watei was foui times as
ueep as befoie! Bei ponu uiun't look the same at all. All of the iocks she loveu to sun heiself
on weie unuei watei. 0n one siue the ponu stietcheu as fai as hei eyes coulu see. 0n the othei
siue stoou a huge uam. Not too fai fiom that was a big iounu louge
Then Tuitle heaiu a louu C347>\ She tuineu to see wheie the sounu hau come fiom. A
stiange animal was swimming towaiu hei. It was beavei.
"Who aie you." Askeu Beavei. "What aie you uoing heie."
"I am Tuitle," Tuitle saiu. "This is my ponu. I have liveu heie my whole life."
"]#8. ponu!" saiu Beavei. "This is +, ponu! Look at my wonueiful uam anu my
splenuiu louge. This is a beavei's ponu."
"Yes," Tuitle saiu, "I can see that you've uone lots of woik. Coulun't we just shaie the
ponu. "Theie's plenty of ioom."
"Ba!" Beavei laugheu. "I will not shaie my ponu with any little tuitle. But I <'%%
challenge you to a iace. Whoevei wins can stay, whoevei loses must go anu finu a new home."
Tuitle uiun't ieally want to iace. She coulu see that Beavei, with his big flat tail, was
House on your back, Jack?
Not a bad set up you got.
How cool is that, Mack?
piobably a much fastei swimmei. But this ponu was the only home she knew.
"I agiee," Tuitle saiu. "We will iace."
It was ueciueu that the iace woulu take place the next moining at fiist light. The two
woulu meet on one siue of the ponu anu iace to the othei. That night, Beavei tolu othei
animals about the iace. Woiu began to spieau thioughout the foiest.
Squiiiel tolu Rabbit, Rabbit tolu Fox, Fox tolu Wolf, Wolf tolu Beei, Beei tolu Noose,
Noose tolu Beai. Soon eveiy animal in the foiest knew
Befoie fiist light came to the lanu, all of the animals of the foiest gatheieu aiounu the
ponu. As they waiteu foi Tuitle anu Beavei to aiiive, many chose siues. Nost of the smallei
animals, such as Nouse, Chipmunk, anu Rabbit, siueu with Tuitle. Nost of the biggei animals,
such as Wolf, Noose, anu Beai, siueu with Beavei.
As they waiteu, they began to sing:
T0RTLE! BEAvER! T0RTLE!
BEAvER! T0RTLE! BEAvER!
They sang even louuei when Beavei came swimming ovei fiom his louge anu Tuitle
poppeu up fiom unuei the watei.
T0RTLE! BEAvER! T0RTLE!
BEAvER! T0RTLE! BEAvER!
Tuitle anu Beavei took theii positions on the shoie.
Beai lifteu his big paw in the aii. "0n youi maik. get set. u0!"
EHPBE?\ went Beavei, leaping off fiom the shoie. Be was ceitain he woulu leave
Tuitle fai behinu. But Tuitle hau gotten an iuea. Befoie Beavei hit the watei, Tuitle
stietcheu out hei long neck, openeu hei mouth, anu bit the enu of Beavei's tail.
ZPBH\!!ZPBH\!!ZPBH\ went Beavei, swimming as fast as he coulu. But as fast as he
went, Tuitle was iight behinu, holuing on as haiu as she coulu.
The othei animals kept cheeiing, but now some of the biggei animals weie
cheeiing foi Tuitle Insteau of Beavei.
T0RTLE! BEAvER! T0RTLE!
BEAvER! T0RTLE! I^_IPN\
Soon Beavei was halfway acioss the ponu. Even though Tuitle was still holuing
on, it lookeu as if Beavei woulu win foi suie. Then Tuitle bit a little haiuei into
ZPBH\!!ZPBH\!!ZPBH\ Beavei swam even fastei. Tuitle still helu on. Now moie of
the animals weie cheeiing foi Tuitle.
T0RTLE! BEAvER! T0RTLE!
Now they weie almost to the othei siue. Beavei seemeu suie to win. But Tuitle
bit as haiu as she coulu into Beavei's tail0!!F_^YF?\!
"]NNNN:1CCCC\L yelleu Beavei. Be flippeu his big flat tail up anu out of the
watei. When his tail ieacheu its highest point, Tuitle let go.
turtle's shell is like
a trailer home but with more
death and much less fun
"Weeee!" sang Tuitle as she flew thiough the aii iight ovei Beavei's heau.
`B:I?^Y`\ Tuitle lanueu on the fai shoie anu ciawleu acioss the finish line.
Tuitle hau won the iace. All the animals cheeieu.
! ! ! ! I^_IPN\!!I^_IPN\!!I^_IPN\
Tuitle was veiy pleaseu. But she coulu see how sau Beavei was. "I woulu still be
happy to shaie my ponu," she saiu.
But Beavei was so embaiiasseu that he left without anothei woiu.
0vei time Beavei's uam fell apait anu the watei got shallowei anu shallowei.
Tuitle hau back all hei wonueiful iocks to sun heiself on.
As foi Beavei, he uiu finu a new home in a ponu not fai away. In that ponu, theie
also liveu a tuitle.
"Can I shaie youi ponu with you." Beavei askeu.
"0f couise," that othei tuitle saiu.
Anu so the two of them liveu theie happily thiough all the seasons to come.
Both the Okanagan story of “How Turtle Set the Animals Free,” and the Seneca
story of “Turtle’s Race with Beaver” show clear characteristics of being a part of the
story foundation that resulted in the classic children’s morality tale “The Tortoise and
the Hare.” In the race between Turtle and Eagle, as well as the race between Turtle
and Beaver, Turtle’s constant characteristics of patience and wisdom win out against
the more outwardly impressive characteristics of quick cleverness and great strength.
The tale of the Tortoise and the Hare mirrors this lesson in the moral of the story,
commonly told as, “slow and steady wins the race.”
As certain aspects of these myths have quite apparently been adapted for use
as a children’s tale, it is not hard to see how these versions could have been written
for use as teaching tools. Using such nature stories in an educational aspect not only
illustrates within a culture their connection and affinity with nature, but also
identifies which social arrangement and personal characteristics were seen as ideal.
In both “How the Turtle Set the Animals Free,” and “Turtle’s Race with Beaver,” the
animal who tries to disrupt the horizontal social structure and place himself in a
position of higher status than the rest of the animals, Eagle and Beaver respectively,
are punished for their sense of entitlement by public embarrassment, as well as the
abdication of their title to the turtle, who represented the characteristics of wisdom
and sharing from the beginning. As Turtle says in the end of “How Turtle Set the
Animals Free,” “Now I am Chief. You are free. Go where you like, Animal People.
Lost in the grasses
Trying to find a marker
To get back home
By the end of both myths it is clear that the teaching moral is not simply
wisdom or patience, but mutual co-operation on all levels of life, which signifies a true
sense of connectivity within a habitat. As Murray Bookchin says in Turtle Talk,
“…nature is not harsh or brutal or anything like that. Nature is riddled with co-
operation, with animals interacting with each other in mutual attempts to survive.
Those animals most fit to survive are those most fit to co-operate.” (127). In the end
of “Turtle’s Race with Beaver,” the act of Turtle still offering to share the pond with
Beaver, even after Turtle has beaten him fairly, is a representation of the flexibility
needed in order to survive peacefully with others.
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sometimes I picture
inside a turtles shell is
a cozy house
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unueistanu the final uselessness foi woius. We aie choius to
othei choius to othei choius, if we'ie lucky, to melouy. The moon
is biightei than anything I can see when I come out of the theatie,
than music, than memoiy of music, oi any meie poem.
(qtu. in Biyson, 67)
Shut down, hibernate
Let the winter pass you by
Start anew in Spring
A Biveise community of plants anu animals liveu in a small ponu in the miuule of a huge city.
0n sunny uays, the animals often ielaxeu siue by siue on a laige ceuai log that was paitly
submeigeu in the ponu.
The log was the meeting place wheie the eluei tuitles, muskiats, beavei, anu othei
animals taught theii young ones. Because all the animals shaieu the same log, the young of
each species leaineu fiom the elueis of all the species.
0ne uay, the tuitles ueciueu they shoulu contiol the log anu the watei suiiounuing it.
They uiew a bounuaiy line on the watei, which only they coulu see. Then they uefenueu theii
teiiitoiy so fieicely that the othei animals hau to move to anothei log.
Some of the young tuitles objecteu when the othei animals weie foiceu to move away.
They complaineu the eluei tuitles weie iuining the community life in the ponu, by becoming
too iigiu anu naiiow-minueu.
A few of the young tuitles ueciueu to bioauen theii knowleuge of the ponu. Sometimes
they left the tuitle log to go listen to the muskiats, beavei anu othei animals. This maue the
eluei tuitles veiy angiy. They saiu only tuitles coulu teach tuitles. They claimeu the eluei
tuitles coulu teach the young tuitles eveiything they neeueu to know.
Nost of the young tuitles weie afiaiu to swim fai fiom the tuitle log. They hau to obey
oi face punishment. But a few weie ueteimineu to swim faithei anu to leain about the othei
oiganisms in anu aiounu the ponu.
0ne uay a young spotteu tuitle appeaieu befoie his elueis.
"I iespectfully iequest peimission to attenu a lectuie offeieu by the muskiats of the
uiveisity of watei plants in oui ponu," he saiu, "I want to leain how the muskiats cieate anu
maintain openings among watei plants foi tuitles anu uucks to use."
"Peimission uenieu," uecieeu the eluei tuitles.
"Why." askeu the young tuitle. "The young muskiats anu beavei aie fiee to go to any
lectuie. Why can't I."
"Peimission uenieu," the eluei tuitles iepeateu, snapping theii mouths shut.
The young tuitle shockeu its elueis when he spoke again. "I also iequest peimission to
attenu a seiies of lectuies offeieu by the beavei on the histoiy of changes in the watei level in
"Peimission uenieu," inteiiupteu the elueis.
The young tuitle ieplieu in a cleai, calm voice that was heaiu thioughout the ponu. "I
must uisobey youi iuling. The stuuents must make the final uecision on which lectuies to
"Tuitles who uisobey must be expelleu!" shouteu a snapping tuitle.
"Expelleu!" choiuseu the eluei tuitles.
The young spotteu tuitle stietcheu his neck faithei to auuiess all his fiienus in the
ponu. 'I will always iespect my elueis. They have taught me the gieatest lesson. The limits of
one's minu uefine the limits of one's woilu.'
Turtle sits on log
Head held aloft, lost in thought
Like the morality myths of “How Turtle Set the Animals Free” and “Turtle’s
Race with Beaver,” “Taddle Pond” is an example of how myths are effective teaching
tools. By using the animal kingdom as a backdrop, negative and positive characteristics
can be reflected back at the human audience in a clearer light. Like the previous
myths, “Taddle Pond” uses the turtle as a symbol for knowledge and wisdom in the
animal kingdom, but in this case it illustrates the negative consequences of excessive
closed-mindedness, which cause a disconnect, as opposed to the sought-after deep
connection with the natural world.
Similarly to the legend of “Thirteenth Moon,” the turtle-as-teacher symbolism
is used in “Taddle Pond” to illustrate those characteristics that should be aspired
towards in order to achieve better balance with the natural world. In this case,
however, it creates an interesting contrast in that it is the younger generation
teaching the older, rather than the more common pattern where knowledge is gleaned
from ones elders. One could speculate that this could be an effort in behavioral
modeling for the younger generation, as they may see themselves more clearly in the
younger turtles in the pond as opposed to the elders.
FIELD NOTE: The Lessons of Dr. Seuss
Although I have found no proof of a direct correlation, it is interesting to note
that many of the themes found in “Taddle Pond” are echoed in the modern classic Dr.
Seuss tale, Yertle the Turtle. In Seuss’ tale, Yertle is the king of the pond, but he is
unsatisfied with the reigning state of equality. He decides that as king, he should be
higher than all else he sees. He says:
"'With this stone foi a thione, I look uown on my ponu
But I cannot look uown on the places beyonu.
This thione that I sit on is too, too low uown.
It ought to he highei!' he saiu with a fiown.
'If I coulu sit high, how much gieatei I'u be!
What a king! I'u be iulei of all I coulu see!'"
Yertle orders his turtles to pile underneath him, building a throne so high he could see
all across the land. But he remains unsatisfied, and continues ordering for more
turtles, even after they complain about his tyrannical ways. He says:
Splash! Into the pond
Careful you are not dinner
For hungry bullfrogs
"'You stay in youi place while I sit up heie anu iule.
I'm king of a cow! Anu I'm king of a mule!
I'm king of a house! Anu a bush! Anu a cat!
But that isn't all. I'll uo bettei than *34*\!
Ny thione shall be highei!' his ioyal voice thunueieu,
'So pile up moie tuitles! I want 'bout two hunuieu!'"
The turtles of the pond continue to be used and abused for King Yertle’s selfish
narcissism. It looks like there will be no end to the cruelty, until one day, Mack, the
Turtle on the bottom of the throne tower, let’s out a burp. From this small action the
entire tower crumbles, and Yertle tumbles from his throne in the sky back into the
mud, where he truly belongs. Seuss writes:
Anu touay the gieat Yeitle, that Naivelous he,
Is King of the Nuu. That is all he can see.
Anu the tuitles, of couise. all the tuitles aie fiee
As tuitles anu, maybe, all cieatuies shoulu be.
In this final line of “maybe, all creatures should be,” Seuss is displaying this technique
of acceptable and admirable behavior through animals. One might suppose that the
turtle makes for such an effective role model in stories such as this, is because it
does embody the character traits of knowledge, wisdom, temperance and ancient being
– as seen in the myths above. Such character traits would be exactly the qualities
that the ideal teacher would encompass as well, thereby drawing another connection
between the image of the turtle and the transference of knowledge between
If just two turtles
mate right and multiply well
there'd be nine turtles
EXPLORATION: EAT YOUR FRIENDS
I can’t do it.
Being a dedicated omnivore, I thought I had more of a stomach for this, but
there is no way in Heaven or Earth I am cooking my turtle.
I thought I was more prepared for this. Seeing as “turtle” was one of the few
species on that could be consumed with relative safety, I really wanted to take the
extra step for our end-of-class luncheon and see if I could prepare a real turtle soup.
I perused websites with catalogues of “game recipes”, and I selected what I thought
would be extra-delicious…. I got as far as the words “cubed turtle meat” before I
realized that this was simply not going to happen. The Western Pond Turtle and I
have gone on an epic adventure during these last twelve weeks, and after everything
we have been through together – endless library visits, pet store interrogations,
aquarium investigations, even international visits to the zoo – how could I throw his
distant relative into a pot? In my mind’s eye, his sad little eyes were giving me a look
of such reproach, such disappointment. I could almost feel him saying, “Have I taught
you nothing during our time together?”
The true culmination of these huge lessons hit me. This wasn’t just an animal – a
creature below me to be commoditized and consumed in cubes as a hilarious delicacy.
He was a part of my habitat. By looking him in the eye I gave him the recognition of a
fellow species in my ecosystem, and the respect of our connection forged from the
same soil. We share the same body of earth, breathe the same air, and see the same
sky. In this moment I can see the turtle of the myths – the metaphysical creature,
the power surreal, the underdog returning to victory as he carries the troubles of the
world on his back. A little turtle never seemed so big.
It shall be turtle chocolates and Painted Turtle Merlot in lieu of turtle soup.
Maybe I am now a vegetarian.
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Tiny litte guy
Pinched between thumb and finger
Retreat for safety
FIELD NOTE: International Adventures to see the Western Pond Turtle
, 4:15 am
I stand at the bus stop on the corner of Main Street and 28
McBreakfast in one hand, burned coffee in the other. As I attempt to fight off the
black morning’s chill, I struggle to remember how exactly it came to be that I got up
(voluntarily) long before dawn with the idea that I was going to catch a train down to
Seattle to look at, of all things, a turtle. The last time I saw 4:15 am was in the
context of not having gone to bed yet. I scan the desolate street, watching the digital
numbers slowly drop on my estimated bus arrival time, I am quite sure that the only
logical reason for my presence here is that I have gone completely and totally insane.
, 11:40 am
I few hours of scrunched slumber in the train car has left me with creaking
joints, but at least refreshed enough to call myself human again. I pull aside the
winder drapes to reveal an unseasonably sunny day that has apparently burned off the
majority of my morning’s bitterness. As I stare at the brilliant Pacific Northwest
landscape rolling by the tracks, I try to piece together exactly how exactly how I the
western pond turtle went from a little scrap of paper in my hand to the subject of an
international railcar adventure. I think to myself that this must be what Laurie meant
when he said to us, “Fall in love with your species…”
No matter how the final end of this project turns out, I feel that I have
definitely achieved that goal.
, 2:15 pm
Standing in the courtyard of the Woodland Park Zoo, in Seattle, Washington,
United States of America.
After several phone calls to the Woodland Park Zoo, I was finally able to get in
touch with the reptile curator, Mark, who was more than accommodating to my strange
request to see the turtle hatchlings. He arranged for me to meet with Bill McDowell,
the turtle handler and hatchling caretaker, who could show me around the entire
Leather dragon skin
I forget your origins
Locked in prehistoric days
Bill and I had agreed to meet at the South entrance to the park. We had
previously exchanged signifying details, something to the effect of “pink hair” for me,
and “green sweater” for him. I scan the pathways, and finally I see him walking
towards me, carrying a slight limp with an awkward gait. He comes up to me and
extends his hand with a friendly greeting. I shake his hand and begin to tell him how
excited and grateful I am to get this “behind-the-scenes” turtle tour at the zoo, but
he immediately interrupts me, telling me it’s a pleasure to have me visit. He leads me
away from the visitor’s entrance and towards the gates labeled “Employees Only.” I
can’t help but feel a little bit special as he unlocks the gate and ushers me through.
We exchange some small talk as we walk up the trail in the direction of the hatchling
facility, and in the course of our conversation I get the feeling that he is as equally
excited to have me visit, as I am to be here. I suppose with elephants and jaguars just
a few paces away, little freshwater turtles don’t seem that exciting to the average zoo
But today I am not the average zoo visitor, and no tropical import could possibly
lead me away from the western pond turtles. And as we near the hatchling house I
begin to have some idea as to how important this visit – this face-to-face meeting with
the subject of my obsessive study over the last twelve weeks’ – truly is. I feel like I
have been planning this moment for so long, that now that I am here I don’t even know
what to do with myself…. We come to the hatchling building – essentially an old barn-
like structure hidden from the main zoo by several layers of brush – and Bill lets me in
first. I am struck by the thickness in the air. The musky odors of wild animals and
sawdust are almost tangible on my skin. As I look to my right I catch a glimpse of a
Tupperware container filled with dead mice, and I do my best not to look horrified. I
have managed to pass myself off as a serious “researcher” thus far. I don’t want to
ruin it now. We pass a couple of rows of enormous bird cages which look, for the
most part, empty save for a pair of brightly colored specimens in the far corner. They
are working on breeding them, Bill tells me.
We turn a corner and pass through an office corridor leading into a second room
that appears to be filled with an assortment of plastic tubs, ranging from the size of
sandwich containers to large bathtubs. We enter, and as my eyes adjust to the dim
light, I realize that all of these containers are filled with TURTLE HATCHLINGS!
From where I am standing they look like bath toys as they slither through the water
as though on propellers. Beside me Bill is pointing out all of the details that make this
“turtle factory,” as he refers to it, a successful endeavor. He shows me his meticulous
hand drawn charts, tracing the measurements and weights of each individual head-
You breathe like a fish
But the water still holds death
When a turtle drowns
start turtle. He explains their method of identification, which gets more complex and
specific the older and bigger they get. He gives me another version of the “Frank and
Kate” operation down in the Gorge…. But I am only half-listening. My attention keeps
getting drawn to these wriggling little creatures as they scramble around their plastic
sandwich bins. I recall my biological research and try to identify all of their aesthetic
characteristics: olive and brown carapice, yellow plastron, grey lizard skin….
Somehow, no matter how accurate and detailed the explanation, no matter how well I
know the facts, it seems somehow different when I finally see the real thing. I am
trying to pay attention to Bill, but I just can’t peel my eyes off these little guys,
watching them as they dive into their “hide-log” the moment my black shadow comes
Bill pauses as he notices my distraction. “Would you like to hold one?” He says.
I don’t even know what to say. I had up until this point been attempting to work
up the nerve to ask him, at the same time not even sure if that was even appropriate.
I was afraid I might crush him or contaminate him with my terrible “city-girl” germs.
But I manage to say, “Can I…?”
Bill says, “Of course!” as though I had asked borrow a pencil, not hold an
incredibly endangered reptile species in my bare hands.
I stand beside him nervously as he reaches his hand into the tank, trying to
catch one of them between his fingers. He passes the creature to me, and I take it
gingerly, somehow afraid that I might do damage even though I know how strong their
shells are. He takes up barely quarter of the palm of my hand, and Bill tells me that
this is one of the “bigger guys.” The moment I touch him all four legs retreat into the
shell, and his neck squishes as far back as it can possibly go. His black eyes stare at
me from the cavern of his two shells, perhaps assessing the danger of this new
stranger. Although I know they are extremely shy by nature, I feel guilty that I have
caused it to be frightened. I stare back at him; I guess hoping I can get the “I come
in peace” message through to him via eye contact. We stare at each other.
There are no words, no poems, and no myths that could possibly describe the
feeling of this moment. This is the true culmination of these weeks, this class…. this
wonderful adventure. Forget everything else I have written. In fact, forget
everything else you have read. This is true connection - the moment you can stare into
the eyes of another living being with the understanding that you both share this
fragile earth. It is unexplainable and intangible. It is true poetry.
The turtle breaks my gaze, and I gently put him back into his plastic bin. This is
the end of our relationship, fittingly forming an end of sorts to my academic project,
Starbucks, shopping mall
Barbie, Ken, video games
Turtles in between
but at the same time there is no end at all. Although this project will be over in a
matter of days, pieces of it will stay with me forever. Not simply in an unusual
interest in the western pond turtle, per se (although that will be there), but also in
greater understanding, appreciation, and respect for the earth that supports my
footsteps each day.
Upon (regretfully) leaving the hatchlings at the zoo, Bill assures me that he will see to
it that I can join the team of graduate students from the University of Oregon that
assist Frank and Kate in the collection of western pond turtle hatchlings each Fall. I
will be sure to keep you updated…… .
Desperate black nails
Clawing at me behind glass
Please don’t look at me
Stewaiuship of place
Intimately woven within community ielationship
The ielationship of people anu theii place. Wheie they call home
The ielationship of people anu foiests, people anu salmon, people anu soil
Conceptual cacophony conjuiing up myiiau images, memoiies
Inteitwineu implication embouieu by cycles of iegeneiation anu iecipiocity
Inteiactive ecological manuate baseu moie on iesponsibilities than piesumeu iights
This iuea of place,
Let us locate ouiselves on this wateiy planet
0n this tectonic Tuitle Islanu
Welcome to the eiuptive Shasta Bioiegion
Sinuous, cienelateu Russian Rivei Wateisheu
0nuulatoiy Westein Sonoma County
Beie in the geneious heauwateis of Butch Bill Cieek
0n this lanu, a simple east facing coastal mountain iiuge
Wheie foiesteu slopes peicolate the ephemeial bounty of falling watei
Bestowing gifts of new quail coveys anu westein ponu tuitles basking on logs
Swallowtail butteiflies anu aeolian tuikey vultuies iiuing theimals
Naming youi wateisheu, filling it with stoiies anu cleai iunning cieeks
Realizing that without exception, eveiyone lives in a wateisheu
0ui insepaiable wateiy bonu we have with place
that so elegantly uefines the ecological bounuaiies
of oui enmesheu ielations with lanuscape
Each home basin a flowing, whispeiing, iespiiing being
upon which we aie all piimaiily uepenuent
anu ueuicate oui lives in obseivant seivice
Take a moment, appieciative of the many wonueis
which suiiounu oui lives anu beai foith such inspiiation
We give thanks foi:
Pacific Steelheau anu Coho Salmon
Tiee fiogs anu immense Chain Feins
0ueen Boletes anu Agaiic Piinces
Resiuent Pileateu Wooupeckeis anu Neo-tiopical Westein Tanageis
Bay lauiel nuts anu Pacific uiant Salamanueis
0lu giowth foiests anu olu giowth soils
Spotteu 0wls, Reu Tiee voles anu uiay Squiiiels
these uancing aiboieal makeis of magic
0plifteu, folueu melange mountains with youthful soils,
lichen iiuuleu blue schist iock outciops
valley heat ueiiveu coastal fog inhalation
Reuwoous uenuiitic piecipitation stiuctuies
Baiuwoou foiests, peiennial bunch giass piaiiies, soft chapaiial
Wet, Wet winteis anu uiy, uiy summeis
anu poison oak anu yellow jackets galoie
Such teacheis of patience anu obseivation,
coyote spiiits that ieminu us to slow uown anu take time to watch
Welcome to this lanu so accustomeu to abunuance
Acoin meal anu ueei hiues: calochoitus bulbs anu salmon flesh,
hazel nuts anu Yampah ioots
Buoyant with inteiactive uiveisity
sculpteu thiough inteigeneiational successionaiy caiegiving
A lanu expectant of mutual iespect
It is with intention that we live togethei
It is with giatituue anu honoi that we welcome you heie
to celebiate with us
anu hope you finu joy anu intiigue
anu caiiy with you
blessings fiom this lanu anu its family
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*Although some of these works have not
been cited directly in my paper, every
single one has in some way shaped my
thought process during this long journey,
and lent a piece of itself into this project
that entirely transcends the boundaries
of a specific point of reference.
“We are anarchists; we must never forget that.
And the proof of anarchism is self-government.
Produced from the blood, sweat, and tears of Erin Jane Samuda