The Wisdom of Turtles

By Michael J. Caduto

Turtles and their primal habitats evoke a sense of antiquity. The ability to adapt to different environments and survive through eons of time has inspired turtles’ association with wisdom.

I once went for a vernal hike in some oak woodlands and discovered a dead eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) in the middle of the trail. The turtle was lying on its back, but there were no markings to tell the story of how it died. I saved that turtle’s shell and used it to make a rattle that has since seen the passing of 45 springtimes; a span of time in which it has led some 500,000 people in dance.

Five years after finding that box turtle I moved to Vermont and began to meet individuals of Abenaki and Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) descent. Turtles, I was told, have thirteen scales on their backs, each of which represents one of the moons we see throughout the year. My scientific training prompted me to search for proof among the shells of turtles around the world. To my amazement, everything from 400 pound green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) to our familiar painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) have 13 scales on their backs. Science and indigenous wisdom converge on a terrapin’s carapace.

The word science is itself rooted in the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge.” When someone makes a statement, our first instinct is to ask, “Where’s the proof?” Science can answer a range of questions: Who? What? When? Where? How? It provides a rational, factual lens through which we can better understand the world around us and make sound decisions.

But we turn to wisdom to answer the all-consuming question of “Why?” Wisdom helps us to discover and explore the meaning of our existence. Underlying this timeless question is an ineffable wonder about the origin of humans and the rest of the cosmos.

Recently, while leading a circle dance of thanksgiving with an audience in North Hero, Vermont, I wondered what the world that humans have created would look like through the eyes of a turtle. Our collective experience of the many ways global warming is impacting our home planet, including local communities, has many people pondering humanity’s role as planetary stewards—from the burden of that responsibility to the outsized impact our actions are having on the plants and animals with whom we share this precious sphere. In the words of the late renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan, from his book Pale Blue Dot, “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

Ask someone from among the six nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and they will likely tell you that Earth rests on the back of a giant turtle, turning ever slowly toward the dawn. The measured motion of Turtle’s character is often considered an attribute of being wise. Wisdom figures do not run around or act in haste, they take their time and weigh the consequences. Each act is well-considered. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” If Descartes had been a turtle, he might have said, “I creep, therefore, I am.”

A turtle’s wisdom is truly begotten of age. For more than 230 million years turtles have inhabited land and water. During half of that time they crept through the legs of dinosaurs, those reptilian behemoths whose steps once shook the ground that would become New England, including the swift-moving prosauropod Otozoum, “giant animal,” and the 20-foot theropod, Eubrontes giganteus, “large true thunder.” Turtles ducked inside their shells when packs of the turkey-sized, carnivorous Grallator swarmed across the Connecticut Valley on two feet and mounted a rapacious attack, each appearing like a miniature Tyrannosaurus rex. One hundred million years ago, young Archelon sea turtles (that could grow to a length of 13-feet) fell prey to 50-foot long, fish-shaped reptiles called mesosaurs and 35-foot plesiosaurs, which would one day inspire the Loch Ness Monster and Lake Champlain’s “Champ.” Turtles survived the mass extinction of 65 million years ago that put an end to the dinosaurs’ reign, swimming in ancient seas as the ancestor of today’s loons sliced the water with powerful webbed feet, snapping at pray with deadly rows of dentition. Mastodons, dire wolves, giant beavers as big as black bears and even mountains themselves rose, and fell, but turtles lumbered on through time.

Each turtle is a sage in a shell, a beneficent Buddha. There is undeniable wisdom in their eyes. When we see Galapagos tortoises excreting excess salts from ducts at the corners of their eyes, we know that this is a biological function, but we perceive it as tears. It is easy to imagine these gentle giants are aware that there are at least twelve fewer species of turtles in the world as a result of humankind’s shortsightedness, including 3 Galapagos species, all of which were wiped out during a 16-year period that ended in 1906. Every one of our revered sea turtles is now listed as threatened or endangered.

The eastern box turtle of New England is a protected species because it has either disappeared or is declining in much of its former range due largely to habitat destruction, road kill and illegal poaching for pets sold mostly in Southeast Asia for thousands of dollars. Southern New England states list the box turtle as a “species of special concern” (MA and CT) and “species of greatest conservation need” (RI). It is endangered in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

As an evolutionary strategy, going slow and steady has served turtles well through the ages, but is often no match for the pace and appetites of humankind. Fortunately, we can read the stories in a turtle’s scales, and find there a world complete. It is a place upon which we can choose to bring to bear the full force of our scientific knowledge, and wield it with a sagacious hand.


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