The Examined Life

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Turning Over Turtles

Where I grew up the summers were long and hot. Life seemed slower then. Our family moved around a lot but I always lived within walking distance of fields of corn or wheat and forests with trees so large I couldn't get my arms around some of them. There were always creeks to wade in with crayfish underneath the stones in their beds. There were ponds with tall rushes that concealed an asylum choir of croaking frogs.

In the tall rushes in the shallows of the pond there lived small amphibious turtles called terrapin that grew to be about the size of a man's open hand. Often by the banks of the pond or along a Forest Path I would find the remains of one of these turtles. Inevitably they would be drawn into their shell that was tightly closed. Not long after their death the soft parts of their bodies would be completely consumed by parasites, leaving only their shell and their bones inside that rattled mysteriously went shook.

Occasionally and I would find a turtle shell tightly closed, not in the upright position but lying upside-down with the round portion of the shell resting on the ground. Invariably the bones would rattle about inside when I shook the shell.

One of my favorite ponds deep in the woods had a large rock shelf at the shoreline were I would sit and skip stones. At the edge of the shelf rushes grew in the shallows that were teaming with life. Above the shelf there was a grassy embankment with an abrupt drop-off of only a few inches. As I approached I noticed a turtle lying on his back on the rocky shelf where he had landed after apparently having fallen from the grassy embankment. He didn't see me as I watched while he struggled in a frantic attempt to right himself by extending his legs backwards toward the smooth rocky surface below him just out of his reach. I watched several minutes as he struggled in the hot sun first thrusting with one leg, then with another. He would rest for several minutes and then the struggling would start again. Finally I approached. Aware of my presence, he retracted his head and limbs into his shell closing it tightly.

I knew by the next time I visited the pond, assuming some animal did not find and eat him; his body would be turned into a rattle like the others I had found. I reached down and picked up his motionless body and carefully placed him right side up on the rock shelf. I stepped back and waited several minutes while he remained tight in his shell apparently startled by my intervention.

Suddenly his shell opened and his head popped out followed quickly by his legs. Oblivious to my presence and without the slightest hesitation he scrambled quickly into the shallows of the pond amongst the rushes and disappeared.

I sat there on the rocky shelf for a few minutes gazing at the shimmering water below with the blue sky above watching the rushes bending in the wind. In that moment I was filled with that sense of peace that comes from feeling that all is right with the world.