Sunday, September 11, 2011

Summer in Kansas: Turtles All the Way Down

Consider the humble box turtle, Terrapene ornata ornata, a smallish reptile of the Great American Desert, a hapless creature prone to wander from the concealing roadside grasses onto highways.

Turtles are generally modest creatures, not given to bouts of ill temper, never petulant or neurotic, neither skulkers nor biters, never (like a gang of raccoons) strewing the contents of your trash can across a driveway like an FAA crash team reassembling airliner debris.

For all of these reasons, whenever I spot a box turtle wandering slowly across a stretch of Kansas highway, I pull over, walk back to the spot, remove the turtle to the grassy verges of the road, and aim it into the middle distance before I go on. I've found them, snub noses bloodied from a sidewall but still serviceable, stunned but able to churn their slow way into the neighboring ditch, or nonplussed by the quick whirr of tires around them. But then, turtles always appear haplessly nonplussed, somehow deserving of our basic sympathy and succor.

From 50 feet away at 65 mph, they're hard to spot on the roadway, bearing as they do an unfortunate resemblance to a dislodged chunk of pavement. Which of course reduces their chances of surviving the crossing. So it was, the other afternoon, coming along a country road that I did a U-turn to go back and retrieve one of my fellow creatures from an awful fate. The traffic was uncharacteristically heavy just at the moment and as I stood on the roadside, waiting for the last cars to pass so I could venture over on foot to retrieve the turtle, there was the predictable sound from beneath the final car, like a tire running over a full can of Bud Light. 

The irony of the situation was thick - me standing at the side of the road bent on a quick act of mercy, a whole line of autos save the very last missing the little critter, and in a moment my chances for kharmic enhancement and his chances in general erased before my eyes. In the heat of my chagrin I was perhaps ungenerous - it may not have been a moment of deliberate malevolence. Still, I can only hope that his own terrapine kharma may someday return the selfsame turtle to us as a right honorable Senator.

Terrapene ornata ornata (washingtonensis)

I'm not certain what it means to say that "life is sacred." I don't suppose a turtle's life is any more or less sacred than my own. I think all it can mean is that being human and self aware, we all take a particular interest in our own lives and, by extension, in the lives of those near to us and to all those who resemble us specifically, and perhaps by a further extension (in minds capable of extending themselves) to sentient, living creatures in general. Given a world of flourishing living things, it seems only a natural sentiment to wish them continuance, health, pleasure and a prosperity after their own kind. So long as a deer remains out of my immediate trajectory, or a raccoon out of my garbage can, or a skunk out of my parlor, I can wish them well and am to that extent able to consider their lives sacred.

Turtles, of course, are a special case, holding as they do a special place in our cosmology. The earth, it is thought, rests on the back of a great turtle, who presumably rests on the back of a fellow, and so on ad infinitum or ad absurdum (your choice).

The Infinite Turtle Regress

Hume remarks (somewhere) that this sympathy is based on resemblance - our sympathies are strongest for those of our own kind most familiar to us, related by blood or daily commerce or community; that it dwindles as our relations become more remote, or as our physical resemblance lessens, or in a degree as our species differs. So I may be elated to meet a fellow English speaker in the reaches of Outer Mongolia; and perhaps equally elated to encounter a fellow living creature such as a crustacean, were we both stranded on Mars. (A situation, you may have perceived, not unlike encountering a benign reptile in western Kansas.)

"Whither away shall I today -
Miami, Milwaukee, or Mandalay?"

It is for this reason I can regret the turtle's demise but clean the grasshoppers from my windscreen with resignation rather than regret. Many other creatures could never engage my sympathy - even on Mars. 

 Eric Cantor

1 comment:

  1. Tears. Some for the "essay" but most because I've been reading senseless crap on this internet and "clicking through to poo".

    I've been somewhat biased against blogs, I don't know why, I thinks it's what I've heard in the background, blogs being "news" and baseless "opinion factories".

    But this, if I could find more of this, I'd be a more beautiful person. I think I'm going to have nice dreams tonight, thank you.