What the Turtle Knows

A second look at a spirit animal of underrated bravery

By Isabel Zermani

Yesterday I saw a turtle from far away. I’ve seen many turtles on the way to our offices, a little turn off Market Street that takes you to an oasis of green. I’ve stopped to give them a lift across the road — from forest to pondside — or just smiled to myself at seeing something natural and a little wild before a day at the office. I’ve seen them swimming in the pond or shading themselves under the shrubbery, as big as a helmet, as small as a child’s hand.

This turtle, the one I saw yesterday, was traveling much farther than any of the turtles I’d seen before. He had even crossed the railroad tracks between the pond and the office and was now out in the open. This is not exactly a safe place for a turtle to be. The long driveway is nearly white with crushed gravel, and the nearby grass fields are trimmed short. For an acre in every direction, he’s exposed.

Not blessed with speed or agility, the turtle inches along as best he can, making him an easy target for predators and snide remarks. From my distant window, I see his shape, a dark half moon, with legs appearing to strain out and tuck in with each step. Out, in, out, in. I easily track his progress, but not his bravery. I find myself questioning this turtle’s choices: Why are you so far out? What if your timing is bad? Where are you even going? For just another patch of trees across the driveway and field? Why leave the pond? You’ll just end up turning around and going back and then what?

The turtle inches along. No cars yet. Then the turtle stops in place. A shadow passes over him. It’s a large bird flying overhead. The turtle is hiding. But against the crushed gravel driveway, the visibility of this tasty turtle morsel is laughable. Why didn’t you just stay at the pond? I shout in my mind. He’s stopped in the dead center of the driveway. Surely, this is it for the turtle and he will rue the day. His shell may seal into protective armor to thwart a bird, but it’s no match for a truck tire.

The shadow passes. The bird is gone. The turtle resumes his hero’s journey.

My husband and I have decided to move to Santa Fe for his job, but also, the next adventure. I realize my anxious, nagging questions for the turtle leaving his pond are somewhat personally revealing. I am excited for the next chapter, but, like any risk, leaving this happy hamlet raises some doubts.

I’ve also seen a rabbit in this field before. A little brown bunny nibbling amid the clover flowers with glassy button eyes that watched me watching him with trepidation. I didn’t move. Then he sprang into a little brown sprint, and a few bounces of white tail and he was gone.

Watching this turtle from the office balcony, it occurs to me that the “Tortoise and the Hare” fable does not accurately consider the nature of these two animals. The hare is portrayed as an arrogant, lazy, pompous Joe Camel-type who could easily win the race if he applied himself; he just doesn’t. In a 1935 Disney Silly Symphony short, the hare takes a nap and then can’t catch up to the slow-plodding joy-kill tortoise.

The rabbits I’ve met are easily spooked, challenge no one, but can draw blood with frantic scratchings to escape a hug. Hares, their larger cousins, still do not seem to possess the hubris endowed to them in this fable, but do grow mad or “harebrained” in captivity. There is a Native American myth about the fearful rabbit, that their fear exacerbates itself, snowballing into actual harm like a self-fulfilling prophecy; a fable I find more relevant.

Turtles, on the other hand — as I’m witnessing — are terribly brave and charge forward in the face of many adversaries. Some of them can take your finger off, but first, they must summon the mettle to let their enemy get well within snapping distance. They don’t spring away at the slightest twitch.

If the race is a race against one’s self, the turtle wins.

Back at the office, the turtle has crossed the white driveway and made it into the grass. He tucks himself against a low landscaping wall and rests for a minute in the shade before starting off again toward the magnolia tree, the field beyond, and the unexplored crop of trees behind the iron workshop. Where is he going? What will happen? That’s for the turtle to know. But fortune always favors the bold.

Goodbye, Wilmington!

Isabel Zermani, our senior editor, prefers the storied life.

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