Do Turtles Believe in the Future?
June 6th, 2020, after visiting a local park, my brother sent me this email:
Subject: Turtles still believe in the future.
A turtle laying her eggs in an unspoken bid for immortality
with hope for a future for her children.
She uses her life energy to dig a hole to lay her eggs in, lays her eggs
but will never see her children.
She hopes they will hatch, emerge
from the earth and struggle to the water as she and her mother before her did.
I went back several days to the same spot and was able to find the clutch hole where she had laid her eggs even though it had rained.
I’m probably the only individual besides that turtle that knows where she laid her eggs.
I intend to keep her secret.
His email stuck to me. I asked permission to use his words, and later that summer I wrote, “It is August 3rd, and the eggs may be hatching soon.” I meant to write more – about how my brother’s observance of the turtle felt poignant, how investing in care for things that may not last or work out is an act of hope that seems more instinctive than rational. There are so many acts of hope we all make (or is it faith?) during the pandemic, during the climate crisis, and the culture wars, and growing inequity – all where it seems the odds are getting worse. The turtle’s actions felt like a teaching to learn from and share.
But I didn’t finish the story that summer. I went on hiatus from this column while I was completing a program that used up all my writing time and energy. So, I put the turtle story away, hoping it might hatch later.
Now it is a year later and I’ve returned to the turtle story. Unlike the baby turtles, it won’t hatch on its own. The words won’t push outward from the page and crack the margins, crawling out to grow into a new viable life form that can sustain itself and go on to fulfill its own purposes. So how do you hatch a teaching into a story? What inspires that outward force from the seeming stability within the shell?
Questions, related to the root, “quest,” are one source of outward energy. Questions can thrive in times of uncertainty (which are all times, really.) Some questions I have for the turtle story have to do with time and risk. How many eggs did she lay in 2020? How many turtles successfully emerged? How many made it past predators and urban hazards like crossing roads to grow to maturity? How did they make it through winter? How many mated and laid more eggs in June 2021 in that park? What are their odds of survival?
The “quest” in those questions is not objective. The questions belie a paradigm of scarcity and risk, and they seek a sense of hope through determining and beating the odds of life. There are other questions I could ask, that represent other beliefs and other quests. I could ask: How does she decide where to lay her eggs? What is on her mind? Does she feel something? Is turtle consciousness like ours? What would she wonder if we looked in each other’s eyes – creature to creature? Do the baby turtles wonder about their mother? Do they blink in awe at the bright world outside their shell?
Those questions are different. They are not about duration and death statistics, but about curiosity and appreciation of the wonder of life’s movements and moments.
Mailing Eggs to the Future
June 6th, 2020, on the same day that my brother emailed me his turtle observation, I had composed a postcard.
June 6, 2020
I journaled about truth and transformation. A neighbor chalked "LOVE" on their driveway.
The postcard was part of a larger art project called, “Postcards from the Pandemic.” Each day from March 21 through June 21, 2020 I had decided to find an image and write a note for a postcard that captured moments of the strange pandemic times. Initially the idea had been an attempt to find order amidst the disintegrating sense of time I felt, as plans for school, for work, for travel, for everything were gradually altered or cancelled. I wrote postcards about hygiene and safety, the deconstruction of our street, about apple blossoms, and pandemic news stories. And then starting near the end of May, there were postcards about George Floyd’s murder, about uprisings, and about grace. I wrote these postcards as a person deposits observations into a time capsule. They were not messages from one place to another, but from one time to another.
One year after I started, in March, 2021, I cleaned out a salvaged mailbox from my childhood garden and installed it in the woods by my house to receive these messages from the prior year. Each day, one year later, one postcard emerged from the mailbox, presenting itself to the bright world outside. I documented the delivery, reading each postcard aloud to acknowledge its arrival.
Why do we send messages to the future? Why does the turtle lay eggs she will never see? Why does the neighbor child chalk “LOVE” onto the sidewalk, not knowing who will read it, while knowing the rain will wash it away? And how? How does society, and its individual people keep showing up to push for justice, for climate solutions, for pandemic responses despite the uncertain odds of success in their lifetimes?
Not all messages will be read. Not all stories will be heard. Not all turtle eggs will hatch, and then of those that do, not all will survive to start a new generation. But we living creatures seem to have a natural instinct toward habits of hope. We use our life energy to cast eggs and seeds and art and stories into the future, believing that some of our efforts might see the light--or be a light--in a later, and better world.