Why you are like a turtle

By Jennifer McKenize

A number of turtles are basking on a sizable log in the middle of a pond here. But I notice that there are gaps on that log – open spaces – and I see lots of turtles swimming around in the pond, their heads protruding just above the surface of the water. “So,” I wonder, “how many of those turtles could fit on that log?”

Well, that depends I suppose. How many turtles can fit on the log depends upon how much room there is on that log. And, it depends upon how many turtles there are swimming around in this pond to populate that log. I wonder, given a large enough log and a great number of willing turtles in the pond, could you conceivably fill a log with turtles even in a small pond? The answer to this question is only marginally complex with just a couple of considerations.

First of all, it depends on the position of the log relative to the water and the attitude of the turtles already there. If the log is big enough and sitting in the water in such a way that there are many spots on the log that are easy for even a smallish turtle to reach directly from the water, then you can fill a log with turtles. This is not just theoretical. I know you can fill a log with turtles because I have seen it done – on more than one occasion. And from where I was sitting, the turtles even all looked happy to be there. Now the part earlier where I said, “…that depends..on the number of turtles there are in the pond…” was a trick. That was a trick, you see, because there are always way more turtles in the pond than could ever fit on even a huge log all at one time. So, in reality, you could fill a single log over and over again, as long as the turtles who found their spot on the log first are willing to move over and occasionally rotate off to share their precious log space.

The second consideration is this: Because turtles tend to move rather slowly and cautiously, moving over proves tricky and probably scary for most turtles. You see, just getting out of the water onto a log can be difficult for them in the first place, especially if the log is narrow-ish and only part of the log is touching the water in such a way that there is an entry point for them to climb on and find a place to sit. And to further complicate matters, I’ve noticed that very often a turtle will climb onto the end of the log – the only part touching the water and therefore the only easy access point – and then just sit there. That turtle will stop right where it got on and block the path of potential oncoming turtles. Now, I don’t think these turtles are being mean. I think they just don’t think – they just don’t see that they are preventing other turtles from having a place on the log. “I made it on here just fine,” they might muse, “so I don’t see why others aren’t here with me. What’s their problem?”

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that when turtles are in the water, swimming around, they seem to move with great ease and agility, even rapidity, and they tend to congregate naturally. But when they are on that log, these self-same turtles appear to be afraid to move, afraid to renegotiate their initially assumed and secure position on the log even if by doing so they could make room for other turtles to congregate with them on that sunny log. And yet, as treacherous as they seem to find it to renegotiate their initially assumed position on the log, if something frightens them or upsets them, even a curious stranger from a great distance – they will not hesitate to dive right off of the comfort of their log into the water.

So the fear that turtles have isn’t fear of falling into the water. Why should they be afraid of the water? After all, turtles live in the water. But it appears that turtles are afraid of two things: First, they are afraid of curious strangers approaching them from a distance; they feel innately threatened. Second, turtles are afraid of having to make room on the log even for their own kind – of having to renegotiate their position on it, even if the only real consequence is that more of their turtle friends could join them in the congregation of the sunny log in the pond. I find this silly and sad because I think all turtles need a spot on the log. They all – ALL turtles – need to have a space made for them so they can enjoy the healthy effects of the warm sun on their hard shells.

So, how many turtles can fit on a log in a pond? Never enough. What can be done about this problem? Well, that depends. It seems to me that far more turtles could fit on the log if the irrational fear and lack of insight of the turtles already there could be overcome. But in the absence of overcoming the inherent fear and lack of insight problem, the practical issue to address is this: Given the current conditions, there aren’t enough spots on the logs in the pond – hell, there aren’t enough viable logs in the ponds – for all the turtles who want to gather, to bask in the sun with their turtle friends, and even a turtle stranger or two, surrounded by but temporarily removed from their watery home. Why aren’t there more logs? I think there used to be more great logs but many of them have rotted and sunk to the bottom because they became water-logged sitting there in the same position day in and day out for months and months and years and years.

I think it is too bad that so many turtles are stuck with having to think that sticking their necks out a little so that their heads are just staying above water is the best they can ever ask for or imagine. This is a problem that could be solved by looking for spots in the sun that are not on traditional logs in the middle of the pond, yet as far as I could tell, nothing is being done to move in this direction. Maybe there are new logs that will emerge after a storm. Maybe some turtles are keeping their eyes open in case one of the old logs rises to the surface again, fully intact with plenty of room for them. Maybe some turtle could take the lead and find a safe spot in the sunny grass on the edge of the pond. Maybe…but so far I’ve only seen one turtle that has set foot outside of the pond.

And that is why we are like turtles.

The Rev. Jennifer McKenzie, formerly assistant rector at St. David’s Episcopal Church, Washington, D. C., recently accepted a call to Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Va. She keeps the blog “The Reverend Mother.

Past Posts