May 23, 2013
We All Live on Turtle Island
Posted on Jul 22, 2010
Editor’s note: We are pleased to announce a new column, “Letter From the West,” by Deanne Stillman. In this and future installments, Deanne will explore what is going on in our wide open spaces and what we do to each other and all that lives there. As she explains, “Above all else, the personal is geographic and the reverse is true as well. I would like for people to renew our basic connection with the West. Otherwise we are dismantling our country and our heritage all by ourselves.”
Ours is the age of the grand gesture and outrage fatigue; it’s hard to top planes flying into towers, and with every terrible story that has unfolded since 9/11, our attention spans have diminished. Yet now we are awash in images of the Gulf of Mexico in flames and sea creatures swimming in oil gushing from a deep wound in the planet. These images are difficult to look away from, and it seems as if this incident in the Gulf—the blowout deep under the sea that no one had prepared for—is so awful, so final in its consequences that nowadays, for the first time in many years, we are more fully engaged with matters beyond our immediate needs—at least for the moment.
The concern is both general and specific; many people with whom I’ve spoken about the oil spill have been following one very particular aspect of it—the geology of the sea floor or currents in the Gulf. Some are concerned with one animal, either because they always have been or are now drawn to it for a range of reasons. In my case, I find myself preoccupied with turtles. Unable to go down there and wash them, I ponder their fate all the time, dream about them, and was both thrilled and calmed at the news that their eggs are being rescued in a massive operation involving NASA and Federal Express. Because I live in the West and spend a lot of time in the wilderness drylands, my attention has turned to their earthbound kin, the desert tortoise, a prehistoric creature which crosses my path every now and then when I’m hiking in the Mojave.
When speaking of the natural world, for good reason we often turn to Native American myth. Turtle carries the world on its back is what many of these myths tell us; we are all citizens on turtle island. Yet we gringos often overlook our own stories in which various animals have served as totems and avatars (although sometimes that service has not necessarily been intended by the authors). Looking back on my early encounters with turtles, first literary and later real, I realize now that these turtles were among my first guides to the desert, long before I had physically ventured to my spiritual home. As I recall, I met my first turtle in “Eloise,” the classic book about the little girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel with only her nanny, her dog Weenie, and her turtle Skipperdee. “The Plaza is the only hotel that will allow you to have a turtle,” Eloise said in her sophisticated and simple way.
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