Alice pondered the information and then the Mock Turtle longingly recalled his earlier life, wiping tears from his eye with his paddle. “You may not have lived much under the sea,” he said, “so you can have no idea what a delightful thing a Lobster Quadrille is.” “What sort of a dance is it?” Alice asked. “Why, you first form into a long line along the seashore,” the Gryphon said. “Two lines!” the Mock Turtle added. “Seals, turtles, salmon, and so on; then you’ve cleared all the jellyfish out of the way. ...” “It must be a very pretty dance,” Alice said. “Would you like to see it?” responded the Mock Turtle, happy to demonstrate this part of his past. “Very much indeed!” Alice said, and the Gryphon and Mock Turtle went on to perform the Lobster Quadrille. And then the moment passed but the Gryphon wanted the show to go on. “Would you like the Mock Turtle to sing you a song?” the Gryphon asked Alice. “Oh, a song please, if the Mock Turtle would be so kind,” Alice replied. “Sing her ‘Turtle Soup,’ will you, old fellow?” the Gryphon urged. And once again, the soulful turtle began to sob, belting out the tale of his own demise:
Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Soo—oop of the e—e—evening,
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!
Years later, I was the one who was crying when, during a shamanic journey involving hundreds of people at an airport hotel (click here for full story), I had a vision of my maternal grandmother handing me a vial of tears—my own—as I stood under a Joshua tree in a trance. Along that subterranean path there was a giant desert tortoise; he had accompanied me to the rocky shrine where I received the gift that changed my life, and since then I have been comforted to know that even though I don’t always see them, tortoises are in the Mojave when I am and, more important, when I’m not. Yet I sometimes feel the urge to be near them, and when I do, I drive north from Los Angeles, a latter-day Alice dropping through a freeway sinkhole and emerging at their home in the Desert Tortoise Natural Area near California City.
There’s a famous old tortoise named Mojave Max at Red Rock Canyon in Nevada, and every year school kids bet on the moment when he will crawl out from his burrow after hibernating all winter. In the springtime and into the summer, I like to walk the paths of the Antelope Valley preserve, hoping to get lucky; you can spot a tortoise burrow near the base of the creosote bush, and I sometimes plant myself near one and wait for the ancient critter to reappear. In the meantime, plenty of other desert entertainment abounds. If the rains have come, the preserve is a blaze of glory, with the violet Mojave aster popping on the desert floor, yellow seas of goldfield rippled by the winds, and purple and white profusions of flowers on the calyx bush. Red-tailed hawks and woodpeckers and cactus wrens frequent the tortoise habitat, and of course snakes and lizards and tarantulas also call it home, as do the ground squirrel and badger and coyote.
Once there were vast cities of tortoise in the Colorado and Mojave deserts of California. During the 1920s, there were a thousand of the creatures per square mile. By 1990, the state reptile had become officially endangered. Its habitat was degraded by decades of unchecked cattle grazing, and off-roaders had begun to take their toll. Today there is a profusion of ravens in the desert, because ravens follow what people throw away, and parts of the desert are strewn with leftovers. When they’re finished, they turn to tortoise hatchlings. On the 40 square miles of the sanctuary outside California City, and elsewhere across the Mojave, the desert tortoise is making what may be its last stand. As it happens, this is no ordinary reptile fighting for its life (not that that makes its struggle any less compelling), but a reptile that may actually be like Skipperdee and the Mock Turtle. That is to say, it has a personality, according to a study made several years ago by U.S. Geological Survey biologist Kristin Berry. That critters have certain traits and feelings is not news to me, but if such “news” can stave off extinction, I’m all for it.
Berry studied the tortoise population at the Army base of Fort Irwin, before the animals were relocated to make way for expanded military maneuvers. After outfitting tortoises with transmitters, she learned that No. 43, for instance, a 10-pound alpha male, was actually a bully who turned to mush whenever he looked at a female. “But he was a heck of a fighter,” she told a Los Angeles Times reporter. “And he patrols a huge territory. We’ve seen him make arduous journeys across a wash and halfway up a mountain just to beat up a smaller male.” Then there was No. 41, an old, reclusive female with osteoporosis. She had four boyfriends, preferring them to the alpha males who occasionally visited her. No. 28 was an 80-year-old “cad” and “fearless kingpin.” Soon 300 of the Fort Irwin tortoises would be moved to similar habitat. “There’s so much we don’t know about these creatures,” Berry said.