But perhaps we know enough. According to Native American myth, the tortoise is responsible for our very existence. According to Kay Thompson, it kept a little girl company in her big empty suite at the Plaza Hotel. According to the old gringo Lewis Carroll, it remembered how to dance and made sure to pass the knowledge on, before it was made into soup. Recently, I was hiking in a part of the Mojave adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park. It was my father’s birthday. He passed away 14 years ago, and as I walked across the sands on a spring day just after the first wildflowers had shot through, I heard a few lines from “Eldorado” in my head—or maybe it was drifting on the wind—I do not know, but it was my father speaking them: “Gaily bedight, a gallant knight, in sunshine and in shadow, had traveled long, singing a song, in search of Eldorado. ...”
I walked on with my little hiking group, and the biologist among us spoke of different kinds of blossoms and how to tell the difference between male and female, and, as we walked, I found myself yearning for the sight of a tortoise. Turning to my right, a large one emerged from its burrow. I was stunned. I had not seen a tortoise in years, and I watched the old fellow paddle across an alluvial fan, making for some greens. In an instant, many things came together. A few years earlier, on the anniversary of my father’s death, in a different part of the Mojave, a coyote appeared, running across some train tracks. My father in fact was a coyote—a trickster—and it seemed right. But a tortoise? At first the idea saddened me; had it come to this—the life of the party now represented by such an ancient, silent and gentle presence? But the more I thought about it, the more I knew the message to be true: His spirit was finally at rest—no more tricks and jokes and now you see me, now you don’t kind of stuff—and he had come to reside in the land of escape that he had conjured for me long ago.
I watched the tortoise clamber on, from flower to flower, its mouth greening up as it devoured the desert buffet. Judging from its size, I guessed that he (or she) was about 75 or 80 years old—my father’s age if he were still alive. It occurred to me that this tortoise could have been the last one in its range, or even the last one in the southern Mojave. Who will teach us the lessons of life and loss and rebirth if it vanishes? I thought as it headed back to its burrow under a creosote bush. Who will teach us the Mojave quadrille?
Deanne Stillman’s latest book is the widely acclaimed “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West,” a Los Angeles Times “Best Book ’08” and winner of the California Book Award silver medal for nonfiction. Her book includes an account of the 1998 Christmas horse massacre outside Reno, as well as the story of Bugz, the lone survivor of the incident. Follow Deanne Stillman on Facebook.