How to Read Novels with Sea Turtles (draft)

***submitted for publication to the Eno Journal, comments and feedback welcome!


A sea turtle hatching is called a “boil,” a lovely verbal metaphor for the transition from stillness to turbulence.  Imagine a mound of sand that, after hours of waiting, suddenly overflows with small turtles, little windup toys flapping one fin and then another. We see them only during this brief interval when they make their short, vulnerable dash from beach to the ocean, disappearing into the waves. Sea turtles cross earth, air, sea—and they, ship-like, survive. Sea turtles connect us to the elements we cannot live in, and perhaps for that reason have (in literary and mythic imaginaries) stood for islands, for continents, for the Earth.

This is what I was thinking one summer evening, with a hundred other people. I had heard about the hatching from Matthew Godfrey, NC’s state sea turtle biologist, while I was teaching a literature class at the Duke Marine Lab.  This was clearly an opportunity for a teaching moment, so a few students and I carpooled over to Atlantic Beach for the 7pm “excavation,” where volunteers from the NC Sea Turtle Network met to uncover any remaining hatchlings from a nest that had boiled two days prior.  We arrived to see a small crowd quietly gathered, with people from either direction walking over to see what was happening.  As we trudged through the sand and came closer, the conversation quieted: one of the volunteers told me that studies from Duke suggested that hatchlings could be stressed out by noise, so everyone made an effort to keep almost ceremonially mute.

Perhaps this was a kind of ceremony, I though.  If so, what were its parameters?  The volunteers were digging and smoothing a sort of “birth canal” from nest to ocean, roped off on either side to hold curious onlookers apart.  If I was seeing a ceremony, it was clearly about maternity and birth, about a kind of process of renewal through both witnessing and safe-guarding these turtles through the only environment we could share with them and hence help protect: the beach.  When the head volunteer began to carefully scoop away sand and, finally, uncovered the first turtle, a flurry of cameras came out.  The turtle paparazzi adoringly pointed their cameras at the hatchling, which has the unfortunate side affect of ensuring complete inattention to their fellow human beings. “Someone almost sat on my head!” one of my students complained to me later.

Discourtesy aside, I wondered at the new life I was witnessing. I noticed two old men, looking kindly with rounded bellies, gazing with their spotlight eyes on the tiny, tiny dot in the sand that was the sea turtle hatchling.  I thought what we must look like to an alien onlooker: curiously absorbed in the well-being of such small bits of life. It was heartbreaking to watch the turtle crawl up to the waterline only to be swept back several feet by a new wave.  When this happened, everyone froze so that they wouldn’t accidentally step on the turtle.  At this point, the whispered sentiments changed from “it’s so cute!” to “I hope it makes it out there,” knowing the turtles still had yet to swim hundreds of miles out to the Sargasso Sea.  We all wondered where they were going and what would happen to each individual.  Only 1 in 1000 survives to maturity—brutal statistics.

And yet, there is something spiritual about releasing animals into nature.  I think there is an ethnography waiting to be written that studies this, particularly within scientific and volunteer communities (like NC’s sea turtle network).  For me the hatching was one of those rare occasions when time momentarily stopped: usually I am thinking about what I should be doing next (work, exercise, etc.).  But on the beach that evening, I didn’t want to be anywhere else.

* * *

Why privilege sea turtle hatchings over other animal births?  In the U.S., we don’t gather on the porch at midnight to witness the births of spiders, or even with a “cuter” animal like a bird, come together as a community to observe their hatchlings coming out of eggs.  One simple response is to say that turtles feature in many origin stories, as metonymic figures for islands, continents, and supports of the Earth.  For example, in Hindu mythology the world is carried by a giant turtle, and idea literalized in Terry Prachet’s Discworld novels.

In a North American context, Gary Snyder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems, Turtle Island (1975) is “the old/new [Native American] name for the continent,” an idea “found world-wide, of the earth, or cosmos even, sustained by a great turtle or serpent-of-eternity.”  Snyder writes that seeing North American as Turtle Island might enable us to “see ourselves more accurately on this continent of watersheds and life-communities—plant zones, physiographic provinces, cultural areas,” for the USA and its states an “inaccurate impositions on what is really here.” Turtle Island names a certain awareness of shared relation and overlap between human and non-human species, geography, and culture, an awareness that should shock us into taking better care of North America—the turtle upon whose back we exist and depend for life.

Herman Melville also wrote about turtles in The Encantatas (1854), a novella of philosophical sketches of the Galapagos Islands. Although describing Galapagos tortoises rather than sea turtles, Melville’s descriptions are still resonant with the idea of a “world-turtle.”  In a passage both sad and fascinating (for the turtles he describes are those taken aboard a ship, to be stored as food for a long voyage), Melville describes their mythic proportions: “They seemed newly crawled forth from beneath the foundations of the world. Yea, they seemed the identical tortoises whereon the Hindoo plants this total sphere. With a lantern I inspected them more closely. Such worshipful venerableness of aspect! Such furry greenness mantling, the rude peelings and healing the fissures of their shattered shells. I no more saw three tortoises. They expanded—became transfigured. I seemed to see three Roman Coliseums in magnificent decay.”[i]

This is not the only occasion that Melville describes the tortoises in terms of earth and vegetation. Melville writes that turtle eggs are “like the seeds of vegetable life.”[ii] Both sea turtles and land turtles also collect scars, vegetation, and other life on their shells.  Melville observes that these scars were “strangely widened, swollen, half obliterate, and yet distorted like those sometimes found in the bark of very hoary trees.”[iii]  The shell, like a kind of tree bark, connects the tortoise to both vegetation and to a kind of earthly record.  Melville continues: “I seemed an antiquary of a geologist, studying the bird-tracks and ciphers upon the exhumed slates trod by incredible creatures whose very ghosts are now defunct.”[iv] Here Melville imagines himself as not a biologist but a geologist, as if the turtle’s shell was a slate of earth carried by tortoises now dead (“[their] very ghosts are now defunct”). Here, the turtle/tortoise is a kind of roaming historical archive, capturing our imagination as both a host and record of life, yet a life Melville only encounters after it has passed.

* * *

I want to end on one more story, a story that didn’t make sense to me until after I witnesses a sea turtle hatching in person (and if this isn’t an argument for why literature classes need field trips, I don’t know what is).

Ursula LeGuin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven was recommended to me purely on the basis of its expository scene: “it has jellyfish!” a friend had told me.  The Lathe of Heaven follows a young man, Orr, whose dreams literally rewrite history.  This scares him so much he comes to dread falling asleep. Orr is frightened of his lack of control, and the novel begins with Orr helplessly adrift in dream state: “Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, [the jellyfish] has for its defense the violence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has entrusted its being, its going, and its will.”[v] Here, the ocean is analogous to the world of the dream, and we see Orr—whose name (sounds like “or”) already keys us in to his role as a fulcrum for balancing or falling towards possible futures—as a kind of symbolic jellyfish, unable to direct the course of his world-changing dreams.

Orr remains passive until he meets a psychologist, who finds out about his ability and tries to manipulate him into dreaming the things the psychologist wants him to dream, changing the world beyond recognition. [vi]  Yet as if in response to this, Orr begins to dream of benign alien turtles that appear to him in his new reality in spaceships. This struck me as strange because sea turtles eat jellyfish—so what does it mean that Orr (symbolically the jellyfish) dreams of sea turtles?

For the longest time, I didn’t know.  But thinking about this novel the hatching, I have one possible interpretation.  The sea turtles Orr dreams of appear to him in a spaceship, which suggests they are highly capable travelers who have ventured far away into the “currents” of outer space—and yet they find their way to Earth.  Perhaps the sea turtles present Orr with an alternative way of moving and being in his dreams.  Out of all the stories I read about (sea) turtles, I like this mythic dimension the best: that sea turtles suggest the possibility of drifting and still being able to return home.

[i] Quoted from A World of Turtles: A Literary Imagination, ed. McNamee and Urrea, p. 54. The tragic element of this description is that the turtles Melville observes have already been killed—hence the reference to “shattered shells” and “magnificent decay.”

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] The Lathe of Heaven, p. 7.

[vi] Ibid., p. 118.