Over the years, Chelonian Research Foundation has been collecting and publishing Turtle Poetry. We started this in 1996 as a regular feature in our scientific journal, Chelonian Conservation and Biology, and have also published some turtle poetry in Chelonian Research Monographs. Inspired by early input and suggestions from Carol Conroy and J. Nichols, the feature has become a popular mainstay of our publications, mixing a small dose of poetic humanity with chelonian science and conservation.
Our desire has been to share the beauty and wonder of turtles as expressed through the art of the poem or song. In the sense that the relationship between man and turtles is multifaceted, so too is turtle poetry. The poems we publish reflect that complexity, from poems of pure admiration for the creatures themselves to others reflecting the utilization of turtles and their products. Some poems reflect man’s use of the turtle for sustenance, others stress man’s need to preserve and protect turtles. Some deal with our emotional interactions with turtles, others treat turtles light-heartedly or with seeming disrespect, but all may hopefully help us to better understand both the human and the chelonian condition, and remind us that the turtle holds a sacred place in all our hearts.
Since the turtle poems we have published are somewhat scattered and perhaps a little difficult to access, we have chosen to also bring them all together here to make enjoying them easier. Below is a chronologic presentation of all the turtle poetry CRF has published (22 poems through 2007), presented both as online text versions with original editorial comments, as well as downloadable pdf versions of the original publications.
We hope that this turtle poetry will inspire and move all of you as much as it has inspired and moved me.
Anders G.J. Rhodin, Trustee and Director, CRF
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 1996, 2(1):121
To a Box Turtle
Size of a small skull, and like a skull segmented,
of pentagons healed and varnished to form a dome,
you almost went unnoticed in the meadow,
among its tall grasses and serrated strawberry leaves
your mottle of amber and umber effective camouflage.
You were making your way through grave distances,
your forefeet just barely extended and as dainty as dried
coelacanth fins, as miniature sea-fans, your black nails
decadent like a Chinese empress’s, and your head
a triangular snake-head, eyes ringed with dull gold.
I pick you up. Your imperious head withdraws.
Your bottom plate, hinged once, presents a No
with its courteous waxed surface, a marquetry
of inlaid squares, fine-grained and tinted
tobacco-brown and the yellow of a pipe smoker’s teeth.
What are you thinking, thus sealed inside yourself?
My hand must have a smell, a killer’s warmth.
It holds you upside down, aloft, undignified,
your leathery person amazed in the floating dark.
How much pure fear can your wrinkled brain contain?
I put you down. Your tentative, stalk-bending walk
resumes. The manifold jewel of you melts into grass.
Power mowers have been cruel to your race, and creatures
less ornate and unlikely have long gone extinct;
but nature’s tumults pool to form a giant peace.
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. – This poem, written by John Updike while living in Massachusetts, USA, appears to describe the common eastern box turtle, Terrapene carolina carolina. This represents the extreme northeastern range limit for the species and subspecies.
Composed 23 May 1989, published 1993 in:
UPDIKE, JOHN. Collected Poems 1953-1993. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., pp. 226-227.
Copyright © 1993 by John Updike. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Submitted by Wallace J. Nichols
The Galápagos Tortoises: Nomenclatural and Survival Status.
Peter C.H. Pritchard
Chelonian Research Monographs 1:9 • © 1996 by Chelonian Research Foundation
Tortoises in the Mist
ANDERS G.J. RHODIN
Tortoises in the mist
timeless creatures, moisture-kissed
neath shrouded trees and mossy lace
since eons past, still exist.
On crater rim, a magic place
tortoises move, at their pace
from caldera floor below
ponderous steps, gentle grace.
Ringed by fire, lava flows
spared the whalers’ deadly blows
survive serene, Alcedo home
enchanted isles, Galápagos.
Composed 10 April 1996
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 1996, 2(2):306
Your fins they stretched so far
As blood ran down your side
From where they pierced you with their spear
It made me want to cry
Three days you hang there for all to see
A sacrifice from a raging sea
In my heart I sympathized
A living legend being crucified
In your shadow I stood beneath
In a picture taken of you and me
Without me knowing a seed was sown
As you hung so helpless and all alone
Many years later and many years lost
At war in my soul at a heavy cost
I needed hope and a will to live
Bankrupt inside nothing left to give
Broken in spirit with no hope in store
Alone and afraid knocking at deaths door
I was going under in a different war
In the sea of addiction on a distant shore
Suddenly your memory returned
Alive in my heart it began to churn
With depth and weight it pulled at my core
As fate would have it I had to be sure
A spark turned into a burning desire
An inclination set my heart on fire
From a day long ago in a forgotten scene
Of that photograph of you and me
In my mind the dream had begun
The significance of what had to be done
I felt as though I’d known you for a million years
When I learned you were endangered
My eyes filled with tears
I saw that in preserving you
That in the process I might save myself too
I’d be your mentor I’d make your plea heard
If it took me to the ends of the world
So on goes the journey far into the night
The dream carries on that we both might have life
And I never could discount that fateful day
The winds of circumstance had blown our way
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. – This poem about a dead leatherback turtle, Dermochelys coriacea, was written for and about Chris Luginbuhl, founder of the David E. Luginbuhl Research Institute, a major supporter of leatherback research in general and this issue of Chelonian Conservation and Biology in particular. The photograph shows 4-year old Chris and the leatherback caught by a fishing boat off Long Island, New York, USA, in July 1951. Chris found inspiration and new dedication in his life as a result of re-awakening the memory of this event. He now works ardently to help save leatherbacks from extinction through his Institute’s promotional campaign: Save The Leatherbacks, P.O. Box 263, Ellington, CT 06029 USA.
Composed February 1991
Submitted by Chris Luginbuhl
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 1997, 2(3):456
GRACE S. McLAUGHLIN
who we name
you carry the weight of the world
on your backs.
From your burrows,
the mountains rise
and the seas recede,
the giant mammals disappear
and the condors soar less,
the two-legged ones arrive.
For 10,000 years
they named you sacred —
honored your presence,
Then, the two-leggeds changed.
The new two-leggeds
no longer named you
for no reason
and did not honor
They brought new four-leggeds
in great numbers
who ate your food
and trampled your burrows and nests.
that tore the land
crushed your families and homes.
From your burrows,
Some two-leggeds grew in wisdom
And began to watch
And to care.
They learned about your lives
And protected your homes
They moved the four-leggeds
And kept machines away.
they name you sacred
And you, ancient ones,
Who carry the weight of the world
on your backs
From your burrows,
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. – This poem was presented at the Conference on Health Profiles, Reference Intervals, and Diseases of Desert Tortoises on 3 November 1996 at Soda Springs, California. It describes the plight of the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii).
Composed 1 November 1996
Submitted by John L. Behler
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 1997, 2(4):635
(Tortoise in Midwinter at the London Zoo)
Come from the hole where the dark days drew thee,
Wake, Methuselah! Wag thy tail!
Sniff the snare of the winds that woo thee,
Sun-kissed cabbage and sea-blown kale.
To the salted breath of the sea-bear’s grot
And the low sweet laugh of the hippopot
Wake, for thy devotees can’t undo thee
To see if thou really art live and hale.
Leap to life, as the leaping squirrel
Flies in fear of the squirming skink;
Gladden the heart of the keeper, Tyrrell;
Give Mr. Pocock a friendly wink!
Flap thy flippers, O thou most fleet
As once in joyance of things to eat;
Bid us note that thou still art virile
And not imbibing at Lethe’s brink.
Art thou sleeping, and wilt thou waken?
Hast thou passed to the Great Beyond,
Where the Great Auk and the cavernous Kraken
Frisk and footle with all things fond;
Where the Dodo fowl and the great Dinornis
Roost with the Roc and the Aepyornis,
Where the dew drips down from the fern tree shaken
As the pismire patters through flower and frond?
Art thou sleeping, adream of orgies
In sandy coves of the Seychelles isles,
Or where in warm Galapagos gorges
The ocean echoes for miles and miles?
Of sun-warmed wastes where the wind sonorous
Roared again to thy full-mouthed chorus,
Far from bibulous Bills and Georges
That smack thee rudely with ribald smiles.
Dost thou dream how, a trifling tortoise,
The hot sun hatched thee in shifting sand,
Before the wrongs that the Roundheads brought us
Set Oliver Cromwell to rule the land?
Of an early courtship, when Pym and his earls
Were making things lively for good King Charles?
Not one left of them! Exit sortis
(Horace), but thou art still on hand.
Grant, thou monarch of eld, a token
Of blood now fired with the breath of Spring;
For the crowbar’s bent and the pickaxe broken
With which we endeavored to “knock and ring.”
At the warm love-thrill of the Spring’s behest
That biddeth the mating bird to nest,
Wake to the word that the wind hath spoken,
Wake, old sportsman, and have thy fling!
Editorial Comment [Peter C.H. Pritchard]. – While cleaning out my attic, I found this poem that I laboriously copied out in the library of my boarding school in Ireland about 40 years ago. It came from a bound volume of Punch (the British humorous weekly magazine), decades old—probably from around the tum of the century. The poem consists of the thoughts of someone contemplating a cold, immobile, hibernating, or possibly dead giant tortoise seen in midwinter at the London Zoo, when Mr. Pocock and Mr. Tyrrell were in charge of the Reptile House. The poem has the form of a Mock Heroic worthy of Alexander Pope, and is remarkable not least for its unusual rhyming scheme. In each stanza of eight lines, lines 1, 3, and 7 rhyme, as do lines 2, 4, and 8. Lines 5 and 6 rhyme with each other (although with a classical asonance in the fifth stanza). In terms of literary devices, the poem is gloriously overdone. It is, for example, positively festooned with alliteration—dark days drew thee, sniff the snare, leap to life, flies in fear, squirming skink, flap thy flippers, frisk and footle, roost with the Roc, dew drips down, pismire patters, flower and frond, Galapagos gorges, trifling tortoise, shifting sand, wake to the word that the wind hath spoken. One can almost picture the now long-forgotten (and surely long-dead) author smiling to himself with glee as he crafted his clever composition. Parts of the poem suggest some uncertainty as to whether the animal in question was an Indian Ocean or a Galapagos tortoise. Indeed, up to about the mid-nineteenth century, it should be remembered that it was common to call all giant tortoises Testudo indica. Certain phrases (flap thy flippers, sandy coves of the Seychelle Isles, hot sun hatched thee in shifting sands) also suggest confusion between giant tortoises and sea turtles. But no matter, the poem is magnificent.
Published in Punch Magazine, ca. 1900, original title and author unknown
Submitted by Peter C.H. Pritchard
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 1998, 3(1):146
You go home one evening tired from work,
and your mother boils you turtle soup.
Twelve hours hunched over the hearth
(who knows what else is in that cauldron).
You say, “Ma, you’ve poached the symbol of long life;
that turtle lived four thousand years, swam
the Wei, up the Yellow, over the Yangtze.
Witnessed the Bronze Age, the High Tang,
grazed on splendid sericulture.”
(So, she boils the life out of him.)
”All our ancestors have been fools.
Remember Uncle Wu who rode ten thousand miles
to kill a famous Manchu and ended up
with his head on a pole? Eat, child,
its liver will make you strong.”
”Sometimes you’re the life, sometimes the sacrifice.”
Her sobbing is inconsolable.
So, you spread that gentle napkin
over your lap in decorous Pasadena.
Baby, some high priestess has got it wrong.
The golden decal on the green underbelly
says “Made in Hong Kong.”
Is there nothing left but the shell
and humanity’s strange inscriptions,
the songs, the rites, the oracles?
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. — This poem about turtle soup reflects the ancient Chinese tradition of eating turtles as interpreted by a first- generation Chinese-American poet (born in Hong Kong and raised in western USA) who tries to remind her mother of what should still be sacred from the old country. For the poet, the turtle represents a revered Chinese mythological symbol — a symbol of longevity, patience, grandeur, and antiquity — but the irony is that it ends up in a swirling soup far from its ancestral home, poached by her mother, who has no interest in the turtle as a cultural symbol, only as a consumable resource (Chin in Moyers, 1995). If we are to protect and save our world’s dwindling populations of turtles, especially those in China where they are being unsustainably overexploited and consumed, then we need to recapture some of the ancient reverence once held for these unique and marvelous creatures. If not, we may lose those populations forever and be left alone at last to ask Marilyn Chin’s haunting question: "Is there nothing left but the shell?"
Copyright © 1993 by Marilyn Chin
Published in: Chin, Marilyn. 1993. The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty. Milkweed Editions.
Reprinted from: Moyers, Bill. 1995. The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets. New York: Doubleday, pp. 75-76.
Submitted by Carol Rehm Conroy
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 1998, 3(2):368-369
do you ever find yourself
thinking of her
in the middle of the day?
sister of mercy
adrift in the world
her carapace around her
like a habit
following the liturgy of longitude
like the Stations of the Cross
the draw string of dream
gathering with each dive
a sea shadow
cradled in the arms
of the great Turtle Mother
the Virgin of Cobre guiding
through the dangerous sea
the black sand memory
of her natal beach
ringing her course
in peals of instinct
a Shinto priestess
leads the way
a goddess path
to the arribada
on a distant
Rosita clearly had an agenda
moving west twelve miles a day
from Bahia de Los Angeles on the Sea of Cortez
equatorial currents southern and northern in a clockwise gyre
Marked by man for her own good
labeled and tagged against further entanglements
seven years a captive
biding her time
Turning from his hand she languished listless and slow
refusing the lobster and the soft shell crab
swimming slow desperate circles
with her eyes closed
Until one night tiring of it all
he left her on a beach near Punta San Miguel
saying he was not drunk swearing he heard her say
“My name is caretta-caretta”
and she shuffled into the sea like a geisha
Summer ended Antonio went away
back to Arizona and the university where they say
he got low grades trying to forget the years with her
the indifference in her eyes
how nothing he did was ever enough
He took to drinking sake and ginseng tea
at the Japanese friendship garden
somewhat troubled by dreams of mermaids turtles and sand
he tried meditation
studied Asian art
and worked at the .99 cent store saving his fare to Baja
where he lived in a shack by the sea
One day he burned his papers
the research and reports
an application to the U.S. Fish and Game
the sightings and the counts
disappearing into sand like a tortoise
Caretta-Caretta glides into the sea
deep into the underworld as if by telemetry
gorgonian coral sargasso and plume
the latitudes of peril like a lodestone spinning her ancient back
Lady Murasaki of the silken dive adrift
from Mexico with the moon in bridal combs of pearl and tortoise shell
to the breakers near Kyushu
to die in sight of land
a snarl of nets and lines
a tangled dream held fast
drowning with the evening tide
12,000 miles full circle
The eggs she carried
a delicacy for the fisherman’s table
Editorial Comment [Wallace J. Nichols]. — For many years the occurrence of Pacific loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) along the coast of Baja California, Mexico, has been a point of discussion among biologists and naturalists. As there are no known eastern Pacific loggerhead nesting rookeries, did these turtles originate from an undiscovered rookery somewhere along the Pacific coast of the Americas? Or did the turtles make the trans-Pacific journey to Baja’s rich coastal waters from the closest known rookeries in southern Japan and Australia? Genetic analysis of turtles caught in Pacific driftnet fisheries or feeding near Baja California suggested the latter — that they did in fact migrate across the vast Pacific. In the summer of 1996 a bi-national Mexican and U.S. research team provided the first direct evidence of east to west trans-Pacific migration by tagging two loggerheads named Rosita and Adelita that had been wild-caught in Mexico and held long-term captive there. These turtles had previously been used by Bowen et al. (1995) in their study ofloggerhead genetics and were known to be of a Japanese haplotype. Despite being held in captivity for 6 to 10 years, when the turtles were released off the coast of Mexico they immediately migrated back across the Pacific Ocean, a trip of over 12,000 km. Rosita, who was tagged with flipper tags, took about 478 days to reach Japan, where she died in a fisheries gill net. Adelita, who was equipped with a satellite transmitter, made the passage to Japan in about 368 days, and also appears to have died in local fisheries. The researchers recognized the novelty of and potential interest in Adelita’s migration and began posting the satellite telemetry data to an e-mail list of teachers and students around the world. The interest was tremendous and the project moved to a turtle web site (Turtle Trax: <http://www.turtle.org/adelita.htrn>) containing the data and Adelita’s trajectory. Barbara Garrison was one of several creative teachers to incorporate the project into her curriculum and to attract one of the researchers to visit her students. Her enthusiasm and talent as a poet inspired her to write these two poems. The accompanying underwater photograph by Robert Snodgrass shows Adelita off the coast of Mexico with her satellite transmitter in place. The global map shows the trajectory of her migration across the Pacific Ocean from Mexico to Japan as tracked by satellite telemetry. The information presented is a stark and graphic reminder of the scope of the international movements and migrations carried out by all sea turtles, including hawksbills, which render them vulnerable to threats both on the open oceans and in the territorial waters of many nations. Sea turtles represent a global shared resource which deserves the highest level of international conservation cooperation.
Submitted by Wallace J. Nichols
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 1999, 3(3):534
ANDERS G.J. RHODIN
Ancient chelonians of lineage primeval
Their survival now threatened by man’s upheaval
We gather together to celebrate our perception
Of turtles and their need for preservation and protection
For turtles forever to play their part ecological
To prosper and maintain their diversity biological
For turtle and tortoise, terrapin and kin
Their kind to preserve, their future to win
We must work together, I tell you from the heart
Whether we work together, or apart.
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. — I wrote this poem for my opening address at the Powdermill Conference on Freshwater Turtle Biology and Conservation in Laughlin, Nevada, in August 1999. Honoring the style of Robert Frost’s "The Tuft of Flowers" I tried to capture the essence of how we must all work together to help save these chelonians that we care for with such passion. I read the poem again during my closing address at the Florida Conference on Freshwater Turtles in St. Petersburg, Florida, in October 1999. At each reading I sensed from the positive responses of listeners that there is a need for all of us in the conservation world to not only expound on our scientific knowledge, but also to openly express our passion and love for turtles. In expressing that passion, by whatever reasonable means possible, we may reach beyond our tight-knit scientific chelonian circles to start influencing, at least on an emotional level, those unconverted people with whom we must interact if we are to succeed in preserving the turtles of the world. We must all be ambassadors for turtle conservation at all levels of human interaction.
Composed August 1999
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 2000, 3(4):770
Tragedy of the Road
I pulled my car aside today, to watch a trailer pass,
The neatest little trailer job, compact in line and mass,
Without an inch of wasted space within its nifty frame.
It had no car to pull it but it got there just the same.
So perfectly designed it was, to fit the driver’s need,
It didn’t lack a single thing except it hadn’t speed.
The driver was an awful dub, he didn’t seem to know
The traffic rules or when to stop or where he ought to go.
He went right through a Stop-sign on the wrong side of the road.
He didn’t see the great big truck with overburdened load
Come whamming down the highway like a fearful juggernaut.
He heard the roar but not in time to keep from getting caught.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
These dotted lines are kinder than some vivid words to show
What happened to the trailer, compact and neat . . . but slow.
Some mangled flesh, some bits of shell were wreckage to explain
Why this dusty little turtle will not cross a road again.
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. — For this special focus issue I had hoped to find a poem on the subject of Blanding’s turtles, but searched in vain. Instead, by good fortune, I came across this light little piece authored by Don Blanding in 1946. One wonders whether this modern nature observer might not be a relative or direct descendant of William Blanding, the original collector and first observer of Blanding’s turtle back in 1838. What better way, perhaps, to honor the turtle than to present a poem by a bearer of the patronym’s name. The temporal continuity from one Blanding in 1838 to another in 1946 brings a certain sense of circularity to man’s observations of turtles over time. Our observations of turtles lead to an ever-increasing body of knowledge, concern, passion, and hope for the future, as those observations lead to levels of knowledge on several planes, both scientific and personal, tied together into the fabric of human chelonian experience.
Published 1946 in:
Blanding, Don. Floridays. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., p. 35.
Submitted by Lora L. Smith
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 2001, 4(1):231
Playa Grande Beach
MICHAEL H.J. RHODIN
As though the weight of a thousand generations
had been laid across its back,
the black form rose between the waves,
pulling itself onto midnight sand.
In the absence of light
the Costa Rican heavens fell upon the shore,
illuminating the leatherback sea turtle
in her quest up the beach.
The ancient creature turned, eyes to her home,
and with laborious, alternating strokes,
dug her back flippers into the ground, cupping the sand,
and hurling it in a shower to either side.
Then, 3 feet later, the digging stopped and I
crawled forward, sand clinging to my palms and knees,
a wet, spherical egg dropped
into the womb of the earth.
I watched as every chance at life
was given up to the earth by the mother;
88 chances for their race to survive.
88 prayers in the face of extinction.
I touched her soft shell
as she crawled back to the ocean
her path ingrained in my mind.
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. — This poem was written by my son at age 20, nearly two years after seeing leatherback turtles nesting on the beach at Playa Grande in Costa Rica. This had been his first experience with sea turtles and it left him with an indelible and powerful emotional image. His experience was similar to my own first encounter with nesting leatherbacks on a beach in Mexico in the early 1980s. These types of encounters leave most of us with a heightened sense of personal caring and responsibility for the endangered turtles of the world and help make us better conservationists, whether we work directly in the world of turtle conservation or not. The more people that we can encourage to experience these types of turtle encounters the better — it is the unconverted masses that need to be brought to this natural altar and allowed to experience and hopefully understand the sacredness of the moment, and the emotional need to preserve it for future generations. Then perhaps we will slowly win the battle to help preserve the turtles of the world.
Composed November 1999
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 2002, 4(2):508
Population Density Studies
MARIAN L. GRIFFEY
Scientists gather in a smallish room,
lay their years of labor and hearts’ dreams in the video carousel
and flash them flat against the unfeeling screen.
Each has a goal: To develop a range of protection.
Gopher tortoise; box turtle; salamander;
alligator; black bear; white-footed mouse ….
The room is not large enough to hold the list.
All are worthy of the measure of life given them by these caring people.
Each has a need far greater than any had imagined,
a range farther reaching than lofty man has ever seen before.
Teachers meet in a shrinking house,
prop their lives of dedication and ideals against a world grown—overnight—unknown.
Each has a hope: To build a safe place for children.
Black; White; Hispanic; Native American;
mulatto; Latino; boy; girl ….
The union is not strong enough to hold the list.
All are worthy of the effort to make a life free from hunger, fear, oppression.
Each has a spark for dreaming and an appetite for greater things;
but, their range of protection needs further boundaries
than mortal mind has yet conceived.
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. — This poem evokes for me the sense of urgency and frustration that many of us feel in our conservation and protection efforts, as we face the mounting evidence of overwhelming and increasing threats to those species (or children) with whose care we have been entrusted. How can we ever do enough to save them all? How can we ever reverse the trends and provide safe havens for our charges? Whether they be turtles or tortoises, other animal species, or human children, they are all our charges, dependent on us for their well-being and secure futures. How do we define and fulfill our responsibilities? How do we provide protection? The answers are ever harder, the challenges ever greater, the needs ever more encompassing. Some might ask, why carry on? Why fight for the right of species to survive? We might as well ask, why fight for our own right to survive? Our lives are inextricably tied to those of the species that surround us and we can no sooner give up on their survival than we can on our own. All our needs are far greater than any had imagined, but somehow we must all seek solutions.
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 2003, 4(3):742
The Egg and the Machine
He gave the solid rail a hateful kick.
From far away there came an answering tick,
And then another tick. He knew the code:
His hate had roused an engine up the road.
He wished when he had had the track alone
He had attacked it with a club or stone
And bent some rail wide open like a switch,
So as to wreck the engine in the ditch.
Too late though, now, he had himself to thank.
Its click was rising to a nearer clank.
Here it came breasting like a horse in skirts.
(He stood well back for fear of scalding squirts.)
Then for a moment all there was was size,
Confusion, and a roar that drowned the cries
He raised against the gods in the machine.
Then once again the sandbank lay serene.
The traveler’s eye picked up a turtle trail,
Between the dotted feet a streak of tail,
And followed it to where he made out vague
But certain signs of buried turtle’s egg;
And probing with one finger not too rough,
He found suspicious sand, and sure enough,
The pocket of a little turtle mine.
If there was one egg in it there were nine,
Torpedo-like, with shell of gritty leather,
All packed in sand to wait the trump together.
"You’d better not disturb me anymore,"
He told the distance, "I am armed for war.
The next machine that has the power to pass
Will get this plasm in its goggle glass."
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. — I was recently approached by a reader of this journal who told me that the Turtle Poetry page was the first section he would turn to whenever a new issue arrived. He told me how much he enjoyed the poetry presented here, but how he often disagreed with me about what constituted "good" versus "bad" poetry. Whether poetry is good or not is in the eye, ear, and mind of the reader, and each of us is as individual in our interpretation as the poetry is itself. For each of us there is a different emotional response—my hope as editor is that I succeed in finding different turtle poems that reach out to us in different ways. The selection this time avoids the question of good versus bad by choosing a poem from one of the world’s master poets (and my favorite). Living and writing in New Hampshire, Frost displays good knowledge of local turtle natural history, but mixes observations of the tail-marked trail of a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) with an accurately-described clutch from a painted turtle (Chrysemys picta). Nonetheless, it’s a novel use of turtle eggs as a symbol of the struggle between natural man and advancing development and machinery. And most would classify this poem by Frost as good—I hope our readers agree.
Copyright © 1930 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.
First published as "The Walker" in: Kreymborg, A., Mumford, L., and Rosenfeld, P. (Eds.). 1928. The Second American Caravan.
New York. Republished in: Frost, Robert. 1930. Collected Poems. New York: Henry Holt. Reprinted in: Lathem, E.C. (Ed.). 1979.
The Poetry of Robert Frost. The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged. New York: Henry Holt and Co., pp. 269-270.
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 2005, 4(4):960
It was the weather that drove us in,
That rainy afternoon in May,
And the weather, I suppose, that drew us out
Cold and shivery, unprotected,
Gulping draughts of salt night air,
Amazed at clouds and the moistness of it all;
Our bare feet rejoiced at pebble and leaf,
Grateful for the grit between our parched toes
And the unmerciful touch of rain.
We Knew the sadness of walls,
the cold consistency of ceilings,
the dumb flatness of floors;
We knew the shrill insistence of right angles,
perfect squares, and well drawn lines;
We knew the slow steady sweep of the electric clock,
And we grew quiet.
No small wonder, then, with sense withdrawn,
that beach, and sea, and air at first
were numb and dull to me
Or rather We to them,
Shocked without the shells that encased us blind.
Tumbling as from sleep
We widened at the delicious randomness
Of sea clump, dark sea oat, Lone driftwood
And the unending conversation of surf.
We grew giddy with space,
Toes tracing the sensual curve of ocean’s edge,
Skin drunk with salt, wet, and sand,
Until, sea-tossed, wind strewn, and scatterbrained,
We became whole again.
Something in the moon, or wind, or water,
Or none of these, something older
and more removed the sounding waves,
This beaten shore, the hard edged shells
That prick and stab into the present;
Something deep, primordial, an ancient call
She answered, and left her weightless world
For the uncertainty of the shore.
How heavy the burden of herself became,
the massive shell, the tapered limbs
That scratched and clawed
for purchase in the too forgiving sand,
she knew alone,
and alone she bore, amidst the shadowy terrors
Of an alien world seen through eyes already tearing.
We watched her, breathless, perform the rite,
Marveled at her close-lidded patience, her energy,
The thick head that nodded slow acceptance
Of utter exhaustion, the unrelenting will
that rendered her oblivious to all
Save her pearly charges’ burial
We fondled her leathery skin,
Gazed into her eyes admired the thickness of her
wrinkled neck, and
of the soft expression on her darkened face.
The deed was done, the sand replaced,
She joined the sea again,
And we waded with her to the edge of our world,
Saw her graceful form retreat into the darkness
In silence, we filled her clumsy tracks,
Erased all trace of what we’d seen,
And dreamed of another cosmic night
When sand shall scatter, and the sea
Shall open up her arms to turtle minions.
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. — This poem evokes for me a sense of the primeval connection between people and sea turtles and the role of the wind and weather in stimulating both our human behavior and turtles’ nesting. The turtle reference might possibly represent a ridley, driven, like us, by the weather. I thought it a fitting rejoinder to the scientific discourses elsewhere in this volume on how weather and wind affect Kemp’s ridley nestings. For me, the poem creates a sense of mystery and awe as we contemplate these ancient creatures of the sea and the natural forces that affect not only their behavior, but possibly, ours.
Poem obtained by Clay A. Johnson and posted 16 October 1995 on the CTURTLE listserve;
original author unknown, no record found through extensive web search
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 2006, 5(1):173
To a Turtle
MAXINE McCRAY MILLER
Taciturn turtle, Sparton of simple space,
Of what do you think as you make slow pace
Across the humming highway’s span?
So small a life to immerse
In the ferment of the Universe!
Yet, someway, you, too, are akin to man.
What man of words could more assure
That simple things will e’er endure
Tho centuries never pause;
Tho civilizations fall and rise,
Nothing ever falsifies
The immortality of God’s great laws.
Tenacious turtle, bent on destined ways!
Unyielding man no more conveys
His faith in future dawns.
World-bound in spinning, sonant space,
He lifts his resolute, little face.
Salute the turtle thrusting on.
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. — This poem about a turtle, making his way across a dangerous highway (Sparton in Greek mythology made a journey), surrounded by rushing cars and humming tires, represents the challenges and risks we all face as we push forward against forces beyond our control in order to make progress. Yet progress we must make, whether we are turtle or man, and persevering in the face of challenge and change is our inherent nature. On a personal level, as I gradually turn the reins of the production of this journal increasingly over to others, I reflect on the journey that has brought us this far and the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, and like the poet who wrote this poem, I salute the turtle thrusting on, as we gradually build an increasingly connected international chelonian conservation community dedicated to helping the turtle persevere and persist.
Published 1976 in Rephibia.
Reprinted 1976 in Froom, Barbara. The Turtles of Canada. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., p. 27.
Biology and Conservation of Florida Turtles – Peter A. Meylan, Ed.
Chelonian Research Monographs 3:376 • © 2006 by Chelonian Research Foundation
Epilogue – Turtle Poetry
PATRICIA B. WALTERS
Curious that I should want to eulogize a turtle
Perhaps it was his ignominious death
(Why did I think of it as male?)
That still form by the road
The grass that greens the median barrier had just been mowed
The blades that clipped had ripped the turtle’s shell
And threw him….or he dragged himself
Exposed upon the slab
When first I sighted him, I thought he was alive
But absence of response was too abject
He eloquently spoke of death
Next day he was still there
Each time I passed, I tried to turn my eyes away
Not see this tiny, tiresome tragedy
But to ignore him was to slight
All victims man has left
So I watched while summer sun tanned him to leather
A kind of rigor mortis raised his head
Last gesture of primordial pride
Of death with dignity
There was a gradual sinking, shrinking of the corpse
Like the closing of the covers of a book
Some unknown force then lifted him
And one day he was gone
After seeing a dead turtle for several days on Interstate Highway 75 near Tampa, Florida
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. — This poem about a dead turtle on the road, probably a Florida softshell, reminds us of the all-too-often sad outcome of interactions between turtles and man, especially man’s development as represented by highways and automobiles and the destructive nature of our technology. As the turtle in the poem was gone one day, if we are not careful to preserve our natural heritage, all turtles will be gone one day. But though we are the problem, we are also the solution, and our efforts to preserve turtles and their habitats will make a difference for future generations. The survival of turtles in Florida and elsewhere will depend on our efforts. ANDERS G.J. RHODIN.
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 2006, 5(2):335
Elegy for the Giant Tortoises
Let others pray for the passenger pigeon
the dodo, the whooping crane, the eskimo:
everyone must specialize.
I will confine myself to a meditation
upon the giant tortoises
withering finally on a remote island.
I concentrate in subway stations,
in parks, I can’t quite see them,
they move to the peripheries of my eyes
but on the last day they will be there;
already the event
like a wave travelling shapes vision:
on the road where I stand they will materialise,
plodding past me in a straggling line
awkward without water
their small heads pondering
from side to side, their useless armour
sadder than tanks and history,
in their closed gaze ocean and sunlight paralysed,
lumbering up the steps, under the archways
toward the square glass altars
where the brittle gods are kept,
the relics of what we have destroyed,
our holy and obsolete symbols.
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. — This poem by Margaret Atwood, a well-known Canadian writer, laments the gradual passing into extinction of giant tortoises. It speaks to their destruction at our hands, and how we honor their symbolic imagery—but not always their actual lives—reducing them eventually to nothing more than holy relics kept in glass cases in eternity’s museum. As conservationists, each of us must specialize and become champions and advocates for our particular charges—in this case, turtles and tortoises—lest they materialize eventually from our peripheral vision, too late for help, on the road to certain extinction. The poem is a call to action, a call for personal empathy and commitment—a challenge to us to prevent this plodding, lumbering path towards extinction. Turtles and tortoises must remain living members of our natural world, not just destroyed, holy, and obsolete symbols of that world.
Published 1968 in The Animals in That Country.
Reprinted in 1976: Selected Poems, 1951–1975. Reprinted in 1997: McNamee, G. and Urrea, L.A. (Eds.). A World of Turtles. A Literary Celebration. Boulder, CO: Johnson Books, pp. 140–141.
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 2007, 6(1):159
ANDERS G.J. RHODIN
Down from the hills
down to the shore
by moonlight we descended
on the coast of Culebra
to reach Playa Brava
Silvery crescent arching
glowing, stretching below us
a narrow white sliver
beckoning in the night
We stepped onto the beach
and felt transported in time—
to an Age before Man
no evidence of his presence
save our prints in the sand
Full moon rose above
with Mars and companions
riding through the night
reflecting and glittering
the sand glowing light
Boldly we stepped
strode down the beach
Rolando and Molly
Carol and me
Our quest in the night
nesting turtles to find
arriving in darkness
Emerging from breakers
surveying the shore
hauling their bulk
from out of the sea
black bodies heaving
Slowly onto sand
wary of disturbance
nest sites to find
follow ancient urges
replenish their kind
Rituals of nesting
slow dances defined
sensed deep in the soul
of the leatherback’s mind
Body pit, egg chamber,
steps in her ritual
danced in the sand
Brine from salt glands
wells from her eyes
mixes with sand
like tears for her kind
Head covered in sand
held still for my touch
sand brushed away
with the palm of my hand
Her role that night
to help us understand
her travels, her life
her fate in the seas
A transmitter to be tracked
by satellites in space
attached to her back
with surgical care
Beacon in place
she crawls down the beach
returns to the sea
and the lives of her kind
their lives, their future,
their fate and survival—
held in our hands
to cherish and care.
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. — I wrote this poem after my first visit to the leatherback nesting beach at Playa Brava on Culebra, Puerto Rico. The beach there was stunning, with no visible lights from human development. It was primeval and magical, and we were surrounded by several leatherbacks nesting. We used novel orthopedic bone attachment techniques for application of satellite transmitters to nesting leatherbacks, techniques that we have continued to modify and improve over the years. Our research and conservation efforts over the last several years on Culebra and in Fajardo have involved cooperative efforts between our team (led by Molly Lutcavage and including at various times Sam Sadove, Charlie Blaney, myself, Carol Conroy, Russ Andrews, Yonat Swimmer, Kelly Stewart, Michael Rhodin, and Jeanette Wyneken) and our enthusiastic Puerto Rican turtle conservation hosts and research collaborators (Hector Horta, Carlos Diez, Rolando Soler, Jovino Marquez-Soto, and others). The island of Culebra and its friendly people and magical beauty has won its way into our hearts and it is our fervent hope that the isolated and near-pristine leatherback nesting beaches there and in Fajardo and Puerto Rico’s Northeast Ecological Corridor will receive the on-going and improved protected status that they so richly deserve.
Composed June 1999, revised February 2007
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 2007, 6(1):160
From the dark waters she emerges
at night heavy with eggs
she drags her seven hundred pounds
up the beach
flippers churning the sand
inching her way uphill
* * *
We who witness
her massive apparition of the deep come to land
her dogged struggle her need
stand amidst a hatchery of stars
each blip an egg of possibility
borne of nuclear fire storms
red dwarf spiral nebulae
white giant asteroid gassy planet
or by remote chances
* * *
A wide track of darkened sand leads to the zenith of her climb
where she digs her body pit
flailing sand in all directions
to disguise the site of her nesting chamber
which she now scoops out with her back flippers
precise flippersful of wet sand lifted and placed to the side
of the meter deep chamber
where the future of her species will incubate
* * *
Might this be the last beach
where this ancient turtle lays her eggs?
Will she who cannot live in captivity,
she who has survived
earthquakes and tsunamis,
meteorites and ice ages,
be extinguished by the big-brained ape
stealing her eggs
drowning her in fishing nets
turning her dark nesting beaches
into bright playgrounds
frightening her back to sea
* * *
There is a need to maintain dark beaches
to harbor dark pits of potential
A need to know that somewhere in the Gulf of Papagayo
or the deep Pacific,
in the Atlantic or Indian oceans
large reptiles are swimming
feeding mating migrating
A need to believe that generations hence
leatherbacks will still be grazing on jellyfish
that the largest sea turtle in the world
rife with eggs
will still be swimming toward dark beaches
* * *
Which of the eighty-one eggs
she has just laid in the chamber
Which hatchlings will escape
raccoons crabs gulls dogs humans
and skitter into the sea?
The mother covers up the answers
and, wheeling her enormous bulk
back toward the dark water,
she edges down the slope
into the intertidal zone
finally reaching wet sand
where she rests
waiting for a wave to lift her
and then pushes on deeper
afloat at last
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. — After having picked the previous poem about leatherbacks to be included in this special leatherback focus issue, I received this wonderful poem by Donald Levering, submitted by Hal Avery. It was too good to resist, so we are adding this second poem to the poetry page. Donald was a volunteer at the Leatherback Earthwatch project in Costa Rica in January 2005 and was inspired to write this poem from his experience at Playa Grande. Donald is an accomplished and often-published poet and author, and we are especially honored to publish this poem here for the first time.
Composed January 2005 at Playa Grande, Costa Rica.
Submitted by Harold Avery
Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 2007, 6(2):325
Agua de Beber
he is content alone
Among the snakes and lizards
he calls the desert home
Then she arrived
a beautiful monsoon
And now this barren desert
is starting to bloom
Her graceful shower
her warm, gentle drops
Awaken the tortoise
and saturate his thoughts
He wasn’t even thirsty
until she touched his lips
And now he is longing
for another sip
Agua de beber, agua de beber
agua de beber, agua de beber
Agua de beber
The tortoise searches for her
and finds a tranquil pool
And the still water
reflects his heart is full
Ripples on her surface
The tortoise is frightened
she will soon no longer be
This ephemeral pond
with whom he wants to stay
Has quenched his thirst
but evaporates away
Dry desert soils
long for summer rain
The tortoise heart desires
to see her once again
Agua de beber, agua de beber
agua de beber, agua de beber
Agua de beber
and he’ll aestivate without her
Editorial Comment [AGJR]. — This song about a desert tortoise was written and composed by Taylor Edwards, inspired by a classic by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Agua de Beber translates to ‘‘water to drink’’, and, in Brazil, it is a phrase that refers to a source of knowledge or understanding. I thought it particularly poignant that we publish this song/poem in the same issue in which the same author has also applied his professional scientific interests to an analysis of genetic phylogeography of the desert tortoise (Murphy, Berry, Edwards, and McLuckie, this volume). Each of us, no matter how professionally involved with turtles, also harbors a passion for these animals on which we work—sharing that passion through the expression of poetry or song makes each of us somehow more human and emphasizes our commitment to their conservation. I salute and celebrate all who give expression to this humanity.
Submitted by Taylor Edwards September 2007
Defining Turtle Diversity: Proceedings of a Workshop on Genetics, Ethics, and Taxonomy of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises
H. Bradley Shaffer, Nancy N. FitzSimmons, Arthur Georges, and Anders G.J. Rhodin, Eds.
Chelonian Research Monographs 4:200 • © 2007 by Chelonian Research Foundation
Defining Turtle Diversity:
A Light-Hearted Poetic View
JOSEPH W. GASTINGER
One thought the turtle anapsid
But now perhaps they’re diapsid
It’s confusing to me
That old turtle tree
What the twigs and branches and sap did.
Composed April 1999, submitted by Martin A. Larson.
Written as a personal poetic reflection on the evolutionary question of turtle origins as published in
Rieppel, O. 1999. Turtle origins. Science 283:945-946.
ANDERS G.J. RHODIN
Some have called you Chelonia
or Chelonii, an Order of Reptilia
some have known you as Testudinata
or the long-forgotten Cataphracta
But best you be Testudines
the name used by Linnaeus
the plural of the type Testudo
defines the group with ease.
Composed April 2001, revised November 2007.
Written as a personal poetic reflection on the nomenclatural question of what scientific name to use
for the monophyletic group defining all turtles and tortoises.