The Example of Animals, the Tortoise in Particular

I have specific reasons for choosing the tortoise for an emblem, mascot if you will. First, the tortoise is a real creature, the work of a Creator. Second, the tortoise provides an image and metaphor for a way of survival and a world view. The animal appeals emotionally to humans, especially children who often take them as pets, especially in the turtle form. We race them. We color them into animated characters and cartoons. Hopefully most of the big ones like the Galapagos inhabit an island or zoo far away from endangerment. In some cultures tortoises are harvested not only for food, but for magical powers.

Lucky ones can live for fifty or more years and, of course, they are quite vulnerable, but well-provided with a protective shell and camouflage. My father had a habit of spotting them in the road ahead, stopping his car and then carrying large land turtles to the other side of the road. Nothing, of course, could be done to ensure the creature’s safe return; but perhaps most of the travelers were taking one way journeys and would not encounter at least that particular road again. Human stewardship has its limits. I have continued my father’s habit. I do not care to make a pet of a tortoise — other than figures of my imagination. I wonder often if God has the same relationship with us.

Whether we choose the tortoise or the lilies of the field, contemplating nature itself has much to teach us. Dogs, I now understand, have the ability to detect certain cancers. Now that my ambitious presumptions about my importance in the world have begun to take a welcome hike, I watch life around me more: the toad who dug from one of my wife’s plants a snug, damp hole to cool his rump, a terrier who must have suffered toothache without complaint until the vet found the abscess and the wild birds who complained when we cut out the sunflower seeds. For them all each day is discrete. Survival and only survival is their mission, but they know boring food from treats. Treats don’t seem to spoil them — the dogs at least — for routine fare. The existential perspective — that’s what we can learn from them.

But man speculates, dreams and hopes. He contrives and tries to gratify myriad improbabilities, if not impossibilities. The long sigh of my terrier having failed to catch the last squirrel she chased is philosophy for man — a sigh and another chase tomorrow. And so the tortoise, kept in the forefront of our minds, holds up as in a mirror our own vulnerability, mortality, strength and weakness. Watching the tortoise passing himself off as a rock, head, legs and tail drawn in remind us that hiding is natural and necessary. Cautiously, tentatively extending head and neck into the world is wisdom at work. And risk? Well, if some hours on a flat rock in the sun refreshes us, we must go there, but carefully with vigilance. Danger lurks in the meadow for man and tortoise.

And men and women like tortoises are fabulous. If they could do it, what sort of fables would the creatures tell of us? Here’s the moral. It’s not so much that we do the wrong thing too often; it’s that we do it with such presumptuous, selfish arrogance. I don’t know an arrogant tortoise. In tortoise perspective night and day only happen. Whether or not the sun rotates around the earth or the earth around the sun, no matter to the tortoise. Light comes and light goes — no matter. Earth, Air, Fire and Water have been replaced by 117 elements in the periodic table. The tortoise still has his being in earth, air, fire and water. So do men and women. Who’s to say quantum theory will not be replaced and rendered fabulous? Count on it. The tortoise won’t even notice.

But we humans, we have places to go, people to meet; and some,  God to play.

Steadfast and cautious,

David Milliken


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One thought on “The Example of Animals, the Tortoise in Particular

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    David Milliken

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