Why My World Needs Turtles

Sun. July 9, 2006
Categories: Papers


In trying to imagine how the earth might be born from the backshell of a turtle, I think of the tremendous patience and long-suffering of nature in contrast to spinning the wheels of my mini-SUV amid the craze and haze of other L.A. commuters. What might I learn from Turtle that would transform my civilized suffering? One summer afternoon I sadly drove home through the canyon where I live in Los Angeles, resisting an urge to buy Natural American tobacco to roll a pleasant and distracting cigarette. I wanted to escape my grief yet smoking carries a great risk to my health so instead I followed my previously made plan to spend “time in nature”. I faced the choice of numbing my pain or trying to find healing through nature which, by the way, was a great opportunity to validate ecotherapy firsthand.

I drove to the trailhead at the Zuniga Pond Property in Topanga where our local biologist, Rosi Dagit, has an ongoing turtle project that was funded by a grant from the California Coastal Conservancy and Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. It is called “The Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project.”  Imagine being gifted with $1,020,000 to acquire 120 acres in the upper Topanga watershed, including a man-made pond, near upper Zuniga Road, for the protection of the Western Pond Turtle habitat. The Western Pond Turtle is a state-listed species of special concern here in California.

Zuniga Pond hosts a significant density of aquatic insect species, and the property supports 17 out of a possible 32 reptile and amphibian species found in the Santa Monica Mountains, over 25 species of birds and at least eight species of mammals. The Western Pond Turtle called Clemmys marmorata were once widespread, from Baja to Canada, and were found in most coastal creek/river systems up to 5,000 feet elevation. Over the years, the population has declined over the whole range, and is now reduced to pockets of turtles in more isolated reaches, mostly higher in the watersheds (Wikipedia, 2006). Rosi calls our turtles “individuals” and her team has radio tracked three males and 15 females to observe their behavior, mostly between the months from March through September when the pond dries. Of nine sites in the Santa Monica Mountains that were known about in 1986, only five remain with only a few individuals. Topanga is the only place where more accurate numbers are known. From northern Ventura County to the border of Mexico only 10 populations with more than 100 individuals were known to exist in 2002.  As of 2006, there are only five to six remaining (Field notes, 2006). So why does our world need clammys marmorata? One answer might be that they tell us how the earth came into being.

A Native American creation myth says that “long, long ago, the Celestial Tree of Light had fallen, leaving a hole in the sky. Sky Woman fell through the sky, falling … falling … into the waters below. As she fell, Geese caught her with their wings, breaking the fall. The Great Turtle saw what was happening and, with the help of the other water animals (mostly Muskrat), began to dive into the water, bringing up mud and dirt to create land for Sky Woman to settle upon. The muskrat put the mud on the turtle’s back, and soon the soil expanded into an island. The geese placed Sky Woman upon the island, and so the earth came to be. And from Sky Woman, this is how the world’s people began.” (Andrews, 2006).

I walked the Zuniga Pond Property as if I were in a dream rich with images of sky and mountain, and listened to Turtle through Rosi tell us how many of them are alive there, where they are located and what their population structure is like.  We discover their nesting habitat and how they bury their eggs on the exposed slopes after which they walk back to the pond, how they leave their babies hidden and completely alone in the higher ground.  Nesting occurs between March and July and nest sites are usually located on slopes with clay or sandy soil, interspersed among shrubs.  The eggs lie buried during the gestation period until the rains fall and the soil is softened enough to allow the hatched and hungry young turtles to dig their way up to the surface and begin their trek to the pond.

By the way, they do not have a mother or father to lead them there. It says something about the ecological unconscious and that we instinctually know things even when not specifically shown them, things that are necessary to our survival. In my own life I gave up blaming my parents for not telling me everything I thought I needed to know but it took years of bewildered frustration to learn to trust my instincts, because I was so out of touch with the ecological unconscious. And since parents don’t have all the answers, it would be wise to teach their children to follow their instincts instead of telling them what to do, which is what sunk in as I thought about these baby turtles.

Cloppity, clop, clop. “Oh, it’s the Turtle people” says the dapper, blonde woman who approaches riding English-style on horseback.  “Oh, it’s the Horse people” says Rosi pleasantly. I sense the friction under the surface. Rosi asks them not to water their horses at the pond, and they say they won’t, of course. I observe Rosi’s amiableness and realize it is essential to communicate kindly when face-to-face with our neighbors if we are to educate them to alter human behavior in relation to the ecology around us.  I am aware of Rosi’s struggle with people who think that that their access to the property (hikers and horse riders alike) is a “right.”  My projection is that they have little awareness for lives as small as the clammys marmorata, whose largest female measures only 5.9 inches and the largest male 5.5 inches. Have they ever “formed a spiritual and emotional connection to the ecological system of which they are a part” (Scull, 1999) which I am trying to do? Is it fair of me to judge?

I am sensing conflict as Rosi pulls out a map to show us how this property should be managed to support the continuation of this population of turtles. Where should folks park their cars to hike in? Should the entry to this popular hiking area be moved to Red Rock? Which trails can be isolated to protect known nesting and over-wintering areas? A couple in their 50’s walking with us, who have adjoining property, try to decide where there is private property access, if any.  Questions are raised, such as can we close the property on a seasonal basis for nesting during the hours from dawn to 9 a.m. and from 5 to 8 p.m. between March and July?  As for pond management, what about landslide repairs, and dredging the pond depth rather than allowing continued buildup of sediments, and how do we restrict horses and dogs from accessing the pond? A child at the edge of the pond calls out that he has found a dead turtle, and brings it over to us.  Rosi puts it into a plastic bag. It is less than an inch long and half of its tiny body is squished.

Being slow is no less adventurous! Rosi pointed out one female individual named Lydia that was tracked traveling several miles in a day, up and down the straight rock wall of a waterfall, and returning back to the pond only to be tracked several miles away again the next day! This was an amazing and heroic feat for any turtle, said Rosi. We have a view of turtles being s-l-o-w but in studying these tiny ones in the wild we observe them to be quite adventurous. The depth psychological lesson for me is that moving slowly through daily life is the adventure, not necessarily doing things quickly and efficiently while thinking that we are saving time and money. The soul lives in small moments while doing ordinary things in a patient and careful way.

The Native Americans also “exploited” the turtle: “Since 1989, 616 western pond turtle bone fragments have been recovered from the Creighton Ranch site at Tulare Lake, deposited in such a way as to suggest they were consumed regularly by the Southern San Joaquin Valley Yokuts throughout their occupation of the area. Both western pond turtle and desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) remains have been recovered from archaeological sites in the southwestern Great Basin/Mojave Desert. Some remains consisted of shell fragments that were burned or marked in such a way as to suggest they had undergone cooking in preparation for consumption. Other remains were drilled and bore traces of asphaltum, a tar-like oil collected for use as a caulking agent, which suggests to anthropologists that the shells might have been used as ceremonial rattles. In 1946, excavations in Concord unearthed an archeological burial site containing the remains of nine humans. Among the artifacts buried with them were turtle bones. In San Jose, an important prehistoric ancestral Ohlone village with over 124 human burials” yielded faunal remains, among them the fragments of western pond turtles. Other coastal archeological sites in Ventura County, Long Beach, Santa Barbara County, and the Channel Islands have yielded western pond turtle remains as well. (Bettleheim, 2005)

In fact, until the 1930’s humans widely consumed Western Pond Turtles for Terrapin Soup (Lovitch, 1998). Besides human predators, the clammys marmorata are consumed by bullfrogs, black bears, coyotes, raccoons, and perhaps by bobcats and garter snakes, golden eagles and red-shouldered hawks. Western Pond Turtles themselves prey upon invertebrates such as larvae of beetles, stoneflies, caddisflies, dragonflies, and other insects, occasionally taking small fish and frogs. They scavenge carcasses of various mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians and only post-partum females ingest plants such as cattails or bulrush roots. As I walk the land I think of the uroboros (see Figure 2), the snake which eats itself in the process of becoming conscious. It represents an alchemical process whereby the “serpent in consuming itself creates a new self, so in the operations of the universe ALL proceeds from the one and returns to the one” (ARAS, 2006).

Is there an unconscious ecological perspective where we become one with that which we consume? In class we spoke of “environmental reciprocity” that lies in the ecological unconscious, the ecological unconscious being a living record of cosmic evolution (Scull, 1999). Environmental reciprocity acknowledges mutual dependence between humans and the environment. It might also mean that to eat what is found in nature is the way that we become one with nature, and for the animals to eat each other is a reciprocal relationship. I never thought of spiritual unity this way.

There must be some degree of existential angst in the natural world over this idea of being eaten, perhaps even a repressed angst of being eaten in our own human unconscious but we don’t walk around thinking about it. We surmised that the nature of the soul is to pathologize and if the soul is embedded in or contains an ecological unconscious would then nature itself experience ecopathology? How deep inside of our primitive brain or mind would we have to go in order to experience this threat? Andy Fisher (2002) reminds us that the eating metaphor enters our understanding when speaking of our experiences in nature. The eating metaphor is particularly apt for ecopsychology because it is how we are connected to the plants and animals. Ingestion, says Paul Shephard quoted in Fisher’s book, is a consuming force in our encounter with animals along with assimilation. We are all meat according to a Cheyenne Indian saying, and we nourish each other to grow. When we do not feed each other, entire species become extinct.

In conclusion, I want to acknowledge the development of new social relations around conservancy as part of the individuation process. Ecopsychology’s claim is that as our ecological unconscious matures from childhood wonder so does our responsibility for the planet. The simple attempt to involve myself actively and meet new people in the canyon was incredibly healing. I feel more connected to the place where I live, even more affectionate towards the canyon I begrudge living in just because it is Los Angeles. The ocean breeze is beautiful as it blows through the canyon where the mountainside is lit up with lights at night like the starlit sky. And now I feel personally connected to a few more creatures that live here with us. A deeper peace, satisfaction and sense of wholeness in my soul is the closest I can come to describing the individuation process. This is why my world needs turtles.

Comments are closed.