Turtle Teachings

posted in: Garden Sanctuaries | 24

Shhh, no, I can’t stay quiet: Meaning is getting made in the moss garden. When animals come to us from the wild it is often a very intimate experience and hard to talk about, especially when it is a synchronous experience, especially when such synchronicities become sequences of strange appearances, and especially when friends get threaded into the weave.

In mid-August, after a hiatus of some weeks I rose early, did my practices in the medicine wheel, then walked the circular path through our small bottomland forest. When I arrived at the (dry) creek I prayed for the health of streams and wetlands and for the amphibians and other critters that need clear, fresh water — salamanders, frogs, turtles. I thought, oh, and I would love to see a box turtle again. The next day I did the same, more fervently.

Shrine of the Earth Mother

Later that afternoon I went down to the creek bank, lifted a patch of moss, and brought it up to the Shrine of the Earth Mother to repair a spot that had been disheveled by a thrasher searching for earthworms. Kneeling, mending the mosses, out of the corner of my left eye I saw movement — a large box turtle had walked past, right behind me, and was climbing a cleft in the rock beside the shrine on its way to the ferns above. My breath caught. I had to breathe out hard. Tears welled. If my head hadn’t been slightly inclined to the left I wouldn’t even have noticed. In the time it took me to run in and yell to my husband to quick bring some strawberries, it was out of sight. Turtles move fast!  It disappeared like an apparition.

How can it be that I pray in the morning for our amphibians and turtles, express the desire to see one again, and in the afternoon he or she arrives? And not just anywhere in the garden, but at the Earth Mother’s Shrine! This seems like magic. With this kind of synchronicity surely there is a message.  While walking and praying I had had a familiar thought: This is my job – to pray for nature. I can’t help but feel that the appearance of the turtle is a confirmation of this strange vocation. I am grateful for the animal herself and for this seeming communication from the spirit world.

The last time I saw a box turtle here was three summers ago. I had invited my friend, Nancy, over to help bless the new Shrine for the Mother in the moss garden. As an offering she brought a bunch of zinneas and put them in a vase on a rock. They were so colorful, so gorgeous against the green moss. Then, she opened a big bag of rose petals and sprinkled them all over. She knelt and prayed for a long time. Later I emailed her, “Gotta tell ya, you must have blessed the Moss Shrine of the Mother with lots of mojo – tonight there is a large box turtle burrowing in at the edge of the moss garden. We haven’t seen a turtle here in years! She wrote back, “I found a turtle today in my garden, too!” Seems like we were joined in our Earth blessing by a powerful confirmation of the presence of the spirit of Mother Earth, Turtle being her representative!

Climbing Past St. Frances

This time, two days later I was worrying about that turtle, because it had climbed up in the direction of the busy road. Does a box turtle still have safe enough territory to roam? With all the invasive plants in the larger landscape does a turtle even have enough to eat around here? By the time I went outside I had missed the opportunity to do my practices in the medicine wheel as it was now in full sun and hot. So, I piddled a bit, weeding the moss, then did my prayers in the shade of the moss garden. Just as I was finishing, down the slope comes the turtle again, straight towards me. This time I pick her up and see that she is a he and run inside to get him some cherry tomatoes. When I put him back down he takes a bite of tomato then climbs a rock, past the small St. Frances statue, and disappears somewhere up in the ferns behind the shrine. I sit on the bench below and wait. He emerges on the other side of the shrine and rather clumsily stumbles back down a rock. He ambles around the garden, with a sort of staccato gait: taking some steps, stopping and stretching his neck up high, sometimes opening his mouth wide as if to taste the air, taking a few more steps, stopping to stretch his head up. . . He continues this rhythmic pattern of walking, then turning, makes his way through the blooming patch of pink turtlehead flowers (no kidding), and back up into the ferns.

I say to the turtle, You are a gift of life and beauty that I receive with tears of gratitude. I’m grateful that we both showed up in the garden at the same time. I’m excited that the garden might be providing something for you, is a healthy place for you. The first visitation was gift enough, but when an event occurs twice, Jung says, it means that something important is coming into consciousness, pay attention.

What does one do as a fitting expression of gratitude when an astonishing appearance happens? Make a chant? Write a poem? I emailed my poet friend, Brian, “At the risk of boring you with redundancy, after I told you about that turtle visitation, I went out to the moss garden to do my practices and to piddle a bit, weeding and watering. Just as I was finishing, down the slope comes Turtle again, straight towards me. Seems like the only equivalent response would be to write a poem. If I were a poet like you I’d write lines to the effect that doing Practices, Praying, Piddling in the garden, and Pondering writing a Poem are good for contacting Turtle Mother Earth, even if they are totally ephemeral Pastimes in the eyes of the social world.” Brian replies, “You can’t bore me with Nature Magic! Yes, we have our own currency system here of what is precious and valuable.”

Turtle With Turtlehead Flowers

Growing up on an island and left to my own exploring, with no adult to direct my nascent spirituality, from the very first horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs, and the shells of marsh snails washed up on the beach, I gravitated to animals. Animal appearances, dreams, visitations, and synchronicities have guided my life, have always been how the Divine speaks to me. Animals have been my primary teachers. I am finally accepting this weird person I am, with this strange religion. It is not a communal tradition, I have not had the guidance of an elder who could develop this proclivity in me, so I bump along and careen from one synchronicity to another down my soul’s rocky path. Like the time I was in the den playing the Rattlesnake and Baby Snake drum compositions and a black rat snake, having entered the house who knows how, was inches from climbing up my leg as if drawn to the vibrations of these rhythms. Like the time when I ran to tell my husband that I was both excited and scared at being invited to schedule my first Reading and exactly then a hawk slammed into the deck door. Wham! (Hawks for me are always messengers who speak about communication. He recovered and flew off.)

Almost without exception these occurrences stay hidden in my journals, afraid to show themselves, because if I tell them I fear it can sound like boasting. But when I do tell people they, too, invariably have an animal dream or synchronicity of their own to relate. We need to tell each other these stories. It is important, especially now, to let others know what can happen between us and our wild animal kin so that we don’t ignore them, take them for granted, destroy their homes, and stand silently by as they go extinct. What do these intimate animal visitations mean about the workings of Life, about our co-creative relationship with other species, their presence in our lives, our belonging in theirs?

There are many aspects of forming relationships with animals:

  • We can feed the garden critters who arrive having nothing to do with us, just to help provide them a table so they can live, sharing the bounty of the plants, as we try to learn who needs what in order to thrive and reproduce.
  • Animals who arrive from the wild around us can provide a sense of companionship to assuage our grief and loneliness for other species in an increasingly human-centered world. We are carrying the loneliness of our ancestors who lost their wild animals when they were colonized, when their animist/pagan religions were destroyed, when they found themselves in a land that existed only or primarily to be exploited. The tribes of each and every one of our ancestors had affinities with revered animals.
  • When animals come to us in dreams or visions, it might take quite a while to discern what they want of us, or what they want to give to us. We might rattle or drum to help us listen as we ask them to tell us why they have come.
  • There are those animals that arrive with incredible timing to punctuate a message as if they have some strange link with the spirit world that is connected to the Self and is aware of what sweet, bumbling Ego is doing or attempting to do.
  • The qualities of certain animals may be present in the chakras of the subtle body. For example Turtle, who spends his whole long life in intimate contact with moist black soil or burrowed into the humus has always been a spirit animal of my root chakra, teaching me how to connect deeply with the Earth.
  • Energies can be sensed as surrounding people, plants and animals and linking us in a web of sensory and extra-sensory relationships. Attuning to these Energies within and without is a practice for communing with both the matter and spirit of our fellow Nature beings.
  • We might make pilgrimages to known areas of animal congregation, once so commonplace for our ancestors, to fall on our knees and praise the glory of such abundance.
  • Since time immemorial myths and stories and fairytales have told of a permeability in which people can become animals and animals become people and help each other navigate this world and the otherworld. Children are still encouraged in colorful, animated books and on TV to have affinities with animals, but in nature, not so much.
Red Eft

It seems like whenever I’m attuning spiritually wild animals arrive. Whenever wild animals arrive I am raised into spiritual awareness. My heart softens to love, and tears of thankfulness well up. I feel connected to the community of life. The moss garden is a sanctuary. Twice, a jewel-like red eft climbed up the emerald moss shrine, too. The first time was right after we dedicated Temenos Garden Sanctuary as a place for people and critters to commune. When these animals come to the sanctuary it feels like an affirmation that this is a place where the sacred might be revealed. Grace emanates from the glowing greenness.

Four days later, after writing the above, I’m cleaning acorn pieces off the  moss from the squirrel’s dinner in the oak above, preparing for tomorrow’s visit by the woman who tends the mosses at Duke Gardens. I’m thinking I need to go back inside. I don’t know what time it is, and I have to get ready to go to see a friend at one. No, I’ll work a little more. .  . I should go in I’m sweating like crazy. . . No I’ll piddle a little longer . . . Finally, I turn around to leave and here comes the turtle, having strolled down the moss slope again. This time I don’t think he notices me. He walks a few steps and appears to eat something, a tiny red mushroom, then takes a few more steps, cranes his neck down and eats something else. At the shrine he appears to stretch his neck up and eat the spore capsules of the star moss. Can it be that he is getting things to eat in the moss garden, that he’s not just passing through, that the moss garden itself is giving him some sustenance? Ah, I begin to notice small pink and white mushrooms poking up here and there in the moss.  I’ve tried to create a garden that mimics a habitat, a functioning ecosystem, although I’m obviously unable to really know how, being woefully ignorant of all the myriad factors that imitating an ecosystem would entail. I plant native plants so that native animals will come, if they so choose. These mushrooms are nature’s contribution to this hopeful work.

Four more days pass. My husband and I have worked all morning doing chores around the new pond. We finish up as it starts raining and go inside. I have no idea why I go back out again in the rain to the moss. There at the edge of the moss garden is the turtle again. I watch him eat one of those little red mushrooms. So I bring him a white one. He eats that too. As he begins to head up further into the garden I pick a long-stemmed mushroom and put it down in front of him. It is almost comical how he stretches his neck out long sideways and stares at it. Then he picks it up by the stem and carries it, like a rose in the teeth, to eat under the cover of the maidenhair ferns.

I write to Brian again telling him that the saga continues, that after the first two visitations there have been two more. “The moss likes to grow mushrooms and the Turtle likes to eat them!” Brian replies, “I’m enthralled and enraptured! A stunning experience of Wonder! And you in communion. Some of us aren’t just gardening, we’re communing with Wonder.” Well, yes, it is wonder-full to witness Turtle having communion with mushrooms. My friend doesn’t know that the chant that came to me (rattle please) is energy movement, spiritual attunement, community involvement, animal wonderment!

Suppose that explains it: the turtle is just coming to eat mushrooms. Roll that around on your tongue and see how it tastes to reduce the turtle visitation to a nothing-but, a factual observation, a scientific explanation. Yes, tending a moss garden, perhaps with mushrooms, perhaps for turtles, is a form of care that lets the Earth know I love her. But it’s more than that. Charles Eisenstein says that any act of service for your place on Earth is healing and contributes to a shift in consciousness that will occur to dismantle this culture of separation from nature that reduces her to mere resources to extract. But also, he asks, “What if self and other are interwoven intimately and there is a mysterious connection between inside and outside. What if we are part of a living universe?”*

While I contemplate Turtle and begin to write this story eight more days pass. I’m sitting at the computer trying to get my bearings on the story, but then, distracted, I just “have to” go outside to the garden. I have gotten lonely again. I’m thinking: Who knows if I’ll ever see the box turtle again. Should I even bother writing the story? It was just an ephemeral series of small occurrences to one person with a common animal, quite insignificant. I bend over to move a path log, and when I stand up the box turtle is there on my left side. I thought I might never see you again! He walks into some dense shrubbery. I turn on the sprinkler. It’s been very dry, and I imagine he might like some water. Sure enough, he hurries down the moss right over to the dripping sprinkler and stands there under it. Then, like a pilgrim, he circumnambulates the whole moss carpet, as if blessing it all, before climbing back up behind the shrine and disappearing under some ferns. I wait and wait hoping to see where he will head next in his travels, but finally give up waiting and leave — to get back to writing the story.

Turtle Climbs Mother Earth Shrine

I wonder where, exactly, is the rest of his territory. Box turtles form an extremely strong attachment to the place where they were born, and throughout their whole long lives rarely travel beyond their home range, a circle with a diameter of 750 feet or less. With fewer and fewer native plants in the neighbors’ mown landscapes I flatter myself that he gravitates here because he feels at home here. These native plants are as familiar to him as they were to his grandfather and grandmother. The ancient mosses evolved with his ancient ancestors, so they fit his body like ocean fits a fish. Box turtles are disappearing, listed as a threatened species. I owe it to this animal kin of this bottomland/wetland habitat to honor him with a story.

When my dream group next met I told them about the turtle visitations. One woman remembered that she had recently saved a box turtle that had fallen into her community swimming pool. Another related that she had just rescued a box turtle crossing the road near the local university’s Botanical Garden. At the following meeting K. told us she had come upon box turtles mating in her yard. She said, “There is group meaning here. You told your story of the turtles, and it reverberated amongst us like echoes. These synchronicities belong to all of us.” She said that, for her, it brought back a memory of a profound vision she’d had at age 16 of a web of connections. “I didn’t know what it meant back then, but it came back to me as we told these turtle synchronicities, like oh, yeah, that vision back then is related to what is happening now – this is the web of connections I saw and knew that it touches us all. So, it was no surprise to me that these dream group turtle synchronicities were shared between us. Turtle is a group synchronicity touching us all!” She said she now realizes what synchronicity is: “It’s a glimpse of how the Other Realm operates.” Seems that Turtle gave us all a gift, a blessing, a peek at the reality that is woven of these “slender threads.”**

We know that the most important thing we can do to lessen the impact of climate change is to protect and restore the land for the sake of the plants and the animals and for the biological, hydrological, atmospheric, and carbon cycles to function properly. For this to happen we need to be restored to our function as lovers and guardians of life. And for this we need to feel that we belong to a local community of earthy and spirited beings, like turtles, and moss and mushrooms, that we belong to the benevolent spirits who love us and who love the land, that we belong to a community of other nurturers of life. We need to know in our bones that the Earth needs us like it needed our ancestors in order co-create meaning-full Life. How? By honoring and celebrating the integrity of the sacred communion of living beings and by reweaving ourselves back into the beautiful tapestry of creation, the great web of connection. Will you be woven in, too? Turtle asks.

* Charles Eisenstein talk here.

** Robert Johnson used this phrase in describing synchronicity.

Text and photos (C) 2019 Betty Lou Chaika

24 Responses

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Shannon, thank you for telling your turtle visitations. Yes, let’s all ask Turtle why he/she is appearing, what she is trying to convey from Spirit to us. I imagine we’ll find personal meaning and perhaps even some meaning that is meant for the world.

  1. Brian T Stokes

    I’m slowly moving through this piece of writing.
    My mind keeps gently pausing for feelings and sensations, at turtle pace.
    I have to stop often and just feel shivers up and down my spine
    and let the frequent upwelling of tears soften.

    Your singular voice has numerous colors and hues I am learning.
    And exquisite attention to easily overlooked significance.

    With joy and trembling,

    Brian

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Brian, thank you for bringing up this very important aspect of inter-species communication: making a physical, emotional response from one’s own animal body to the other animal’s embodied spirit. In the presence of Turtle I am dropping down and rattling this chant that you inspired: vibrate and shiver and tremble and cry; vibrate and shiver and tremble and cry.

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Yes, Sharon, plant-animal interactions in the garden and in the wild are so fascinating to observe, when we are blessed with an intimate glimpse into the lives of other species. Glad to share this with you.

  2. Suz Robinson

    As a child growing up in the WV Hills, a box turtle was my summer pet. I’d find one and create a home for it in a big box. It’s bed was made of leaves, twigs and grass. I’d feed it clover and lettuce. When I was 7 my neighbor, Tommy took his hatchet and split my turtle’s shell in half.

    I took my turtle and ran down to the creek bed behind my house. I scooped up dirt and made a thick mud polstice to place on its injured back. I packed crumbled leaves over the top of my concoction. Then I carefully placed my turtle in the base of a tree. I covered it’s new home with branches and headed back up the hillside. Imagine my surprise the next spring when a turtle with a deep scar across the top of its shell returned to my side yard!

    My dear friend returned for the next two years. There are truly no words for the joy I felt at the return of my traveling friend.

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Oh, Suz, what an incredible memory for you and heart-warming story for us! I was with you the whole time, feeling your care, tenderness and devotion for your friend turtle, the awful pain of the hatchet, your brave determination to do what you could to help him, the melting joy of his return. This is such a perfect example of a child’s whole-hearted relationship with a critter of the natural world. Thank you for sharing this treasure of a tale.

  3. Ann Gayek

    So beautifully written. . . . such lovely photos . . . .mushrooms! What a delight to know about that. . . .thank you for sharing your story .

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Thanks, Ann, for your kind words of encouragement. I hadn’t actually observed box turtles eating mushrooms before, so yes, it was delightful to see that, and, you know, I felt kind of trusted by the turtle to stand there watching as he went about eating. Thank you for playing a part in the story.

  4. arianna

    Thanks for sharing your heartfelt post, BL.

    I hold turtles sacred in my heart. To me, turtle energy teaches how to be “out” in the world and when to “be” within myself.
    These ancient beings follow sacred trajectories in their journey of life . Do I know where I am going in my life? Turtle spirit, bless me as I journey through my life.

  5. Laurie Lindgren

    I have always loved turtles, and the ones I have connected with the most are box turtles. A feeling of love, devotion, and adoration arises in my heart when I see or encounter one. Basically, my first response is, Oh You are so cute!!! I love you! So there is a maternal feeling. Also, for me, they embody healthy boundaries. If they need to protect themselves, they have the natural ability to just shut down then and there and Go Within. What a great teaching for all of us! And I love the old image of their carrying their home on their backs. Home is where the heart is, the connection with ground, with earth, with down, with sound, which can heal our wound. Here’s another chant: sound, sound, sound of down, ground, found, mound, healing our wound, wound, wound. Profound.

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Laurie, Turtle seems to be inspiring grounded, feet touching the earth, rhythmic chant! Thanks for contributing the power of chant to heal our wounds. And other important Turtle teachings, like how to have healthy boundaries. This turtle also taught me how to be out and about, looking for and boldly taking in the nourishment I need. I am very grateful to you for reminding me that, yes, when I see a turtle my first response is love. A big, melting, heart-opening motherly compassion is instantly drawn out of me.

  6. Ann Loomis

    According to the “Animal Medicine Book,” turtle is the oldest symbol of Mother Earth. She is calling out to us to claim our strand in weaving the Web of Life. Synchronicities abound when we connect to the Web. Thank you for writing this lovely piece to remind us of that.

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Thank you, Ann, for reminding us of the iconic symbol of Mother Earth as Turtle. Makes me think of the Haudenosaunee legend of Sky Woman creating Earth, with the help of the other animals, by packing mud on the back of Turtle on which all the plants and trees would grow, . Many Algonquian and Iroquoian speaking people call North America Turtle Island. Yes, we are certainly being called, more and more insistently, to honor the Earth and recognize that we are part of the web, not separate from it.

  7. Sue-Anne (Sofianna)Solem

    Well, before I can finish your story, I have to share my experiences with synchronicity! I, too, have felt their great significance. In fact, I call a synchronicity a “Sign from the Divine.” For me, they are road signs along my path, confirming or encouraging me to stay on what the Maya call the Sac Be, the white, or Holy path. From the get-go it was synchronicity that propelled me to learn about the Mayan spiritual calendar, the T’zolkin.: I had walked with my Spanish teacher over to the next Guatemalan village from where I was staying in San Pedro to ask about having a personal Mayan ceremony. My teacher was Mayan, and spoke Tzutujil, so she could speak with the shaman, Maria. When Maria asked me why I wanted a ceremony I told her it was because I was confused about my path at this point in my life, and really wanted some guidance about my path, and I must have used the word “path” at least half a dozen times. She asked me if I knew my Mayan sign, and I said I did not, so she asked my birthdate and looked it up on her T’zolkin. She said, “Your Mayan sign is “The Path”!
    So my practice has relied heavily on these synchronicities and there have been plenty of them! Some of them pretty amazing! You told your snake story, and here’s one of mine: on the day K’AN, which is the serpent, I did my first outreach class for the Agape Center for Environmental Education: I had to pick up our two corn snakes and take them to a school to teach about snakes!
    Synchronicity is the glue that holds my Maya/Sufi practice together, almost every day. Today, as I write, I recall that I received the Bowl of Saki posting about forgiveness. Guess what? Today is AJMAC, which is about forgiveness!
    So I say, “Hurray for synchronicities! The only “cities” I really enjoy being in!

    S

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Thanks, Sue-Anne, for your description of guidance revealed through synchronicity. Yes, Jung observed that cause and effect are the primary way the material world operates, while the divine world of the soul operates through an “a-causal connecting principle” which manifests in meaningful coincidences, which he called synchronicities. He said that synchronicities arise from “the psychoid realm” where matter and spirit are not yet separated, are one. That’s why something of soul or psyche can be revealed through something in the natural or social world.

  8. Sandra

    Betty Lou, thank you so much for sharing your story of Turtle, turtles, and synchronicity. Your words always inspire me. I am feeling some childlike delight in sharing in this circle of recent turtle encounters. Two or three weeks ago I found a baby box turtle swimming inside the edge of a very small pond in my backyard. It was perhaps 3 inches, head to tail, so cute and winsome! I could see that this little one couldn’t get out of the plastic pond by itself, so I lifted it up to the flat edge so it could decide where to go. It did eventually take off through the grass. I wished this little one good luck as it forged ahead into its (hopefully long) life. But, inspired by your nurturing spirit, maybe next time I will run inside to get a strawberry or nearby to get a mushroom for any turtle traveler who enters our garden.

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Sandra, the web of connections extending out from Turtle continues to expand! Solitary wandering turtles, mating turtles, turtles present, turtles past, and now baby turtle! Again, a motherly compassion arises. It is comforting to me to know that this turtle has your safe land surrounding his homeland. How exciting that you may encounter him/her again as he lives the circle of his life around the circle of his birthplace, your home. PS: someone taught me to angle a stick out of steep-sided water gardens so the critters can climb out as needed.

  9. Sue-Anne Solem

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I know a bit about Jung’s work, mostly through my recent spiritual teacher, Atum, who is a Jungian psychologist and spiritual teacher. He was Pir Vilayat’s secretary for many years, until he developed his own unique form of spiritual guidance, which unites Jungian, Jewish, Christian, Islamic and Buddhist wisdom in the most beautiful, transformative way. I have been to many classes and on many of his pilgrimages. Perhaps you might be interested in seeing what his offerings are. You can google Atum O’Kane. He calls what he does The Art of Spiritual Guidance. It is very yummy stuff!
    Love,
    S

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