An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

March 11, 2011

Turtles All The Way Down

Diamondback Terrapin (2)

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever", said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"

A version of this story was relayed by Stephen Hawking in the opening of his book A Brief History of Time.  It makes me think how difficult it can be to consider the infinite connectedness of everything from the most minute to the most vast.  How does a shift deep in the earth and under the sea impact what is the most prepared and one of the most technologically advanced people on the planet.  And if an earthquake does this to a place more ready and more practiced than any other, what does this mean for those that are not paying attention to things that could happen, be it an act of nature or an act of man.

I have been thinking about turtles, and other things, since last Friday when I found the little guy in the picture while working in my parents garden.  He (or she) is a Diamond Back Terrapin, and judging from it's size must have hatched last year.  What puzzled me was why this fragile little creature was in the driveway on such a cold March day.  I would have more expected to see it crawling around in warmer weather, and according to what I have read about them, it should have itself buried in the mud somewhere waiting for spring.  At first I thought the terrapin was dead, but it stirred slightly when I lifted it, so I moved it to the pond's edge.

Perhaps the old lady was right, and somewhere deep under the earth a small turtle stirred in its slumber.  Whether one believes in myth, science or God's infinity, I would likely find little comfort in either facing such disruption, devastation and loss as occurred today.  It could be that our increasing connections make the world feel smaller, but it seems that we are having days like today more frequently.

My mind appears to be all over the place, so maybe I need to get my hands dirty and lose my self in the garden.


  1. Our whole world is shaking, literally and figuratively. You are not alone in feeling off-kilter and out-of-sorts. Thanks for this thoughtful and somehow intimate post. I like the thought of infinite turtles, holding all of us up.

  2. Les,
    So cute the little guy! Sure it is a Diamondback, they only like brackish water. We get Eastern Painted Turtles in the pond, some warm spring days I might count 4-5 of them this small.

  3. I always love that story. And your turtle is precious.
    I believe in myth, science and God's infinity. Myth arises from human's attempt to explain the science. God's infinity is the same as the science. All truth comes from God. For me, much of it is about language, what you call the ultimate force behind all the science. One major difference is if we ultimately attach an intellect to the science. I do. Thanks for starting my mind tonight.

  4. I know the Tortoise legend/myth. Interesting lead put it into words quite well. Just a horrific tragedy today. Leaves me dumbfounded.
    Your little turtle is awfully cute, tiny little guy.

  5. Thanks for that "way off topic" post, Les. Here the snow just finished melting, and today I glimpsed a frog darting under the pond's surface. I would have thought they were all still buried in the mud too. So we find some hope in little things.

  6. Thank you for such a thoughtful post. I am reading garden blogs while listening to the every-worsening news, seeking to balance the one with the other, needing to hear the bad but also needing some comfort. Hope your terrapin survives. Thank you for bridging the gap.

  7. I want to believe in the turtle. Whether he has tilted the earth by a springtime stretch, or the gods have reigned down on the planet my solution for enduring the madness it too look at, and for a long time, at a single glorious thing. Today I will place a small Japanese flag on the door and on the table. In all my comings and goings and at every meal I'll remember, and hold to the good light, the people of a country I always saw as home.

  8. This story/myth has been very intriguing for me since my youth. You can talk and think about this for hours, great! What a cute little turtle you found in the garden, So tiny and defenseless. Have a great Sunday my friend! And thanks for this inspirational article. You made my day!

  9. It has been a long time since I've had word from you. Thanks for the comment.

    Yes, that was the same NPR segment that I heard and that prompted my blog. My writing energies are directed toward thesis generation these days, so I don't do much with the blog, but that was a day carved in my memory.

    About the turtles, my daughter is volunteering at a wildlife clinic here at the university vet school and someone brought in a "batch??, a snap??, a shelling??" of baby snapping turtles in December. She has some nice photos of the little guys. I will post later.

    It is Spring Break here, so we are headed off to NYC again in a few hours. I have my list of landscapes to check out. I will also be traveling to Boston, so I am looking forward to a day trip to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, first one designed by my man Horace Cleveland. I then a visit to Mount Auburn Cemetery, the true grand daddy of the Rural Cemetery Movement!

    Hope you got your focus back with a little time in the soil.

  10. A very thought provoking post. Hope you were able to distract yourself with some gardening Les. What a cute little guy. :)

  11. I loved that, Les. I always forget Bertrand Russell was a scientist as well as philosopher. Very comforting post, thank you. (I wanted to participate in the winter walkabout but never got a free minute. I'll be checking that thread for some photoessays.)


    The Old Lady’s TORTOISE (Hinduism) and DRAGON (Taoism) are symbols for WAVE (energy), both are analog with MAGEN DAVID (Judaism). "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is the metaphor, and also similar with allegory of rituals Thawaf circling around the Ka'ba and Sa’i oscillating along “the sinus” Marwah-Shafa (seven times) during the Hajj pilgrimage (Abraham). CROSS (Christian) and SWASTIKA (Buddhism) are symbols for “Balance of Nature.”

    "A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME - From the Big Bang to Black Hole" by Stephen W. Hawking is the best scientific interpretation of AL QUR'AN by a non believer. It is also a “genuine bridge stone” for comprehensive study of Theology. Surprise, this paradox is a miracle and blessing in disguise as well. It should be very wise and challenging for Moslem scholars and others to verify my discovery, for then we should know the Mind of GOD.

    I am just “ordinary people,” so would you mind correcting my point of view. Thank you.