My son, Nick, was young when he fell in love with turtles. He had a pet box turtle, Pebble, and she would eat every night in our kitchen sink. Nick offered her greens, vegetables, and cottage cheese on a small cutting board he put in the shallow water next to her — and we all watched amazed as her snakelike neck extended, she cracked open her sharp beak, and ate surprisingly quickly. Then Nick would take her back to her box in his room with a lamp for heat, and she would root around through the newspapers until she was nicely hidden.
When we traveled, Nick started collecting small turtles made from stone and wood. Friends and family would send him turtle mementos from Russia, Guatemala, and Thailand, in ebony, teak, alabaster, jade, cloth, and corn husk. Nick’s dad made him small shelves in his bedroom to hold this growing collection.
When Nick was a little older, he started making turtles with stones and leaving them in the landscape: a flat large stone for the body, one stone for her head, a narrow one for the tail, and four stones for each leg. We made some together on the sandy beaches of Cape Cod and even on the summit of Mt. Washington after a harrowing climb together.
When I first came to see the farm and walked around the lower pond, I stopped in my tracks. In the middle of the pond was a turtle—a round boulder the size of a Volkswagen bug, with a smaller rock for its head. This monumental rock formation was gazing east toward the rising sun. When I spoke with the owners later, they said they had never seen it.
In the creation stories of the Oneida and Iroquois, Skywoman fell through a hole in the sky, pirouetting down towards the dark water below. Geese saw this falling woman with long dark hair, and quickly flew up to break her fall. They caught her in their soft feathers and held her safely. But they couldn't hold her for long, and they didn’t know what to do. They gathered all the other water animals together in council — otters, fish, swans, beavers, and a large turtle. The turtle offered his back for her to stand on. But what to do next? The animals knew she wasn’t a water creature and needed solid ground, so they decided to dive deeply and bring up mud from the bottom of the water. It was far for them to dive, and they each in turn returned empty handed. At last, muskrat, the weakest diver among them said, “I will go.” They waited anxiously for muskrat’s return. Finally, they saw a few bubbles, and then his small, limp body surfaced. He had died on the return, but in his paw he still clutched a bit of mud from the bottom. “This mud,” Turtle said, “spread it on my back.” They spread the mud over Turtle’s shell, and Skywoman danced and the land grew.
That’s how we came to live on Turtle Island. It’s a creation myth of sacrifice and caring, of recognizing that the earth sustains us all. It acknowledges that we humans are all immigrants, that the animals were here before us. It is a creation story that affirms life, that recognizes death; one in which there is communication between all species.
Finding the large stone turtle on my first visit to the farm was a good omen. I see this turtle almost every day. The Turtle Island creation myth is in stark contrast to the Western creation myth of the Garden of Eden with its story of banishment, guilt, and wrongdoing. Fratricide follows in the next generation, and Snake gets a really bad rap.
Perhaps the West needs a new creation story, one that is earth centered. We can learn from this Native American legend of the earth as a giant turtle, and be reminded that we are still precariously standing on Turtle’s back. Maybe we also need to dance more to celebrate and heal our earth. Maybe, like Nick, we can all make stone turtle and leave it as a marker in the landscape of our recognition of the precariousness of where we stand.