[P]rinted words circumscribe a symbolic space of communication that we carry on solely among ourselves, a hyperrreflective style of cogitation far too abstract to register the incarnate intelligence of other animals …. The powerful, self-enclosed spell of the written letters easily eclipses the subtler magic – the nuanced exchange between the human animal and the animate earth. David Abram, 'Sleight-of-Hand', in Becoming Animal
While walking a forest trail last week, my foot struck something that I knew wasn't a rock, by the light hollow tinkling sound it made. A tiny two-inch turtle shell, perfect and clean, as if the owner had just stepped out into a bigger one. But turtles don't do that, their shells grow along with them; that little soft-body had had a short life. The frilled shell with distinct ridge-top and orange sun-flecked scutes told me it had belonged to a three-toed box turtle, a woodland dweller. In the palm of my hand, the shell was a treasure, a gift of still unfolding meaning.
I often see an adult of this species around the sculpted stump that inspired me to make it a mossy shrine to the wild feminine. Every year I think about marking the attendant turtle in some way so that I can recognize its return, but I never have. A few days after the little one's shell came to me, an adult appeared, three mornings in a row up by the cabin where I was at work in my garden. She seemed intent on encountering me. Box turtles earn this name because they can shut their shell tightly, but this one stretches her neck out to view me.
I didn't know she was female when I spontaneously named her Philomena but I've since learned that males have red eyes along with orange heads and forelimbs, which she doesn't. I also didn't consciously make any connection with the name Philomena. A listing of child's names says that it is a 'rare and ancient' name, so quite suitable for one of a species that has been around for millions of years. From the Greek philos for friend and menos for strength, it has been variously translated as 'powerful love', 'strongly loved', and 'strong friend'.
I've wondered if my turtle friend is attracted by the watered earth, tender shoots and flowers that draw the deer to the garden also. No mind, I like her presence. I'm nearly at my limit for possession of discarded turtle shells, which in Missouri is five per household. I have incorporated one in a decorative mobile, a bone white shell sits on the deck table, another is used to scoop water in the sweat lodge, and now the tiny one. They're all box turtle shells, relatively common among the 17 species found in the state, though all turtles are losing their wild homes.
At the start of the year, I dreamt of a swimming 'woman who wore two turtle shells over her buttocks' and associated her with indigenous, virginal beauty, sacred land and ancient feminine wisdom. Surely she was also Philomena. In Greek mythology, there is a similar name that is often mixed up with this one, Philomela (with an el) meaning 'sweet song'*. Philomela tells a dark tale that is as old as time and has carried on relentlessly into our own culture.
In the story, Philomela's sister's husband lusts after her, rapes her, cuts out her tongue and throws her in the dungeon to hide his crime. Unable to speak, she weaves the story into a tapestry. In some versions, she dies alone and comes back as a nightingale. In others, she manages to send the tapestry to her sister who understands immediately. Together they exact a revenge in which the unawares husband is served up and eats his beloved son. Each member of the tragic family turns into a different bird.
Philomela became a woodland-dwelling nightingale, not a turtle. And yet, turtles do seem to carry unforgettable secrets under their protective shells. In the dream I mentioned, dead animals were floating in a karst pool as if in a cauldron. Only the beautiful woman seemed beyond the foreboding of that dream. It spoke to my fears for the wild waters, the wild beings and the wild places; as well as my growing sense of failure to cook up a new life and find nourishment in that.
I dreamt of turtle once before, when I first came to live in the Ozarks. In the dream, a friend and I were walking in the countryside when I saw an upside-down turtle. He had the head of a little bear and looked at us with sweet yet worried eyes. My companion turned the turtle right way up and later in the dream we found a manual that explained 'how to do everything'. Where that manual went I do not know but I keep looking. Dreams would tell us how to do everything if we could recognize them as real places with real inhabitants, not metaphors.
Stephen Aizenstat, in Dream Tending, notes that for primal humans the world itself was alive and always dreaming; it would 'often share those dreams with passersby'. Today, we live in such a state of alienation from the natural world that we have been 'severed from the wisdom of its dreamlike consciousness'. Forest life, encourages me to dwell in a creative realm where a turtle shell on the path and a friendly one visiting my garden come as messengers from the dreaming world in which my own living, breathing dreams are also immersed.
At my previous Ozark home, a snapping turtle sought to lay her eggs in freshly cleared earth between the fire pit and altar mound of my first 'family' sweat lodge. The sweat lodge or inipi signifies Mother Earth and so does the Turtle. I took it as a blessing but the turtle's presence effectively delayed our use of the lodge, so perhaps she was sending a different message. After we discovered her there, she left to find a more private spot. Like it or not, we humans impact wild creatures and their habitats. We are blind, deaf and dumb to the dreaming world.
I don't consider myself a shaman but in my experience: 'Like anything focused upon so intently, the animal ally will begin visiting the novice shaman's dreams, imparting understanding to her waking mind. …. Because the young shaman is now informed by two very different sets of sense, her allegiance to her own single species begins to loosen; she beings to catch glimpses of a shimmering, ever-shifting lattice of affiliations and dependencies – the filamental web that binds all beings.' David Abram, 'Sleight-of-Hand', in Becoming Animal
Some day, I may understand what the wild landscapes and creatures of my waking and dreaming life are telling me. Meanwhile, I shall continue to try to live more attentively and tend well to my turtle friends.
*The logo for the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center in Ohio is a nightingale, sending a powerful message, though this is one reference that has muddled the names by using Philomena instead of Philomela.
To the River: a poem (which also mentions turtle medicine)
Dreaming up the Land (turtle blesses my first sweat lodge)