Ed. note: Turtles was chosen as a finalist in the 2012 Sage Magazine Young Environmental Writers Contest.

The very simplicity and nakedness of man’s life in the primitive ages imply this advantage at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature… But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools.
–Henry David Thoreau

In Kiribati, I learned that the world is made of turtles.

The soil of tropical atolls, however, is made up mostly of coral.

The islands sit atop ancient undersea ridges, formed from volcanic activity and populated with tiny microorganisms that secrete a hard exoskeleton made of calcium carbonate. Because of this, the soil on atolls is alkaline. Few plants grow well. Coconut palms, saltbush, breadfruit trees, and a strange tree called pandanus, with long triangular serrated leaves, are what tend to thrive. The atolls of Kiribati are mostly covered in dense jungles of them, all bearing some sort of fruit, except saltbush. Breadfruit looks like a small green brain, kind of like an osage orange, but the tree is far larger, with a straight, brown-barked trunk and huge symmetrical limbs. When lacerated, both the tree and the fruit emit a sticky white sap that makes it difficult to cut it up, but if you can manage it, fried breadfruit chips with a bit of salt taste better than French fries.

Pandanus, on the other hand, is not primarily a food plant. The plant, which looks like something Dr. Seuss would dream up, produces a two-foot sphere comprised of hard green segments. You can break them off and chew on the resulting pieces, which resemble candy corns, the outer edge being green and the inner orange. The fruit tastes like a carrot, and its fibrous and woody strands are apt to get lodged between teeth. The trunk of the tree grows hundreds of dowel sized tendrils that extend straight out from the trunk and downward and act like buttresses to keep the tree upright. Several branches extend upward from the trunk as well and put out bunches of leaves like a palm tree. The leaves are serrated and razor sharp. The trunk of the tree is an important material for boat building and home construction and the leaves can be prepared into long flat sections and woven into mats and ceremonial clothing.

The relatively low diversity of plants on the island sits in marked contrast to the abundance of life in the sea. The reef is home to sea cucumbers, octopus, eels, clams, and all manner of fish, while just beyond its edge dwell sharks, dolphins, deep sea species like tuna and snapper, and sea turtles. It is the turtles that intrigue me more than any other animal.


*          *          *


I never saw one in the wild, only after someone had caught one and set it, still alive, on its back outside the family compound.  They were beautiful even on their backs, the diameter of dining room tables, huge and unwieldy. I used to ride past on the back of the transport truck and see them feebly moving their heads and flippers, the bodies too immense to do anything else.

Other times they were still. Where the head should have been, only a bloody stump. Their long, elegant flippers hanging limp.

Sea turtle meat is a delicacy in Kiribati, as it is in much of the world. People eat both the adults and the eggs in Indonesia, Mexico, China and many other places.

I couldn’t bring myself to eat them. Their cooked-chicken-colored flesh, is supposed to be salty and tender, and the part of me interested in the new and exotic wanted to taste it. I might never have another chance. But my instincts told me that it would be wrong.

Eating turtles is illegal.  Most species of sea turtle are endangered, but they’re easy to catch. They move slowly and gracefully through the water relying on their shells for protection. Fishermen just pull up alongside them and haul them over the lip of the boat. Turtles are also vulnerable to long line fishing and shrimp nets. The soft shelled eggs can simply be dug up and put into a bucket. They are easy pickings.


*          *          *


Turtle hunting isn’t the only reason the population is endangered. Development, too, has caused a sharp decline in numbers. Most turtles return to the same beaches where they hatched to lay their eggs. Many of these nesting grounds have been or are being developed into seaside resorts. I recently spent Christmas in San Jose del Cabo. The resort I stayed at had a turtle hatchery. Workers had dug up nests of eggs and redeposited them behind a chain link fence to protect them from tourists recreating on the beach. When the turtles hatched, they put them all into orange plastic buckets and brought them down near the ocean. Guests of the resort, myself included, were invited to help the baby sea turtles reach the ocean unharmed.

photo by Ben Cromwell

They were the size of a child’s hand. Fifteen of us watched about thirty turtles struggle over the sand toward the waves. After a few minutes, the crowd got bored. People began to pick up the turtles in their hands and walk them out into the ocean.

I had misgivings about touching wild animals. I wanted to let them find their own way, but in no time there were only two turtles left and my wife, Raven, picked up the one nearest to me and put it in my hands.

I walked it out into the warm water and lowered it gently down until, with a twitch of tiny flippers, it floated free of my hands and swam headlong for the breakers.

“I knew you wouldn’t pick it up yourself,” said Raven.

I worry, even now, that what we did may have killed more turtles than it saved. How will they know where to return, having been harvested as eggs and transported in an orange bucket and then carried to the sea. Perhaps their struggle in the sand is necessary.  Perhaps it gives them some sort of memory or skill they need to survive. Perhaps the smell of sunscreen on their leathery hides will attract predators. There are so many unknowns.


*          *          *


Christianity came to the islands in the 1800s alongside whaling vessels and fortune hunters. Before “first contact” with Europeans, the I-Kiribati were known for building the fastest boats in the Pacific. They ate mostly fish and breadfruit, no one wore clothes, and everyone was certain that the Earth, the oceans, the islands, and everything else existed on the backs of giant turtles.

Now wooden boats are being replaced with metal ones. Rice is replacing breadfruit. It’s rare, but not unheard of, for women to dance the traditional maie topless. Harder to shake, however, are the turtles.

People in my village were either Catholic or Protestant. They attended church on Sundays and sang religious songs and tithed, but there was a streak of fierce independence running through Kiribati culture. Catholic or protestant, people were islanders first, and Jesus never said that the world wasn’t made of turtles. Culture gets overridden, but there are deeper things than a person’s religion.

Once I heard a story about a Catholic missionary who was having a theological discussion with one of the local men from Abaiang.

“The world cannot possibly rest on the backs of turtles,” he argued. “What would the turtles rest on?”

“Turtles,” replied the villager. “It’s turtles all the way down.”


*          *          *


To be in Kiribati is to be dependent on the sea. People believed in turtles because they were there, surrounding them, circulating in the waters near the islands like blood cells. They could be seen and touched and so what if a few were harvested to feed the village? There was never a shortage. A foreign God cannot replace that sort of abundance.

Kiribati had an immensity of turtles, an effusion of turtles, an economy of turtles. In the end, how different is that from an economy based on money? At least turtles actually exist.


*          *          *

We made the same salaries as native teachers. It ended up being a few hundred Australian dollars a month. We used our money to buy food. The rest we saved. There were few living expenses on the island. Our house was provided for us.  It was made of coconut sticks and pandanus. Our water came from a well near our house. Our electricity came from a neighbor’s solar panel.  It powered one light. Most I-Kiribati teachers have large families to support. Kids, spouses, brothers and sister, mothers and fathers, cousins and even friends sometimes live with each other on one income. We had no such obligations. By the standards of the village, Raven and I were rich.

The money didn’t matter. We had trouble getting fish. I’m not a fisherman and we lived in a village of teachers. Fish was scarce. In other villages, the men spent all day fishing, and their families ate well. We ate rice and canned beans that we bought in bulk and had shipped to us from the capital island, Tarawa.


*          *          *


When we got back to America, the Peace Corps gave us 10,000 dollars as a readjustment allowance. We bought a truck, and the money vanished. I am happy with the purchase. It is a good truck. It runs well. It hauls our other stuff from place to place, holds most of our possessions, but it is not part of us, and we are not a part of it. When it’s gone, I will not pine for it. I will buy a new truck. This is how it works. We buy things and discard them. The world becomes disposable.


*          *          *


When you fly over Kiribati, it looks like hundreds of green backs alive and writhing. From the sea, as the early Kiribati explorers must have seen them, the islands dome ever so slightly above the waves. As you approach, the boat slides through the troughs and crests, the view of the land, alternating between the barest edge of green and glimpses of reddish coral and dense jungle. Most of the islands are roughly circular or oval, the interior being the lagoon. The land, itself, is a thin ribbon, no more than a half mile wide at the widest and mostly thinner. Villages are carved out of the bush, reclaimed in brown swaths that stretch from ocean to lagoon like scars. Who could blame the ancient islanders for thinking of turtles at first sight?


*          *          *


I thought of turtles at the Spiral Jetty, a land art installation on the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake. It stretches out into the water in a long coil of earth and rock. I was out there with friends. We’d come to have a look at the land, having heard that there were plans in the works to drill for oil in the lake near there. The road down to the jetty is dusty and long, and as it nears the edge of the Great Salt Lake, it begins to look more like a boulder field than a road. We parked the car and hiked the last quarter mile carrying a large round piece of plywood made to look like the Earth.

The plywood was part of an art project we had undertaken. Coins and paper money of different nationalities made up the ocean and the land. An Earth made of money. Our idea was to juxtapose this with the Jetty, to have one piece of art comment on another.

We walked the spiral to the center, and spent time on the flat, hard ground at the edge of the water, wondering at the salt encrusted bodies of hundreds of grasshoppers. How did they come to be here? How did they die? We walked out across the salt.  The water, forming only the thinnest film over the crystals, made it seem like ice, and we worried we would break through and fall into the saline water of the lake. It held us, however, and we spread our arms and pretended we were walking on water, Christ-like, blasphemous. The pose, belying intention. This trip was meant as a sort of redemption, a way to save ourselves, though we were not sure of how or from what.

One of the photos we took holds particular significance for me.  A girl from our group is crouching behind the Earth, propping it up without letting her face be seen. The shot is from the side and shows her, head down, reflected in the shallow water, the plywood leaning against her. The world rests upon her and she is crouched down on a rim of protruding salt.  I hear it crunch beneath her feet as she adjusts, shifts her weight to accommodate that of the Earth. It is an exchange of sorts, a dependence.  There is so much salt, mountains of it, lakefulls, huge underground caverns of it.  The rime of it is on my skin, the taste of it in my mouth, bitter and chalky and salty. And beneath that: salt. And beneath that: salt.

My friend Lindsy brought her daughter. She tried, over and over again, to rush into the lake, towards the very heart of it, Lindsy sprinting after her, her voice rising higher the farther they went. I remember thinking she was moving in the right direction. We’d come to connect with the landscape, and here we all were, at the edges while Coral sprinted towards the water.

I imagined the salt, domed below us like the back of some monstrous salt turtle, its other side buried beneath the alkaline soil of Abaiang. The places, connected by what is underneath.

We should’ve lied down on the rime, should’ve rolled over and over, steeped ourselves in it. We should’ve rushed into the water and submerged, should’ve baptized ourselves in salt, paid homage to the god of real things.


 *          *          *


I am terrified of getting this wrong. My god, destruction is so easy, so natural. My son is the size of a raspberry, fragile inside of my fragile wife. I am tiptoeing around her, touching only with great care, blowing gently on the heart of the flames. Every nerve in my body jangles.

If only it were true, if I could believe in turtles, that as the sea rises, Kiribati will simply float instead of being drowned. If only the world could swim away and save itself.

Some part of me knows that all this worry is futile, that more people is always a bad idea, that there is no surer way to find destruction than by creating. Yet I’m doing my mad, voodoo dance, limbs crossed, eyes closed, covered in talismans and rabbits feet, chanting ancient charms. “He will be different.  This one will be different.”


*          *          *

15th November 2010

            Dear Ezra,

I want you to be happy. I’ll begin there. I could say that I want you to go to a good school or to get straight A’s or to be a great writer, but that would be dishonest. I want you to be satisfied with whatever your life turns out to be. I can’t help thinking that a decent education is part of what will shape you. I expect that you will have enough money. I need you to be safe. I won’t say that you should live in a huge house in the suburbs, but I admit I’ve thought about it. It seems safe and prosperous to settle down and make sure that you become well adjusted.

On the other hand, it’s unlikely that you will get to touch a baby sea turtle in a suburb in the Midwest.

I’m torn. I want to protect you from the risks I see out there in the world. It’s a dangerous world.

But I want you to find some way to make contact, too. I’m not sure there’s a way to do both. In fact, I’m sure that the kind of safety I am imagining right now is an illusion. More people die in car accidents than bear attacks. More people are murdered in the suburbs than are struck by lightning on mountain tops.

photo by Ben Cromwell

Somehow it seems safer, though, to stay out of sight. I’m drawn to the hiding places, to the insides of buildings with air conditioning and heat and running water and soft beds, but I know there are things underneath that world.  I know there is a living, breathing beast, something below us, and whatever that is, turtle or God, it can see through our flimsy walls, can see us for what we are. We are a species of Earth. The old legends say that we are born of it, of dust and clay and breath, and to that we shall return. We cannot hide.

Your mother and I love you. More than that, to us you are all that exists. You are our salt, our turtle.

We are proud of you, though you are only the size of raspberry now. Last night we sang to you and I wanted to let you sleep next to my old blanket so you wouldn’t be scared, but your mother said it would be too silly to sleep with such an old and worn bit of cotton on her belly.

We are trying to be good for you. We are trying to be better than we are.


Ben Cromwell

Ben Cromwell lives in Salt Lake City with his wife, Raven, and son, Ezra. He spends his time writing, playing with Ezra, and worrying about Climate Chaos. His work has appeared in Flyway and High Desert Journal. He is the author of Touch: Making Contact with ClimateChange.

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