The Turtle

Where do spirituality and environmentalism meet? Rick Bass on the wonder of releasing a painted turtle on the safe side of the road.

Rick Bass1 May 2009
Photo by Nick Abrams

Surely I am becoming a pagan; and not through any formal rejection or even dubious re-examination of the mystery of my childhood, Christianity, but more through the evolution of some closer fit between my spirit and this Montana landscape. So glorious does this engagement feel some days that I must confess, in the beginning I wondered if I was not being tempted somehow by the archetypal devil himself—for surely anything this pleasurable had to be sinful, even lustful; and worst of all, placing myself, rather than any God, at the center of things.

I’m not even sure what a pagan is exactly—perhaps I’m misusing the word—but yesterday, after I had dropped the girls off to play at a friend’s house over on the backside of the valley, just across the state line, in Idaho, I encountered a painted turtle crossing the gravel road, traveling from one marsh to another, and my spirits soared, at the life-affirming tenacity of her journey, her crossing, as well as at this most physical manifestation that indeed the back of winter was broken; for here, exhumed once again by the warm breath of the awakening earth, was the most primitive vertebrate still among us.

It was not a busy road, but I stopped anyway and picked up the turtle. Her extraordinarily long front claws, so like a grizzly’s, confirmed that she was a female—the longer claws are useful in excavating a nest in which to lay her eggs—and I put her in a cardboard box to show the girls upon my return.

I continued on my way, down across the giant Kootenai River and into Bonners Ferry, to run errands, and then drove back to our friend’s, where all the children examined the turtle with appropriate and gratifying fascination. They learned the words “carapace” and “scute” and “plastron,” and a bit of the natural history of the painted turtle, but what I suspect lodged deepest in their memory was the mesmerizing hieroglyphics, or cartography, of red and orange swirls on the underside of the shell; and the image that probably went deepest into either their consciousness or subconscious, into the matrix of memory and formative identity—or so I hope—was the three of us stopping on the trip home to release the turtle on the other, safe side of the road, pointed down toward the larger marsh—the direction she had been headed—despite the fact that there was still no traffic.

We kept watch over her then, as she slithered her way through last autumn’s dead grass, and the newly emerging green-up, toward the cattails and chilly dark waters that would receive her and the future of her kind.

I hoped the specific tone of sky at dusk, the call of snipe circling overhead, and the shapes of these specific mountains—these mountains—were imprinting themselves, this one April, as deeply in the minds of my young daughters, along with this leisurely, almost nonchalant yet considered act, as deeply as the chemistry of a river is said to imprint itself upon the bodies of young salmon. These are the sights and scents and tastes and sounds and textures, the logic and the reason, that hopefully will help form the matrix of their childhood and their individual characters.

I’m grateful to that one turtle for the opportunity to help show them consideration. I’m grateful to the color of that sky at dusk, and to the unique and specific shape of Haystack Mountain, to the north, and to the scent of the pine and fir forests, early in the spring, for helping form that calming matrix, as sense-filled and tangible as a bough of fir branches spread beneath one’s sleeping bag on a camping trip far back into the mountains, the mythic mountains of childhood.

We stood there and watched her clamber on down into the dark waters. We don’t have turtles in our marsh. Our marsh is one of several in a chain of wetlands that is perched at the edge of an upthrown fault block that parallels the valley’s main river. The closest turtles are but a quarter of a mile away, down in one of the huge wetlands created by the river’s high waters each spring; but there are no turtles in any of the marshes on that shelf up above the valley—the shelf on which our marsh, and several others, is perched.

We are a hundred feet too high, it seems, for turtles—an elevation of thirty-three hundred feet, rather than the valley floor of thirty-two hundred. Maybe, however, the warming earth will allow this marsh to receive them in my lifetime. Or it might take a hundred years, or two hundred, beyond that, but no matter; I dare not tinker with so ancient and established of a species—trying to coax it into a place it might never have been before. Perhaps this kind of reverence, respect and reverence, more than anything else, defines a pagan; I don’t know. Whatever it is, I know that I feel it strongly.

If this kind of attentiveness to, and gratitude for, the creation is excessive, or unseemly in our species, or, worst of all, ungodly, then I apologize for having been snookered by the dark forces; but know that I will go to damnation for having been an ignorant or mistaken man, rather than an evil one.

Some of my neighbors—friends—frown on the zeal, the restless tenor, of my environmentalism. They counsel me that with eternity at stake in the unending afterlife, there is little point or economy in getting so fretted up about clear-cuts when our mortal time here is so temporal, and the earth is but a proving grounds for the far greater and lasting struggle of our souls, our eternal salvation.

And sometimes—when I’m really tired of the struggle—I want to believe them.

But someone—their God, my God, somebody’s God—put the spark and light of peace and joy and worship and awe in my heart, when I stand in a cathedral of ancient cedars, or when I am far back in the distant mountains, so close to the sky and a scale of time greater than my own brief stay—and that spark tells me that for me, activism is a form of prayer, a way of paying back some small fraction of the blessing that the wilderness is to me; a way of celebrating and protecting that creation, and a way of giving thanks.


Rick Bass

Rick Bass lives with his family in Yaak and Missoula, Montana, where he has long been active in efforts to protect the last roadless lands in one of the wildest landscapes in the northern Rockies. His latest novel is 2009’s Nashville Chrome, which looks at the music business and the destructiveness of fame; 2012 saw the release of three nonfiction works by Bass: The Black Rhinos of Namibia, A Thousand Deer, and In My Home There Is No More Sorrow.