Why the turtle crossed the road

PHOTO: Donald Lee Pardue, Creative Commons license

PHOTO: Donald Lee Pardue, Creative Commons license

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

In “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck dedicates an entire chapter to an old turtle crossing the road. Though the passage confuses the heck out of high school students, (pro tip) the turtle chapter pretty much summarizes the entire book through symbolism.

Some years back my family and I settled in the woods of Itasca County, a few ticks north of the Western Mesabi Iron Range. This is the heart of turtle country and right now, midsummer, is the Time of the Turtle. Each trip to town, every expedition to extract the mail brings the likelihood of seeing a small box turtle or maybe a big snapper on a journey of its own.

We like to joke that turtles are slow, but no one is more acutely aware of this than the turtle itself. Those born into this world with the equivalent of a Ford Fiesta on their backs quickly deduce that the universe has dealt them a particular set of cards. Individual turtles might use different strategies; I see some of the smaller turtles sprinting, while others retreat into their shells until cars have passed. Still others plod along at an even pace, letting fate sort out whether he or she reaches the promised land.

People hold contrasting views on how to handle these reptilian refuges. I know a man who is militant in his defense of the road turtle. Not only will he stop to move turtles to the other side of the road when he sees one, this time of year brings an almost evangelical zeal to his voice as he warns one and all that these turtles need our help. He once chased down a motorist who ran over a turtle in front of him to deliver a sharply worded lecture.

His zeal is counterbalanced by the likes of people who run over turtles or any other impeding creature with cruelty or indifference. (Is there really any difference between cruelty and indifference?) Teenagers, maybe. Drunks and bullies. Who are these people who so clearly walk among us? One must only conclude that we are those people, sometimes.

Most others, including myself, fall in with the fatalists. Either that turtle is going to make it or it isn’t. I won’t hurt the turtle, nor will I intervene on its behalf. Frankly, if I lived in a world that also included two-legged creatures 100 times larger than myself, I would not require these things to pick me up and move me from Nashwauk to Keewatin just because I was walking eastwardly. Every time I encounter a turtle, I approach with all due respect and reverence, but it invariably turns its shell toward me and pees everywhere. Message received.

The fact is that no matter your own philosophy on turtles crossing the road — one of protection, hostility or deference — the turtles’ philosophy remains unchanged. They will press on: toward their loved ones, toward new waters, toward survival. Some won’t make it, but some will. A turtle has but one crucial purpose: to remain true to itself.

So it goes for turtles, and humans alike. This is precisely what Steinbeck was talking about.

We can become overwhelmed by the daily crush of manufactured drama: the controversies, the petty small-town power-mongering that delay progress, the bleating tones of the nonsense box (be it televised or live-streamed). Time to time a travesty will befall one of us, or many. But the only way we, the people, are ever to be defeated is if we stop walking.

And why would we ever do that?

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, July 6, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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