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Turtle Liberation in the Anthropocene June 13, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, Buddhist practice, earth community, Evolution, geologic time, Hudson Valley, science, Turtles.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.

Earth Dharma: Turtle Liberation!

In some Buddhist traditions, liberating captive animals is an act of compassion, a way to “make merit” for long life. Releasing turtles, in particular—symbols of patience and resilience—is considered an auspicious act.

This morning I woke up and let our household dog Molly outside in the backyard. She ran down the path towards the pond and stopped abruptly to sniff at something dark at the corner of our garden. I’d gone out with her to prop up the tomatoes that have been growing well, protected by the scents of bee balm, borage, sage and mint, as well as a delicate mesh netting I’d wrapped around four posts to exclude grazing deer and woodchucks.

What at first I thought might be a dark muskrat shocked into stillness turned out to be a snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentinaNew York’s state reptile. During the night, it must have crept out of the muddy, shallow pond behind our house, crawled up the brushy bank, and asserted itself beneath the netting into the garden.

Now although the so-called common snapper is not listed as an endangered or threatened species—the species is a prominent member of many North American ecosystems—this particular individual was struggling against the mesh that entangled her.

Having spent nights observing nesting sea turtles in the southern Caribbean and tracing the tracks they leave in the sand after laying eggs, I was able to make out the path this snapping turtle had taken through our garden.

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She had buried her eggs in one of our raised beds but the netting that I’d used to protect the plants barred her return to the water.

The opportunity to engage in the Buddhist practice of releasing this trapped turtle felt not so much like an opportunity to make merit as it seemed a privilege to encounter this remarkable being of ancient lineage. But most importantly the experience provided a vivid reminder of the tenuous position of some living beings at the juncture between the deep geological past and the uncertain future of the Anthropocene.

Nature essayist Bil Gilbert vividly described snapping turtles as “creatures who are entitled to regard the brontosaur and mastodon as brief zoological fads.” From the look of the one in the garden, I could see why: with sharply clawed feet; hard, pointed beak; dark and dented carapace; sharp, bony-plated jaws; and thick, spiky tail she certainly looked related to the dinosaurs—yet they’re gone and her branch on the tree of life still thrives.

Chelydra serpentina has barely changed in the 210 million years since the first appearance in the fossil record of Proganochelys, the most primitive turtle we know. The most substantial difference between Proganochelys and our garden snapper is that she could pull her head and legs into her protective shell—clearly a helpful innovation as snapping turtles are the ancestors of about 80% of all turtles alive today.

Whether or not the motivation to release trapped endemic animals is the desire to make merit, the traditional act can serve positive ecological purposes. For example, in some rural communities as seasonal bodies of water shrink during the dry season, aquatic creatures trapped in isolated water bodies make easy prey. By returning some of these critters to larger year-round bodies of water villagers help individuals and species to survive. Although compassionate acts, such releases also help to protect the food supply into the future.

I brought Molly back to the house and called up to my partner and ten year old to come down to the garden. Together with our neighbor and her young child we gingerly and respectfully separated the turtle from the netting then silently marveled at the size and apparent age of this being.

After a short while, we went up to the house to get a ruler intending to measure the length of her shell; but when we returned she had gone leaving us to admire her swift stealth—that, and her family’s ability to survive asteroid impacts and ice ages. We wished her good fortune in the Anthropocene and hoped that the merit that had accrued from her release would benefit all living beings.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on June 13, 2011 at 11:42 am and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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