It has been a long time since I have run across a turtle here in our backyard forest – an adorable ordinary box turtle of medium size, with those amazing patterns on her back. She just looked at me, as if to say, “Slow down there, watch where you are going!” She wasn’t afraid, and she didn’t hide in the traveling home on her back. Rather she invited me to sit with her. And as I sat and gazed at her, I naturally did just as she asked, and my breath slowed and my desire to move on to the next thing vanished. And she gazed back with, “See, that’s not so hard. There is so much to see right here.”
She looks wrinkled and old, which makes her look wise. Turtles can live for decades and she may be older than I am. What has she lived through? What has she witnessed? She most certainly sees the deer as they move about every day between the overgrazed forest to the lusher, more irresistible landscapes and bird feeders in the human yards. She sees the squirrels in their mad dash to collect the most acorns, the birds twittering around the trees, and all the bugs and worms that feast on the fallen trees.
Was she here when our home was built 17 years ago, when the contractors indiscriminately pushed so many trees over the hill while clearing our lot? Did she notice when the highway noise STOPPED in April of 2020? Does she have trouble finding food because the suburban deer overgraze this small, forested area? Where does she go when it gets so dry like it is now? Is the barest trickle of water left in the creek enough for her?
A little research tells me that this turtle is in fact, a “she”. Female box turtles have brown eyes, and males have red eyes. Does she have or has she had a mate? I was surprised to learn that after mating she may lay fertile eggs for up to 4 years! That surely increases the hope that she may have baby turtles in my backyard forest. From October to April she will burrow into the ground and hibernate. I used to find turtles all the time, but I no longer do, and my research says they have declined by 38%.
I love knowing that we have a wise mama turtle in our backyard. Turtles are traditionally a symbol of motherhood and longevity and of the primal mother, our Earth Mama. They are considered a keeper of the doorway between heaven and earth and are a doorway to our ancestors. Because of their sharp eyesight and smell, they are also a symbol of heightened senses and sensitivities. So, it’s no surprise that this turtle appeared in my intuitive process painting recently, and in fact she showed up with quite a scowl on her face!
I can’t paint any longer with a paint brush – I have to get my hands into the paint. It’s a visceral feeling, like having feet in the dirt, like the turtle with her belly on the ground. This painting session felt like I was witnessing like the turtle witnesses. Everything, without any filter. As sometimes happens, a lot of feeling came up while I was painting, and it took me a while to realize it was intense joy from the feeling of aliveness but also grief. Grief that I spent so many years with my feelings mostly shut down. Grief for my willful blindness and complacency and finally allowing myself to fully feel the grief of all the disconnection from our Earth Mother and the collective harm to Her. Grief for all the years I didn’t trust myself, my gut, my intuition, and this deep desire to be connected to Her.
My blinders came from being taught this is the “way it is”. When I did see a “too large for me to fix problem”, like mountain top removal coal mining, or the slag pond just over the hill from the chemical plants, or the chemical spill in our valley in 2014 that shut down water supply for 300,000 people for several weeks, or the trees from clearing our lot just being pushed over the hill; – if I couldn’t see a solution, I subconsciously learned to just shut off most of my feelings from the issue and accept it. If I couldn’t fix it, then I wouldn’t allow myself to really feel it. I would either just loop and loop on how to fix it, or I would ignore it, or justify it. And fixing, if I could, was a way of avoiding and not really witnessing the pain. A personally painful example is my oldest son. He struggles with ADD, and I too often fixed things for him rather than let him fail. When I stopped fixing and had to witness him struggle for 5 years in his 30’s as he lost several jobs, it was one of the hardest lessons of my life.
When I can’t fix a problem, especially one that doesn’t immediately or directly affect me, I often fall into a common trap in our culture of accepting it, or worse, denying it, and before I know it, I go to a place of dismissal, or despair, or ignoring. It can be very hard to allow myself to fully recognize a problem, especially a deeply entrenched problem that goes back generations, and WITNESS IT, and stand with it, like Mary does at the cross, holding the pain. Witnessing when we cannot fix, or help, is the deep work of the Mother.
I have learned that just witnessing is so much more powerful than I have been taught. It lets the person or being know that I see them, and I love them. That I am willing to stand with them, even though they must bear the pain or burden for themselves. I am not always be able to do this, but now I try and do it as often as I can. I don’t want to look away.
My forest turtle is a symbol of the strength from Mother Earth that I draw on when something tough to watch, to see, to experience comes up. She is my reminder that I can be fully present to whatever is put before me if I can hold Her hand. This Mama Turtle will be here to help me bear the hard things and to celebrate the good ones.
The turtle creation stories that are in so many cultures speak of Her holding up the world on Her back. I love knowing that I am also carried on Her back and She is holding me up as well. As I stand and witness with Her at my side, I feel the generations of ancestors under our feet holding me up.