Sunday, after our two-hour tennis lesson, we had occasion to walk by our nearby pond. Nine turtles bordered themselves (socially distanced, by the way) around the rock perimeter. The most direct path home led within 18 inches of one of the turtles. Of course, I knew I bore no ill-will toward the turtle. But what would the turtle think about the situation?
Two basic alternatives presented themselves.
First, we could take a longer path around the pond and never approach closer than ten feet. We could let the turtles be.
Second, we could simply walk right by which would be the most “efficient” method of getting home. This would certainly have sent all the turtles along the path scurrying into the water.
Naturally, we took the third option. We crept carefully and slowly along the path. I have found that nearly every species of animal gets less spooked if I talk to them gently and calmly so I did that.
As we approached, the turtle tensed, swiveling its little reptile eye to see whether we were predator, prey, or simply curious co-inhabitant of this precious world. His rear right leg braced for a plunge into the nearby murky water where he would be safe.
It’s worth remembering that I am much more massive that the turtle.
Suppose an alien species, as tall as a thirty story building went lumbering by you and passed within a foot and a half. Would your curiosity outweigh your concerns for your safety? Would you dive into a nearby haven of safety? Or, would you hold your ground — ready to bolt, but watchfully waiting? Would it help if the smallish skyscraper murmured while they ambled by?
Everyone experiences some fear. And everyone experiences some curiosity. Often these two tendencies stretch us in different directions. Do we dare to try sushi? Do we worry more about the weirdness of raw fish? Or are we more curious about what it will be like?
I don’t think that this tension is something that only exists in humans. In fact, it’s reflective of one of the fundamental dances of life. On the one hand, life repeat what works — what is “known” to be safe. On the other hand, life keeps trying new things — recombinant genes, mutations, adaptations, explorations. Too much randomness and it is not life. Too much rigidity and it is not life.
Life, like the turtles, and like you and I, lives on the edge.
This particular turtle, on this particular day, allowed his curiosity to overcome his fear. We passed quite close. We praised him for his courage.
It’s important for turtles — and for people like you and I — to realize that not every encounter between two sentient living beings need necessarily be a life and death struggle. Sometimes, peaceful people travel intersecting paths. Kindness and mutual respect allow people to learn about each other without the need for deadly force.