I turned on the news this morning for the first time in years because a friend has a sister New Zealand. I got to see many things waiting for the update: the massacre in Libya, the faces of the mercenaries who –I was informed- are shooting people right and left for 2000 Euros a day, pictures of the landslide in Christchurch under which there is no hope of finding anyone alive, and a report on the continuing slaughter of seals in Canada with graphic pictures of their attempts to escape the bludgeoning. I was sorry I had turned on the news. I immediately had to question the thoughts that flooded my mind and body with an angry war on Reality. “They should not beat seals to death” was the judgment causing the most pain (strange how the brutal death of innocent animals pained me more than the brutal death of innocent men, women and children on the streets of the Libyan capital) and I noticed how my mind kept playing the scene over and over as if the loop had gotten stuck. I sat for a while in meditation finally realizing that I couldn’t absolutely know that it was true. I knew perfectly the degree of pain with which I reacted when I believed the thought that things like that shouldn’t happen, so I went to who I would be without the thought, and played the scene over again in my mind. Without the thought, I saw the men; perhaps they were struggling to feed their families, perhaps they hadn’t found a better way to do what they had to do. Instead of pain, I felt compassion. I turned the thought around: “They should beat seals to death” and realized that, yes, they should as humanity searches for a kinder way to live and to remind me of all the reasons I do not watch the news.

Seeing the seals and thinking of the plight of the men dedicated to earning a living (and I presume they earn something, though I expect not much) with their slaughter, awakened memories of my days fighting for the protection of sea turtles nesting on the beaches of Mexico. I learned a lot in those activist days, but perhaps what I learned most was the complexity of the challenges faced in developing countries when it comes to protecting natural habitats and species. It is not cut and dry. There is the plight of the species and there is the plight of the people whose living comes from their exploitation. And that is just at ground level. Right on up to the ultimate consumer there are anywhere from one to ten people involved in marketing the product depending on what it is you are selling. With turtles, it was the eggs taken directly from the nest and sometimes, directly from the turtle. A sea turtle can lay between 1 and 2 hundred eggs, but for every 1000 eggs hatched, only one turtle survives till the age of reproduction. For the poachers, the seasonal phenomenon was a much awaited bonus to a very meager income, frequently below the poverty level. So it was great for all of us conservationists to sit around a dinner table, with our stomachs full, our dishwashers running, our beds neatly made and discuss the problems of the turtles. But when I got to the beaches, when I really sat down to talk to the Minister of Fisheries and began to see the wider perspective I understood what we so-called “tree-huggers” are facing. There is no way to solve Nature’s problem if we do not solve the human problem at the same time and that means working with the primary exploiters and not against them.

What my experience on those beaches produced –apart from legislation which may or not be being enforced- was the following story:

The Turtle

Near the beach the sea becomes transparent. A radiant sun extends its blanket of light over the water; the brilliance shatters and sails on sparkles of random swells. From the depths, blue-green lances of light pierce the waves, spread, and are lost on the surface. The air grows still and rests, and the gentle breathing of the sea repeats “ussh, ahhhh” across the long tongue of white beach, depositing a battered coconut on the sand. Myriad fish sketch a translucent geometry with reflections from their fins. In its depth, far from the shore the sea reverberates and sings.

In secret fibers of an ancestral memory, the sea turtle registers the glowing, fervid vibrations, feels their resonance in her ample body, and follows her dark impulse. She breathes and dives, breaking the mirror of water with her hard shell, leaving behind a wake of bubbles, and then emerges. She is near. In the folds of her strong neck, in the softness of her belly, she absorbs messages from disparate layers of the sea, some warm, some cool. She approaches the beach, all trembling and joy, scattering gleams and sparkles across the surface. She is near; she is returning. In her own flesh, engraved in the darkness, she finds the memory of that other primal darkness, and something inside her sings. Bird of the water, kite of the deep sea, she returns with the tug of a tenacious string, and true to instinct, follows just one command: nest.

+ + +

The man hurries toward the beach, sliding down the side of the dune. He stops, feels the sun at its zenith, shades his eyes with a hand, his glance fans across the sea. The reflection blinds him momentarily, his pupils adjust to the brilliance, and then he spots them: small dark mounds floating on the silky luster of the water. He spins on his heels, strides rapidly up the dune, instinctively following his own footprints, and disappears. The day’s splendor quickly closes over the wound of his presence.

+ + +

The limitless solitude of water shines, an extensive and beautiful loneliness. The sea. The breeze and its tributaries make paths of light, weaving an agile tapestry of sun. The turtle hovers in strange expectation, floating tranquilly without knowing, without asking, feeling the cycle that is approaching in the fullness of her belly. She is possessed by powerful energy, the same energy that compelled her to break the eggshell and emerge, so tiny that her initial race down the beach to the sea seemed unending, dodging dangers, mountains and valleys of sand, the claw of a crab, until she was picked up by the edge of a wave, tumbled about, dragged into the water, and sent on her prolonged journey. And now she returns, treading on the almost-forgotten echoes of that beginning and feeling once again the urgency of life, suddenly recognizing her own yearning in another turtle that is swimming nearby.

+ + +

In the shelter of the bay the boats rock quietly on gentle, lapping waves. The man arrives, and whistles, another hurries to meet him. They speak and their gestures disturb the stillness. They look at the sun, make calculations, nod in agreement, and walk away.

+ + +

The beach is calm at midday. A wafting breeze pushes at the tide, combs the palm trees, and retreats. The sun dominates the landscape; its sparkles collide and reflect each other as they break into bits of color among the grains of sand. The water brushes lazily over the sand, leaving lacy patterns on the beach. Suddenly a wave swells and crashes, tumbling into foam and spray, then withdraws. The turtle waits no longer; her nostrils are full of a scent that awakens and paralyzes her. Her companion silently begins a strange aquatic dance, rubbing her shell with his flippers, bumping her gently with his head, in a mute sequence of signals. The dance, the signals, the soft shoves all make her restless, but they also quell her impulse to escape. She is all instinct and need, an ancestral memory that dictates her responses and subdues her fear. Inside she carries a treasureload of large, mature eggs, still dormant but eager for life.

+ + +

A hungry dog emerges from the bushes, sniffs the air, and stands still. Across the burning sand the seagulls embroider their intricate discourse. A crab scurries for his life. The dog moves, her drooping teats swing back and forth as she trots across the sand. The gulls fly up with a squawking protest, circle once, then land a short distance away. The dog looks at them; hunger festers in her belly and waits.

+ + +

In the water, the couple is not in a hurry. The striking sunlight that makes them open and close their eyes, the heat of the midday, and the warmth of the surface-water lull their movements to a slow sway, a gradual approach. She is still, he swims around her, watching her lethargy settle in. Then, a strange movement and she feels the jawbone of the male on her back. Her flippers come alive, but he has already mounted, holding her still with his strong claws. A hefty revolving of shells stirs up the surrounding water, putting an end to the calm. The female feels the weight of the male, his harsh claws grasping her back, and she tries to free herself. She struggles to flee to the tranquility of deep water when suddenly she is overwhelmed by the unexpected rupture of her solitude and the imminence of a strange plenitude in which the limits of her own existence are dissolved. Something is completed, something fulfilled and perfected that connects all the facets of her wandering and binds them together in silence. The restlessness of her secret eggs seems to swell almost to the point of bursting. Gently the coupling turtles are rocked by the ample embrace of the sea.

+ + +

The breeze diminishes. The great silk-cotton tree extends its blanket of heavy shade over the hut. The heat dozes outside. The dog appears at the door, growls at the puppy that approaches her, and enters furtively, a shadow among shadows, close to the wall. She lies down on the cool floor, her snout trembling against the hard earth: Two cautious eyes observe. The man at the table clanks his spoon against the metal plate, sips the watery soup, stirs and sips, his head down, his eyes fixed. A transistor radio fills the air with static; a woman’s voice sings; the static returns. The child cries. Crouching before the fire the woman heats up tortillas. “Shhh, shhh.” Handing the tortillas to the man, she stands and picks up her child, “shhh, shhh.” From the folds of her blouse she pulls a swollen breast, the little mouth catches it, the woman crouches down again next to the fire. In the shadow lies the dog; only her eyes move, from the woman to the child to the man to the woman. The man noisily pushes his plate away from him, the dog starts and jumps up. “Get out!” He throws a beer bottle after her retreating tail. The bottle rolls and stops next to a stone, pierced by a sharp ray of sunshine.

+ + +

Gradually the sun surrenders its reign. The afternoon breeze pushes rows of white clouds, stirs them up, and forms them again. Over the mountain the pallid pupil of the moon appears, contemplates the landscape for a moment, then blacks out behind a cloud. The female turtle is slowly pulled into the dance, shell on top of shell, she tilts and rocks to the rhythm of the water. Over and over again they separate and seek each other, they dive and surface, oblivious to time. A pelican glides through the air, swoops down, dives into the water, emerges, shakes himself, and swallows, once more takes off with a heavy flapping of wings. The turtle is lost in an ageless memory that has the voice of the sea and the colors of the air, the coming and going of millions of years, the plenitude of closed cycles. Her flesh sings, rejoices, and opens to the registry of storms and calm, vital, vibrant, full of the rhythm of tides. The sky takes on purple and salmon tones, orange, and a tenuous yellow. Across the sea there are paths of color; early shadows tremble with uncertainty; over the mountain a cautious moon dares to show itself.

+ + +

The cradle rocks to the rhythm of a distracted hand. With a different rhythm, the other hand combs limp hair, reviving its shine in the light of the fire. The man sits up in the hammock, puts his feet on the floor, takes a knife and stone from the wall. He hones, sharpens, prepares. “I want to get there early.” The woman gets up, the cradle settles; she picks up a bag and prepares a taco with beans and a tortilla. The man snaps his fingers, the dog comes running, and together they start down the path.

+ + +

The blind eye of the moon opens onto the sea; waves crash in crystals of light, drawing ephemeral crisscross patterns. The turtle’s strange urgency is reborn inside her; the water feels hostile; her desire changes and she rejects the male. Her body is tense with longing for the beach, a pressing need for land. Her flippers propel her toward the swell of the waves, the thundering sound of the reef. The weight of her body rises and is thrust forward with the swirling water; the memory buried in her flesh travels in reverse, out of the water, upwards to the beach. An accommodating wave deposits her on the sand. She begins to row laboriously with her flippers, but her shell and flesh are heavy, and the answer to her urgency is awkward and slow.

+ + +

Against the moon appears the silhouette of the man, and with him, the hungry dog. His hand calms the animal; his eyes have seen something. It looks like a trunk or driftwood, but it moves, slowly. “Stay!” He kneels in the sand; the dog slumps down.

+ + +

Along paths of moonlight the turtle progresses with a cumbersome crawl that occupies her whole being, totally committed to leaving behind her natural medium. She is unusually inept  away from the smooth gliding of water, as she pushes upward toward the highest part of the beach. Behind her she leaves a wide, symmetric trail with her fins: Hard, determined paddles that strain forward, pulling along her heavy bulk. She stops, breathes with difficulty, snorts. She starts again, conquering the beach little by little, recognizing her origin in a wordless memory, and hearing the strong echoes of the beginning: nest.

+ + +

Eyes watch her from the dune; dog and master lie on the sand, waiting. The turtle is slow. Another shadow approaches and crouches down. The man growls, “I saw her first. She’s mine.” The shadow straightens up and moves away. In the man’s memory, the hut and the child sleep, the woman keeps watch.

+ + +

Fatigue seems to have stopped the turtle completely. She rises up on her flippers, lets out a deep sigh, and continues. An obscure, profound recognition of the sand vibrates in her flesh. Something alerts her and she swirls the sand around her, making the first bed. She rests and begins dragging her weight forward again. It wasn’t the place. A new sign and the flippers round out a space. Once again she doesn’t finish. The secret memory searches and reminisces.

+ + +

The dog whines softly; the man glances at the moon. He counts the beds. Five. “Damn!” He looks at the moon again and gets restless. The shadow of the other man reappears. In his hand, a bag full of eggs. He gives a little laugh. “That one’s yours,” he says.

“Fuck you!” is the answer.

+ + +

She is totally focused on the discovery; she dives into the new bed and knows. She feels hurried now, her flippers like sharp shovels gauge out the hole, a perfect cylinder. The sand flies. The turtle’s insides are exploding. Something in her is complete, filling her with ownership. She’s there now, fulfilled, and her whole existence surrenders to the rhythm of nature.

+ + +

The man eagerly crawls across the sand, approaching cautiously, spying on the process. The dog behind him sniffs, her nostrils filled with the smell of eggs. The man contemplates the shiny, white spheres, reflections of the moon, balls of light that fall slowly into the shadows. The turtle, absorbed in her own consummation, doesn’t perceive them. For her the perfect space is open, the cylinder of the nest, and from the center of her being she slowly closes the cycle.

The man counts, his eyes fixed on the nest that is being filled. But the turtle stops to rest, with many more eggs still inside her. She lays her hard jawbone on the sand, and once more her flesh rejoices and sings.

The dog becomes impatient and barks. The turtle awakens from her trance. Startled, she shakes herself. Her flesh closes, her flippers push at the sand, covering, hiding, protecting the nest. The cycle has been interrupted.

With his fist the man knocks the dog aside; he grabs the shell of the turtle and turns her over. The blade of the knife flashes in the light of the moon.

+ + +

Near the highway the men wait, crouching in the shadows. A car approaches, stops, the trunk opens like a giant mouth. The men come forward, they bargain, weaving intricate accounts in the night air. The bags full of eggs are relinquished; extended hands close and return to their pockets.

+ + +

In the hut the woman keeps watch. She stirs the fire, then stands at the door; the man returns. She backs up against the wall silently. He enters, throws the coins on the table. “Son of a bitch! He cheated me!” And he lies down. In the light of the fire the woman sadly counts, fingering the coins over and over again, then puts them away.

+ + +

The beach wakes up slowly. The water stretches out sleepily, laps at the sand, and rests. The eye of the sun opens and illuminates the entrails of the dead turtle with eerie tones of red. Across the silky surface of the sea dark mounds appear, here and there. Up on the dune, the silhouette of a man severs the sun in two.

* * *

Story published in When I Was a Horse, translation Kay S. Garcia, TCU Press, 2006


  1. What could you & entertainers like Paul McCartney possibly know about, seals, seal populations, seal harvesting & the economy of Newfoundland?

    • Dear Fred: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, that I can guarantee, less than I know about sea turtles and that knowledge is full of holes too. That is why I do not engage in criticism of the practice, and neither do I wish to watch it done on television. Good to hear from you.

  2. Brianda:

    You described the awful paradox of “conservation”.

    And, the problem is 7 billion plus, not the minuses of turtles and seals. . . .

    And, you made the mistake of turning on the TV!!! I have not watched TV since Alfredo’s demise in 1999 – well I do watch “Antiques Road Show. I read about three books a month and get my information at my pace – not the TV screen’s pace and choice – from about a dozen publications.

    Steve Bhaerman’s suggestions are the one’s that might provide an insight into the outcome – either five billion of us disappear – or we come into a new relationship with each other. There are very strong indications of this ferment and the major question is: “Will it happen fast enough?”

    Several friends of my own age and I, when we see each other celebrate that we are the age we are. . . and have had such a wonderful time as predators (unknowingly, of course!) and hope that if a calamity occurs that we will be among the first to go and not be responsible for the cleanup.

    In the interim, make as many folks smile as you can. . .. every day!

    Lots of love and hugs,

  3. An excellent perspective on the seals. It’s always good to question the sense of shock which the news encourages as a way to sell itself. I am guessing that the commenter Fred Holton didn’t finish reading your piece!

    Also, beautiful writing on the turtles. It was a pleasure to read. It seems strange to me, though, that the poverty-stricken egg gatherer would leave a perfectly nutritious turtle just lying there on the beach.

    • Yes, I agree that it might seem strange and sea turtle meat is only eaten in the North of Mexico, Sonora to be precise, where it is considered a delicacy along with the blood which is drunken fresh and hot and believed to enhance sexual potency. This story actually takes place on one of the more southern beaches. Turtle eggs, which are swallowed whole and raw are also believed to increase sexual potency. Neither claim has any scientific basis, obviously.

  4. Its tempting to feel more pain for the seals and less for the murdered men. Those sniveling, predatory, wily men. Graceless intruders into the rhythm of nature. What happened to “a little less than angels”, made in the image of God, bound for glory and godliness? Have we fallen so low that our contempt for ourselves makes murder, theft and destruction just another spot on the tube, ho, hum? Why are seals more important and deserving of our pain/compassion than men?
    Thanks for a thought provoking piece. Nicely done.

  5. I can´t be consciously blind to what goes around my world. There´s much good also. If I believe that the world is my mirror through where I get to know myself, I must look at it in the face. I know I alone can´t change the world but I’m trying to do my part with love and compassion for that part of the shadow that is in me.

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