Turtles on the Tracks
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
One fine spring day I set out as usual for my morning walk in the state park at the end of my street. On a whim, I cut south down the railroad tracks that skirt a large wetlands area known locally as Dead Man's Swamp. I was nearing a railroad trestle that crossed over Nooks Hill Road when I encountered a turtle slowly pulling himself across the span between the two rails. How the turtle chinned himself up over the rail is anyone's guess, since he was no bigger than my hand. To speed the turtle on his way, I picked him up and deposited him in the grass along the embankment he was moving toward.
I continued on another 100 yards or so and spotted a brownish lump by the tracks just ahead. Could this be another turtle? Sure enough, only this one was much larger than the first. I drew near for a closer inspection, and the turtle pulled his head back into his shell and peering at me blankly from the leathery folds under his carapace. He had already made it across the tracks and was picking his way down the crushed-rock slope of the rail bed. His shell was as scuffed and dented as the hood of an old jalopy, suggesting he had made this trek many times before. A little farther on, I encountered yet another turtle, this one making his way between the rails like the first. By now, of course, I realized this could not be mere coincidence. The railroad tracks lay between Dead Man's Swamp and a pond I could see down the embankment and across Nooks Hill Road, perhaps 200 yards away. I knew very little about turtles but figured this had to be some annual migration between wetlands and pond.
Early in The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck describes a similar encounter with a land turtle along an Oklahoma roadside, prefiguring the Joad family's desperate migration from Oklahoma to California during the depths of the Great Depression. There is, as Steinbeck recognized, a powerful instinct gripping many of God's creatures that launches them on impossible journeys from here to there. Polynesian peoples sailed across vast stretches of open water in outrigger canoes to settle the South Pacific. Asiatic peoples crossed a land bridge some 12,000 years ago and populated the Americas before eventually being overrun by Europeans coming from the other direction. The migrants were not always driven by desperation. According to their tribal legends, at least, the ancient Hebrews left Egypt rather reluctantly in the search of a promised land.
I passed the two larger turtles again on my return home a short while later and saw that their progress, such as it was, had been agonizingly slow. The two hundred yards of weeds and asphalt separating them from their destination was its own epic journey never to be told. Perhaps that was just as well. I suspect the turtles would regard any inquiry about their migratory behavior to be as nonsensical as asking them why they breathed. Then again, I doubt an anthropologist would have gotten a very satisfactory answer if he had asked the ancient Hebrews why they wandered for 40 years in the wilderness in search of a homeland they had never seen. Surely no one would leave everything behind and venture into the wilderness merely because God told them to do it. Their promised land was not yet a true home but an idea they carried with them from place to place, much like the home the land turtle carries on his back.