The Turtle Mothers Have Come Ashore to Ask About an Unpaid Debt

Dr. Kimmerer is a plant ecologist, a writer and a distinguished teaching professor and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She is the author of “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.”

Each summer I teach at the Cranberry Lake Biological Station, a remote wilderness field school in the Adirondacks. It is a community of scientists and students, surrounded by rich forests and glittering lakes, where bears and loons are our neighbors. We may think we’re learning about wild lives, but in fact, we are learning from them.

One of our best teachers returns every summer, just after the solstice, clambering her way up a steep bluff from the lake under cover of darkness, to lay her eggs in the warm open sand of our volleyball court. With powerful bearlike paws she flings the sand aside. Her sharp-snouted mouth open and gasping for breath, she rests for a minute. Then she digs some more with fierce maternal commitment and utter disregard for the students who surround her, snapping photos as eggs like leathery Ping-Pong balls leave her body. When she has covered them safely, entrusting them to the earth, she makes her way back to the water.

She and I, we go back a long time, to a story we both remember, a creation story of my people, the Potawatomi. It is a story of how the troubled world was cleansed by a great flood and our new home was made on the back of a turtle who gave herself so that we might live. It was the gifts of the animals and the seeds of the plants who made this paradise.

The turtle reminds me that I owe my small human life to the generosity of the more-than-human beings with whom we share this precious homeland. The Earth was made not by one alone but from the alchemy of two essential elements: gratitude for her gifts and the covenant of reciprocity. Together they formed what we know today as Turtle Island, or North America. In return for their gifts, it’s time that we gave ours in return.

We have betrayed the millions of other species with whom we share this leafy paradise with an extractive culture that threatens their inherent right to be. Turtles among us carry a warning: We need to acknowledge our unpaid debt and create solutions that protect not only our species but our more-than-human relatives as well. They want to live, too.

As our creation story attests, snapping turtles are long-lived, solitary beings who walked with dinosaurs. They leave the water only to lay eggs and can make extensive overland journeys to find just the right spot.

As predictable as the solstice, this mother comes every year. We know her by the little notch marked in the edge of her shell. There are hundreds of sandy places for a snapping turtle nest, but for some reason, this one chooses to bring her offspring to us. Our students are thrilled to witness this. It is a highlight of their field biology summer. But they also want to play volleyball. So the herpetology class carefully unearths the eggs and with loving care takes them to another site the students have prepared and measured to be sure it’s a good place for incubation: warm, dry sand, safe from predators, so that the baby snappers will hatch.

A few years ago, there was a second mother in just the same spot on our volleyball court. That had never happened before. The next day there was another. And another. One day there were two basking right on the welcome mat of the camp headquarters. In all, more than a dozen snapping turtles came among us in a dozen days. A deluge of turtles.

As scientists, we were asking: Why? Why would reclusive, solitary beings struggle up a rocky bluff and walk into a community of 100 humans? Why did all these turtles come to us in unprecedented numbers to do their most important thing? When our students went to find suitable transplant sites for the repeated batches of eggs, they found one answer. The sand spits the turtles favor were underwater from unusually heavy rains. As the lake level rose, they had to seek higher ground. It seemed to me that the snapping turtles had become climate refugees.

Here’s the thing that haunts me.

I think the turtles headed for high ground with a kind of desperation to ask us to pay attention, to see that we teeter on the brink of climate catastrophe with our plant and animal relatives disappearing in waves of extinction. Science, armed with models to predict the coming changes, is a powerful tool for addressing these crises. But it is not the only one. As a scientist, I hear the indisputable data, and also a message, simultaneously material and spiritual, carried by snapping turtles: The Earth asks more of us than gratitude.

Green technology, renewable energy, regenerative economics and restoration of forests, prairies and wetlands will all be part of the changes we need. But these solutions cannot come at the expense of the Indigenous people who help safeguard up to 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity and whose environmental science and worldview illuminate a path forward.

We need more than policy change; we need a change in worldview, from the fiction of human exceptionalism to the reality of our kinship and reciprocity with the living world. The Earth asks that we renounce a culture of endless taking so that the world can continue.

It is no longer a matter of small acts of stewardship, not enough to tenderly move the eggs from one place to another, when there are no more places for them to go. Not enough to write praise songs for turtles, not enough to study the hormones that change the sex of the turtle eggs when the temperature rises.

The Earth asks that we give our considerable gifts, in return for all we’ve been given and in return for all we have taken. We are called to a movement made of equal parts outrage and love.

We humans carry gifts of our own. We are scientists and storytellers, we are change makers, we are Earth shapers riding on the back of the turtle. We are each called upon to resist the forces of destruction, to give our gifts, to first imagine and then enact a world whole and healed. When the turtles come among us, asking for help, we must remember that at the beginning of the world they were our life raft, and now, so much closer to the end, we must be theirs.

This essay was read by the author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, accompanied by live music and animation, at the Times Climate Forward event.