This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series Bestiary


Caretta caretta

Loggerhead: originally an insult applied to people,
later a kind of cannon shot, the post on a whaleboat
anchoring the harpoon line, a bulbous-headed iron tool
used to heat tar

& the largest sea turtle in the world. Its jaws
can crunch through the thickest armor: queen conch,
giant clam. Like all sea turtles, it can’t retreat
into its shell,

but once grown too big for a grouper’s gullet,
aside from fishing nets & oil spills, it’s nearly
indestructable. When sharks attack, it shows them
the flat side

of its plastron or carapace & their teeth
snap on nothing. It’s built for combat:
even the females spar over feeding grounds,
& during coitus,

which can go on for hours, other males
will batter & bite, sometimes dislodging their rival
and taking his place, or slicing his forelegs
to the bone.

Lexicographers insist that this is not the origin
of the expression at loggerheads, though they
propose no other. Mating takes place in spring
& early summer,

from Greece to the Gulf of Mexico. Males remain
offshore while the females venture in to lay eggs
high on the beach, where most clutches
will be found

by raccoons or gulls, dogs or storms. The hatchlings,
too, run a gauntlet when they cross the night beach,
guided by the glint of lights on the water that are not
the moon or stars.

Then they swim straight out, find the floating
mats called sargasso, circle the ocean.
They may swim for 8000 miles, navigating
by magnetic fields.

Biologists refer to this period in a loggerhead’s life,
before it returns to coastal waters three to seven
years later, as the lost years. Its heart-
shaped carapace

acquires a miniature reef, including algae
& barnacles — up to 100 species from 13 phyla.
The ancients weren’t so crazy when they imagined
the world riding

on its back. It can sleep underwater for hours
without breathing, its heart almost stopped.
It drinks seawater & excretes the salt
from special glands

next to its eyes. Biologists caution us not
to anthropomorphise, this is not what it seems,
this copious weeping has nothing to do
with grief.

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16 Replies to “Loggerhead”

  1. I love this. Very inspiring and brim full of potential for a lino-print to accompany it.

    Please don’t think that I’m ignoring our Bestiary. I’m not. I’m just a bit overwhelmed with pressing deadlines. When I can quarry half-an-hour out of a day I’ll scan some of the existing rough preparatory drawings to send to you. In the meantime I run between the studio, where I’m painting a Virgin in an advanced state of pregnancy, and the grounds, where the fencers are reconfiguring the pony’s paddock. Once again mechanical diggers and post hammers hold sway out there, and the Ty Isaf residents… nesting swallows, pony, pheasants and Jack the terrier… may be found companionably observing the mayhem with great interest! When will it all end?

    1. Clive, I know well how a place in the country can suck up all one’s spare time. My parents finally got smart and built a third house in the hollow for caretakers (free rent in exchange for work).

      No worries on the bestiary — I took an entire month off, after all. And this poem ended up being rushed anyway, because I was anxious to post something last night. I think it needs work.

  2. Growing up on the beaches of south Florida, and making the annual ritual one of watching these giants and their cousins, the Greens, come ashore to dig their nests, lay their eggs, cover them carefully and lumber back into the water is one of the most poignant in my memorybank. Now it’s more regulated and not sure teenagers could get as close to them as we did. But, as hard as the science is about their tears, I’ve never been convinced that their tears aren’t ones of sorrow…for the planet that they hold on their backs.

    1. Hi Beth. Glad that final image resonated with you (and I hope it wasn’t too unsubtle). I envy you those memories. I have never seen sea turtles outside an acquarium (which must be hell on a creature built to migrate 8000 miles).

  3. I like this a lot; glad to see you’re getting back to the bestiary.

    I’ve read that certain seabirds also have glands near their eyes for excreting salt. Didn’t know turtles did too. That brings me back to the last lines, which I think are wonderful (and not too unsubtle) in how they invite us to question the notion that animals can’t feel/lack emotion, a contention that’s never sat well with me.

    1. Well, I think biologists are moving farily rapdily away from that old terror of being found guilty of anthropomorphizing. The evidence is just too overwhelming for emotion, cognition, and that big bugbear, consciousness, in other animals. It would be exceedingly strange if we were the only species to possess these things.

  4. The first sea turtle I saw was kept in a box only slightly larger than it was. The box was kept on a pier at Clearwater beach. I’ll always remember that. I’d go see the turtle and marvel at how nothing was left within that box except a barely-there body. Then look over the pier’s edge to see horseshoe crabs and rays snatching up every scrap of whatever people laughingly tossed over.

    Spotting a wild turtle was a delightful rarity. Now it’s dreadfully rare. I hope they don’t feel grief.

    Wonderful rendering of the life we never get to see (for “we” being “almost everyone”).

  5. I blame whoever came up with the idea about God giving man dominion over the animals! That single notion within Christian and Judaic cultures has underwritten every wretched cruelty and act of violence visited upon the fauna of our planet. People figured out that they had the OK from a higher authority! But even had it not been there in black and white, together with all the other horrors that any idiot with a bible to belt can find to underwrite their stupid prejudices and cruelty, I’m sure there would always have been those who would be cruel to animals, not necessarily for gain… though that of course has fuelled our unspeakable farming practices… but because they like to hurt things. It can’t be got away from. Humans can be many fine things, but they are also hazardous to life, both their own and that of every other wretched creature jostling for space on the planet.

    (This from a man who was in torment because he had to shut in the Shetland pony all day while the fencers re-configured the paddocks!)

    I would like to hunt down the people who put that turtle in a box, and then do something fairly unspeakable to them. Except of course I couldn’t, because I don’t have that kind of cruelty in me. Or maybe it’s not that I don’t have the cruelty… I am after all human and capable of anything… but more because I have a highly (some might say overly) developed sense of empathy. Empathy stays the hand. Encourage empathy in your children. They’ll be better human beings for it.

    A turtle in a box. It makes me weep.

    1. “That single notion within Christian and Judaic cultures has underwritten every wretched cruelty and act of violence visited upon the fauna of our planet.” Would that it were that simple. Unfortunately, I think anthropocentrism is neither unique to Western monotheism nor a necessary precondition for cruelty and violence against animals. Domestication was the original sin, and it took place long before the Bible was written, in many different parts of the world. To me, the Bible evinces more appreciation for the wild (and the pastoral) than most other sacred texts, and for every damaging statement one can find — the vision in Isaiah about the wolf lying down with the lamb is my least-faviorite passage, for example — one can find another passage extolling the virtues of untrammelled nature. Wilderness played a pivotal role in the Exodus story, let’s remember, as well as in the lives of such pivotal figures as David, Elijah, and Jesus. Contrast that with the wholly anthropocentric, world-denigrating scriptures of, say, Theravadin Buddhism.

      1. Forgive me, I was ranting. I have such a complicated relationship with the bible. You’re quite right about the passages extolling both the wilderness and the pastoral. There’s ravishing beauty in it when you know where to look. (Well, in the King James version at any rate.)

        I’m doing so much work at the moment based on bible texts that I should be more balanced. It catches me out from time to time when someone throws a piece of dogma my way, as happens a bit too often. (It comes with the territory when you paint Annunciations!) Then I get all mean and nasty and go for the jugular. I shouldn’t get bogged down in the bad stuff. I should take more care.

        1. Perfectly understandable. Piety and dogma are repellent to me as well. But you can have fun with the pious souls rather than getting mad: ask them why God rebuked Job’s friends, for example, or why God tried to kill Moses on his way back into Egypt after the fateful encounter with the burning bush.

        2. It may also help to remember that mainline (non-fundamentalist) Christianity probably includes far more people who entertain a healthy skepticism and “live the questions” than it does those whose minds are made up, precise and antispetic, like hospital beds.

  6. Pingback: Turtle words

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