Blog Post By: Elaine Walters, Sea Turtle Intern
There is something about turtles that captures the imagination and hearts of human beings. They feature prominently in the origin stories many different cultures, and they were often believed to possess mystical powers. As with many stories these often instill some kind of moral teaching or lesson for those listening to them. While the reality of these myths, legends, and proverbs may be called into question, many of the lessons still ring true today and, in many cases, our modern society might do well to listen to them.
In creation stories from North America to India, there are a great many tales of the world being built upon the back of a turtle. In the creation stories of the Potawatomi Nation of North America, it is the collaboration between all the creatures of Earth and the first human that lead to the establishment of the continent. Before there was land, there was only water and the animals. Until one day when the first woman, known as Skywoman, fell to earth. The birds flew up to break her fall and delivered her to the back of a turtle. From this point the other animals dove to help gather mud to build and island on which the new human could live, which they built around the turtle’s back. In turn, Skywoman took the seeds she had brought from her home in the sky and planted seeds on the new island, providing food to her new allies (summarized from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer). This shows how valuable it was for humans to live with the natural world, rather than to be separated from it or hold dominion over it.
We are currently facing unprecedented levels of global change, particularly in that of our climate that has been warming at alarming rates for the past few decades. There are equally alarming trends in ocean acidification, soil degradation, and extinction rates. Even the turtles, which have been the foundations of many of the world’s creation stories are facing increasing threats and population decline. As strange as this may seem, we may acquire a better understanding of how to deal with these problems from listening to these legends and stories. They may provide vital lessons on how to make our society more balanced and connected to the environment around us. The plants and animals of our world have, if not in quite so mythical of a sense, supported the growth of our species and it is now our turn to support and care for them.
Sea Turtle Biologist