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Monday, June 2, 2014

Stages in the Life Cycle: How old is that turtle?

Sometimes just recognizing a stage in the life cycle of an individual is hard. When I was a young woman, many mistook me for a child. Bow is at that awkward adolescent stage, but if you didn't know him, you might suppose him to be much younger or much older, depending on how he is behaving.

At times he looks like a sage. Then later he gives you an impish look that reveals he is much younger.

How old would you  estimate this turtle is, that I met yesterday on my walk?

Would you have guessed over fifty years old? That's what my friend Pam says, and she is an expert. How does she know? Late Stage 3 shell growth. So this male three-toed box turtle is at least fifty years old, and could be a bit older.

Considering his age, the turtle is in good health, has a fairly undamaged shell and can move pretty fast -- for a turtle, that is.

I don't always appreciate how far along in the lifespan each individual I meet is, and how far it is from the end. Take my miniature rose bush. I planted it here about eight years ago. Last year it was thriving, blooming right along with the wild primroses. This year, when the wild roses bloomed, the miniature rose bush looked dead. There were no leaves, much less flowers. Now that the primroses have finished blooming, a small living survivor or descendant of the miniature rose is blooming. It sports a single open  rose and a single bud.

What exactly happened here? Are the wild roses choking out the cultivated one? Or was that bush so old that it died? Is the newcomer bursting forth a descendant? Or is the remaining ghostly presence of the now nearly dead old bush?

Is this the hope of the future that I see, or the last glorious bloom of a dying rose?

After looking at the rose this morning, I went to see if yesterday's turtle was still in the driveway in back of the house. He wasn't, but he had been replaced by a rabbit.

How old was that rabbit? How long does it yet have to live?

I like to listen the birds chirping as I admire the wildflowers in the unmown pasture. But how old are the voices that I hear? How many young? How many elders? I can hear, but cannot see them.

The old oak in my front yard is dying. It is infested with bugs, and it has been pecked at repeatedly by woodpeckers. It still has green leaves, but the tips of its limbs are bare. There is no more growth, though it seems to be holding its own in maintaining its current size. In contrast, what used to be the smaller oak to the left of it is still growing.

Do we start to die on the inside the moment we stop growing? Or is the sign of maturity the end of outward growth and the deepening of the roots?  What makes an individual an adult? What keeps us healthy, even when we have stopped getting taller? How can we avoid dying on the inside, little by little, while we are yet green on the outside?

Those are my questions for today. If you want to see a "pirate" grow old gracefully, you might consider my new book, Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain. 

Cover Illustration by Colleen Dick


  1. I think it is pretty interesting that turtle is fifty, and he does seem to be in good shape for his age. I have never been a huge fan of turtles, but my niece wants me to draw a picture for her with two turtles on a beach, so now I feel like I need to start researching into that. I am more interesting in how long a palm tree has lived on a beach than a turtle, but it is good to know about both.

    1. Hi, Julia. I was never all that interested in turtles before, but now that I am seeing more and more of them on my property, I have started taking an interest.

      It is good that your niece is inspiring your art.