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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Getting to Know Turtles

There might be hundreds of turtles living on my land. But I only encounter a turtle once in a good long while. When I do, I stop to take a picture, but the truth is I'm not very good at recognizing turtles. They all look the same to me, more or less. And I don't know if the differences that I do notice are personal, individual differences, or based on species and sex. So when I met the female three-toed box turtle yesterday on my walk, I did not know if I had ever seen her before.

In fact, I did not even know she was a female till my friend Pam told me. I spotted her on my walk out to the pasture.

I stopped to look, snapped some pictures and proceeded on my walk. But I saw her again on my way back to the house.

She looked so familiar. Had I ever seen her before?

I had seen a female turtle digging a nest last year in June, on the night of the strawberry moon. Could this be the same one? The odds seemed slim, but I dug up that old video to look at.

I showed the video to Pam, who is my turtle expert, and she confirmed it was the same turtle! So now this female three-toed box turtle and I have a history. Maybe we'll recognize each other next time we meet!

Getting to know someone is a long and complicated process. Sometimes, when we meet someone from a different species, culture or race, we mistake general traits for individual traits, and we may not realize what it is that makes this individual truly special. It makes me think of the song "Getting to Know You" from the King and I,  which I like to imagine is about this issue.

Getting to know someone can be a lifetime process, as hypothesis after hypothesis about what makes them uniquely who they are is thrown out when new evidence emerges that falsifies the previous hypothesis. Many people, however, do  not even bother to look for evidence to falsify their initial hypothesis, and then they live with a stereotype of the person they know, instead of the person himself. These are the people who are doomed to be eternal strangers, no matter how long we have known them.

Bow and I are still in the process of getting to know each other. I don't always understand what makes him tick. I can't always anticipate with certainty what he is going to do or say.

There is nothing like a grooming session to bring two individuals closer together. I feel I know him very well.

 But there are times when Bow is being very thoughtful, when I still don't know what is going through his mind.


  1. I like all the different turtles on your property.

    1. Thanks, Julia. I like all the different turtles on my property, too. But what I am struggling with right now is answering this question: is it a different turtle? Or is it the same one I saw before.

  2. I enjoy reading about your observations of all the animals & plants on your property, Aya. And those of Bow too. You're right about getting to know people, then throwing out the different hypotheses as we learn different things. It makes it even more complicated when you realize that we all change ourselves as we grow older too - our opinions and viewpoints on things change as we meet others or experience different things. The only core things that (should) remain the same are our principles.
    A couple of things I've been meaning to ask you:
    Why do people need to "make themselves smaller" when they meet Bow and does that continue even after a relationship is formed (like with Lawrence)?
    Also, is Bow still working on his language skills or does he consider that work now?

  3. Hi, Kathy. I agree that we do change over time, and that one of the things that should not change is our core principles. But I also think there is something else, something like character, which stays stable throughout all the years, and it is special to each individual. Writing about Jean Laffite as he ages, in the second half of Theodosia and the Pirates, I am trying to channel his basic character, even as he slows down, and reverses himself on some things, and makes peace with those aspects life that he can't change. You don't have to surrender your basic self, just to grow and adjust to a new situation.

    Making yourself smaller when you first meet Bow is a way to avoid threatening him and triggering his defense mechanisms. No, you don't have to keep doing it, once you know him well and are in his good graces.

    I have shown Bow pictures and videos of other chimps and asked whether he might like to meet them. Invariably, he wants to meet the females and the children, but he says he would not like to meet the adult males. Obviously, he is afraid they might beat him up. He sizes everyone up with that question in mind: could I beat him or would he beat me?

    Bow is not working on acquiring language, because he already has it. He has passed that mark, just as a human child after a certain age, has completely mastered his native language and is not receiving instruction on how to speak.

    I would like Bow to expand his reading and writing, but he does not seem to be interested in that.

    My problem as a scientist is that I have no proof of what he knows that would be sufficient for publication in a peer reviewed journal. This is not Bow's problem. This is strictly something that is bothersome to me. ;)