Turtles need music. They may not crave Bach, Beethoven, or Jimmy Buffett like I do, but they need music nonetheless. For six months now, we have been the keepers of a three-toed box turtle named Mr. Turtelle (Telly for short). We knew him first as a wild turtle, visiting the cool oasis of our yard every summer for nearly twenty years. Last summer, Telly got hit by a car. His shell was cracked on the bottom and both back legs were severely injured, one almost severed from his body. After the accident, instead of going to the woods, where he would have surely died, Telly crawled to our yard, as if he knew we would come to his aid – which, of course, we did. With the speed and precision EMTs, we tended Telly’s wounds and sequestered him in our shade garden, where he spent the rest of the summer.
We had hoped to return Telly to the wild in the autumn, so he could follow his natural instinct to hibernate (or brumate, as its called in turtle-world), but it was not to be. Telly’s left hind leg would not retract into his shell, leaving him vulnerable to predators and frostbite, so we made plans to overwinter him in the house. We opted not to brumate Telly indoors, because it can be risky to do so after such a bad injury, so we ordered a gross of earthworms and stocked up on his favorite fruit: Apples. We set up his habitat in our storage room, complete with a jungle of green plants, deep soil for digging, a basking rock, a bathing pool, day and night heat lamps and a UV lamp as well. Suffice to say, Telly didn’t want for much.
Despite his posh accommodations, as the dark days of winter set in, Telly became depressed. We tried changing his diet, increased his time under the UV lamp, and kept his room at a balmy 80 degrees, but he didn’t respond. Telly spent his days buried in a pile of leaves, lost in his turtle dreams. Then, just a few days ago, we discovered what Telly was missing: He was missing music. Telly’s music comes from an iPod, but it isn’t Top 40. Turtle-music is the song of the wood thrush at daybreak, the hush of wind in the pines, and the lullaby of crickets on a warm summer night – all nature, all the time. Moments after the birdsong began, Telly came out of his corner, bright-eyed and ready to eat. He downed several earthworms, took a bath in his pool, and meandered all day among the vines and miniature palms that grown in his little world. Telly had come back to life.
Although I enjoy human-made music immensely, I understand why Telly needs the music of Nature. One night I was standing on the dock, looking over a moon-dappled lake in Northern Minnesota. A loon called from a distant cove. It was a single loon, which is uncommon, but it was late in the season and his brethren had already left for winter on the sea. My heart ached with the beauty of that lonesome tremolo. I felt as though he was calling me, “Come, fly with me beneath the silver moon.” I knew this song in the depths of my being. Like a half-remembered dream, the meaning was beyond recall, but the song was part me, part of my story too.
According to the scientific community, my love for turtle-music is more than mere sentimentality. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson believes humans’ love of the music of nature is “biophilia,” an inborn need to connect with nature and other living beings. Wilson writes: “….we are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms. They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted, and they offer the challenge and freedom innately sought. To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will be regained. I offer this as a formula of reenchantment to invigorate poetry and myth: mysterious and little known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit. Splendor awaits in minute proportions.” In short, the music of Nature connects us to our wild origins, reminds us of our ancestral home.
In his book The Singing Wilderness, naturalist Sigurd Olson wrote “I have discovered that I am not alone in my listening; that almost everyone is listening for something, that the search for places where the singing may be heard goes on everywhere… We may not know exactly what it is we are listening for, but we hunt as instinctively for opportunities and places to listen as sick animals look for healing herbs.”
We need a connection to The Wild, to the world that gave us life. If Eden exists, it is the whole of the natural world and our “fall from grace” was the choice to run away from that home and seek fame and fortune in the artificial world of our own making. The results of such egocentricity are clear, for modern-day humans are, for the most part, neither happy nor healthy. We evaluate our lives in terms of possessions rather than depth, we lie on our couches and watch television while a life filled with meaning quietly passes us by.
The answer is waiting, quite literally, out our own back door. In the fresh air and sunlight, we will hear the music and know, once and for all, that we are part something more, part of a kinship with all living things. The Garden is waiting for us, just as it was for Telly – calling to us in the cardinal’s morning-song, in the whisper of the evening wind, and the sighing of the summer rain, telling us we’re among family, telling us we’ve come home.