Turtle Poems, Prose and Photos

Photo by Donna Birdwell

A Turtle Responds


We who are slow are not patient but unwavering.
We mine a deep and ancient reserve
to haul massive bony shields,
borne of the rib,
across the chaos and speed of the road.


Stop to save me if you must,
but know this: I am not your pet
or your symbol for surrender and humility.
I may well kick you or jerk myself
violently from your hands,
for I do not amble aimlessly.
I know where I am going.
If you return me to where I began,
I will turn and begin again.


We aren’t so different, you and I.
We share a brain, a reptilian instinct
to survive that breeds wild determination.
The axle is an impediment, yes, but not the enemy.
The enemy is to remain: stranded and far from home.

—Emma Skogstad

Photo by Donna Birdwell


“Who would be a turtle who could help it?”
—Kay Ryan

Well, think. It's slow progress
but things worth doing sometimes take patience—
clearing the house for sale,
facing a wall for decades and still no turn-around.

So. We inch on,
do not poke our heads up to measure progress.
In front of us, a grass stem to nibble, a dip with sand.

Still, you have to wonder. Who would be a turtle?
I thought like that, thought the turtle a comic plodder
condemned to life in mud and swamping meadow
but when the therapist said, turn and face the fear
that's hammering on the door, what did I grab to save me?
A turtle. Her ceramic dome, splayed feet
stood between me and horror.

Someone had painted the shell pink and daisy yellow,
brushed the big eyes turquoise.
No ninja warrior, armored tank—a decoration
for a girl's bedroom or a kitschy garden—
but it was Turtle all the same.

Turtle, who bears the world on her back,
who stacks, turtle upon turtle, to hold up the universe.
Turtle, who feels the weight of all that holding—
claws, schist layers, tectonic plates, pulsars—
and does not complain.

She who takes one step at a time, who cannot be rushed,
whose home is everywhere,
who counsels, Continue.
If you are slow, be slow. It is sufficient.

Sarah Webb

Photo by Donna Birdwell

I drag my shell behind me
Iike a raft through the desert.
It disserves me by
keeping the demons in.

—Jeff Taylor

Photo by Donna Birdwell

Always Home

The one good thing about being a turtle, I’ve always thought,
Is that you’re always home.
You never take up space
In a place
When you’re not there.

I see a lot of interest these days
In “tiny houses.”
The thing about a tiny house
Is that it’s got just enough
Space for the basics of life.
I guess a turtle’s home is kind of like that.

With a tiny house
There’s no impetus to collect stuff
Or buy things.
There’s no place to put it.
Better to just enjoy it for what it is,
For the moment,
And then move on,
Leaving all the stuff behind.
No need to take it with you.

Some people see the turtle as graceless,
Stuck inside her heavy, hard container.
No way to get out.
But when we move about
Are we so much better?
We have to take the car
Our keys, our phones,
Our wallets, our credit cards,
Our IDs and glasses.
Turtles don’t have to carry all that stuff.
Turtles just move along
And when they feel like a nap,
They just stop
And take a nap.

Donna Birdwell

Photo by Donna Birdwell

I'm not going to tell them how my sister killed her sick turtle by putting it in the freezer. They might not understand how that is Zen writing.

Well, if her intent was to relieve the turtle from suffering maybe we could forgive her. But it was just that, who wants a turtle covered with fungus who could barely move?

Our freezer wasn't the modern type that auto defrosts. It was more like a cavern mostly filled with ice. I'm not sure we ever defrosted that thing with its big chrome handle and obnoxious heavy curves.

Wait, I wasn't going to write about that. “No, Kim, don't you dare mention that,” she said. “If you ever say that I'll never talk to you again.”

“I just didn't know what else to do,” she said. “It was so sick, and it would have died anyway, you know.”

A few years later we had a Fourth of July party, and Alex, the kid closest to my age, went with me to our garage where I had a goldfish. “Let's see what happens,” I said, “when we put iodine in the water.” So we did. At first it did bother the fish, but later….

Why didn't I speak up and save the turtle? Why didn't Alex save the fish? We were both responsible for the demise of these helpless creatures.

Today my wife was bothered that someone didn't give as they had promised. “Should I say something,” she asked? I told her that I called up and complained to a lawn care company because they cleaned up one yard by blowing all the debris across the street. Tonight they used a hose rather than a leaf blower. A little progress in Austin.

I can imagine the turtle and the goldfish exchanging stories in pet heaven about how there owners were missing their hearts. I wonder what stories the lawn debris tell about how they happened to be relocated by a noisy wind machine.

P.S. My wife claims it was she or us that froze the turtle… not my sister. Is there a statute of limitations on turtle and fish abuse? She claims it was the most humane way to send it to the next world. We didn’t have Google to ask, “How the ♥♥♥♥ do you kill a Turtle?

P.S.S. My sister Gail just wrote, "I never put the turtle in the freezer. I think it was Linda (my wife).

But I did bury my alive turtle along with Sandy's dead one to see if it would get to China. In Grandma and Grandpa‘s yard in Portland. So I wrote her to see if they made it to China.“

P.S.S.S. “You can use my name. They got to China I think but I'm not sure.”

P.S.S.S.S. Our parents shielded us from death. So I guess we had to do our own experimenting. When we did kaddish tonight at prayer service, I asked if we could say a prayer for some animals that I killed when I was a kid. The rabbi said sure, we can do that.

Kim Mosley

Photo by Donna Birdwell