Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What Lies Beneath or Why We Should Encourage Girls To Be Whatever They Want To Be

I always think of yard work and gardening as meditative activities, so I rarely grumble when it's time to clear the flowerbeds of weeds. Armed with my shovel, I move forward happily in anticipation of the time it will afford me to work through plot lines for the book I'm writing, or (more treacherous terrain) try to figure out why I haven't been writing lately, or to contemplate my place in the world. It's monotonous work, weeding. But it's good, physical work, and each time I push the spade into the earth, taking care to avoid tree roots and water lines, I am grateful that at sixty I can still do this.

A few days ago, just as I'd begun to tackle a patch of soil near my agapanthus that had become overgrown with stray grass tendrils, I felt the shovel hit something hard. I moved back a bit, then gently pushed the shovel down deep and under, hoping to scoop up what I assumed would be a large rock. What emerged was softball sized. But it certainly wasn't a rock. I had unearthed the shell of a small tortoise.

I'm not squeamish (trust me; I've held freshly delivered human placentas in my bare hands and examined them to make sure everything came out all right), and I love all things reptilian (possibly with the exception of Diamond Back rattlesnakes, which I believe are the spawn of Satan), but I have to confess my stomach did a bit of a turn when I realized what I'd unearthed. After all, it was the body of an animal that had died. So I took a moment to have a quiet meditation over the remains before I began to examine them.

What I discovered was that the body of the tortoise had lain interred long enough to be reduced to a skeleton. As I slowly turned it over, the bottom shell fell away and all the bones sifted down through the dirt into the hollow of the shell. Slowly, carefully, I brushed and sifted away the soil. There was his skull—missing the lower mandible, which I found a few moments later. I recognized the pelvis next, as it was the largest bone. The tiny vertebrae that had once held the tortoise's spinal column in place were a marvel to consider as they rested in my palm.

In those moments of close examination, I was grateful to my college biology teacher who insisted we learn the name of every single bone in the human body. As a young person, I found the exercise tedious. Now I appreciate how well the knowledge has served me over the years. I thought of Annie Dillard and her amazing prose about the biology in her own backyard. And I recalled my first exposure to the writings of anthropologist Ashley Montagu. I was still in junior high (though already a confirmed writer), and I thought how wonderful it would be to spend a lifetime studying the unique zoology of humans and then writing about new discoveries and conclusions that could be drawn from them. Years later, a friend would introduce me to the brilliant illuminations of Loren Eiseley, but by then I'd launched into my college coursework as an English major, and there was no turning back. Still...

If I'd been given direction as a child, if I had not been told repeatedly, "Girls don't... " whenever I leaned toward the boy side, I would not have followed the discipline which seemed practical but has turned out to be a bit static and stuffy, and would instead have followed what always seemed to me to be so dynamic and exciting that it was, perhaps, just beyond the reach of an average tomboy being raised by a single, working class mom.

I have saved my treasure of turtle bones in a large metal tin. Perhaps before I retire I'll come across a student eager to find an engaging science project who will be happy to do the painstaking work of organizing, mounting and identifying this jumble of leftover parts. If I find her, she may have these bones with my blessing.


  1. with three daughters, I certainly allowed them to "be" themselves.. and biology? I liked it so much my freshman college year, I took it twice(first semester,,lol)...great to hear a story with meaning...thanks.

  2. Thank you, Glenn. I imagine your girls grew up being loved and validated every day. Lucky kids! Mom did the best she could with the resources she had, but let's face it; she was raised under sketchy circumstances, so she didn't have very many good role models to follow!