Of Turtle Dreams. By: Wes Brittenham

Author Wes Brittenham

We tend to think of adventure as exciting, perhaps even breathtaking. Rapid fire adrenaline producing seat of your pants heart pounding fear inducing go for broke amazing. Like scaling a sheer rock face with or without ropes. Like jumping out of a helicopter to ski fresh powder on an incline so steep it would make an avalanche think twice.

I have learned that adventure can creep up on you while you are unaware you are even on its path. Slow, methodical, plodding. At a snail’s pace, or for this story’s sake, the pace of a turtle. How can you condense a story yet unfolding and nearly thirty tears in the making, into an essay brief enough for a blog? And who would read about someone else’s dreams? Here we go.

The turtle dreams began over twenty years ago. They continue to this day. Variations on a theme, they replicate and diverge. They are always somehow unsettling, though now that I know, I find them less ominous two decades after the first appearance. But still I have that uneasy feeling of something unresolved.

As a nature loving child, I conned my parents more than once into buying me a dime store baby turtle. Those of you old enough will remember the tiny Red-Eared Slider, the size of a fifty cent piece. Avocado green with brilliant scarlet patches on its cheeks with swirls of lemon yellow striping adorning its neck. An aquatic species, they came with a salad plate sized bowl, made of clear plastic about two inches high. Complete with a curving ramp up to an island crowned with a three inch tall plastic palm tree.

Filled with tap water, you could imagine an island paradise, hoping your little turtle loved it as much as you did. The poor things never lived long. A few years later, I acquired a female Ornate, or Western Box turtle, actually native to our desert habitat. Turtsy, I named her. She spent quite a few years in our walled back yard. With available water and natural garden diet supplemented by iceberg lettuce and raw ground beef snapped from my fingertips, she seemed to do well.

Once upon a time, she even had a potential suitor. A male box turtle missing a hind leg. We called him Veteran. His (to us) comical attempts to mount her had our ten year old brains devising designs for turtle prosthesis never realized. One day an open gate let them escape into history.

Nearly thirty years ago, remembering Turtsy, I purchased a female Box Turtle to release into our wild, heavily vegetated back yard garden. Along with the childhood memories, she brought smiles to our faces when she would appear as we strolled in the garden or watered the landscape. A couple of years after her arrival, friends gave us a male Box Turtle they had found in the street near our house. We did not give them names at this point.

Then the dreams began. Always something like this: I find myself in a sort of twilight zone. Dim, but not too dark to see. Damp, dripping walls of soil rise to the sides of me and disappear into the darkness above. Am I in a deep ditch of some sort? There are stones of various sizes scattered about, resembling a trickling streambed at my feet. There is a cave or entrance to a culvert or tunnel before me.

I look down to find my way and I see a baby Box Turtle, brownish, its tiny shell perhaps an inch across. I pick it up. Then there is another, and another. Slight variations in size, but all small. I begin to gather them up. There is some subtle fear that if I do not rescue them, something bad may happen. Before I know it my hands are full. Their tiny legs and heads strain against my palms and fingers.
I begin to fill my pockets with them. They are everywhere. I step gingerly along, collecting more and more. I turn up the untucked tails of my shirt and fill the apron like fabric basket with as many baby turtles as it will hold. It seems like there are hundreds of them.

This dream, or a version of it began to repeat perhaps once a month. Sometimes once a week. I had never really had a recurring dream like this and I wondered how my dream channel had become stuck on re-run. It was very odd.

One fine spring morning, about five or six years after introducing the male turtle into our backyard, two adult female box turtles appeared on the patio. I had never seen them before. Similar in appearance and size, I decided they were sisters. Our garden is very secure from a turtle standpoint, so I assumed these were the offspring of our couple. That they had remained unseen until fully grown was amazing, and a testament to our habitat.

The dreams continued. We named our original female Big Momma, and the male Mr. T. I began to observe them more closely, and to do some research on Box Turtle breeding and nesting habits. As a teacher of Master Gardeners, and a speaker invited to give horticultural presentations at any number of conferences, workshops and to garden clubs, I had a new subject to add.

I had been presenting on many topics over the years, and a favorite was Wildlife Habitat. I loved that our garden was an oasis with desert elements that had been attracting numerous species of birds, insects, several lizards, and even toads. Now the turtles were breeding! A functioning habitat! Creating a Wildlife Habitat became one of my most popular presentations, augmented by the hundreds of photos I was taking. We had our garden certified as a Habitat by The National Wildlife Federation, and it was frequently the site of tours for plant and wildlife nerds like me.

The dreams continued. The next spring, two more young adult female turtles appeared. Perhaps a year younger than the first pair. I had learned that females lay five to seven eggs in a hole they dig with the long claws on the hind legs. Usually one nest a year, early summer. Sometimes there is a second nesting in the fall. The spring nests hatch in fall, and the fall nests in spring. Sometimes a spring nest will not hatch until the following spring, and sometimes females carry eggs through hibernation.

One odd dream diverged from the usual mass collection versions that had become the norm. In one, I found myself lying flat on my back on a sort of longboard/skateboard or strange type of luge thing. I was at the top of a hill, sort of a skateboard halfpipe on a two lane blacktop in the middle of a rather barren desert landscape. I started to race downhill. Looking down between my feet, I saw that another rider, prone like me, was racing just as quickly down the opposite slope, towards me.

It was at that moment I realized there was a Box Turtle crossing the asphalt at the bottom of the hill. I understand that if I do not reach it in time, the other rider will surely smash it to smithereens. I lean into the board, clutching white knuckled at the sides, willing myself to rocket speed. In the nick of time, I shift my weight slightly, reaching the turtle and snatching it up a mere second before the other rider whizzes past. I veer out into the desert and come to a stop in a cloud of fine red dust.

In the garden, I began to see depressions in the soil at the base of the rock garden, among the stones. Soon enough, I chanced upon Big Momma in nest making egg laying mode. I watched as she shoveled out soil with her strong hind legs and claws. An egg began to emerge from beneath her tail. Not wanting to disturb her, I left her alone to complete the process. Someone else gave us another male turtle around this time. Now five breeding age females and two males, as far as we knew. And the dreams continued.
Finding hundreds of squirming scratching baby Box Turtles. Gathering them up into hands, pockets, anyplace that could hold them. The scenery of the dreams changed slightly, but the theme was set. Around this time our lovely habitat had enticed a new visitor. In the late night or the wee hour of no O’clock before dawn, something was coming into the yard, tipping over the birdbath and playing with shiny stones, taking them from their place in between stepping stones, across the yard to a water fountain.

We finally realized it was raccoons. They were eating all the koi and goldfish from ponds in the neighborhood, as we were informed by concerned neighbors. We learned that turtles were on their diet, and the babies and eggs in nest were particular treats for them.

One day while walking in the garden, I found a dried out dead baby turtle about the size of a quarter. Then another. And another. The size, color, and shape I had been dreaming about for years. Once, while digging a hole between stones in the rock garden, I unearthed two tiny babies, the size of a dime. Soft and leathery, these were obviously not ready to emerge. I gently returned them to the hole I had been digging and gingerly replaced the soil. Then I began to find live babies. They looked like small dry Aspen leaves, which also littered the ground.

We began to step more carefully, and to worry about raccoons. The dreams continued. I knew someone who was part of a turtle rescue group, and she gave me plans to build a baby turtle pen. Basically a three foot by three foot wire mesh box buried over two feet into the ground. With a mesh top, good soil, a water bowl, and straw covering the ground. Flagstone pieces were stacked into turtle garage bays. Into it the next baby found went. Then another. And another.

By now I was an expert. Another adult female had showed up, and we were given another male. By now I knew it was too much, but welcomed genetic diversity. And we had grown fond of them. Each has a distinct personality and behaviors. The females had begun to gather outside the back door on the patio for ladies brunch. Fresh fruit, hard boiled eggs and mealworms. Not every morning, mostly weekends, usually after 9:00 AM. Bowls of water were scattered around the yard.

Mr. T would show up at the back door at the crack of dawn. He scoffed at the brunch I laid out. He liked mealworms, and grew so eager for me to drop the next one that he began to rear up on his back legs in anticipation of the next one. On a whim, I held one just out of his reach. He stood up on his hind legs to snap it from my fingers. He has a habit of following me around the yard to drink from the hose and wait for more worms.

I learned that a drizzly September morning is perfect emerging time for the nestlings. Like an archeologist, I fashioned brushes from Ponderosa Pine needles. Finding the pea sized hole that indicated a nest beneath, I began my excavations. Gently brushing the crumbly soil, I would find the babies stacked like pancakes, in the order the eggs were deposited. I gently removed them to the protective box. Three, five, seven babies in each nest. Sometimes I found more than one nest on a given morning. Often I had to rush off to work before all the babies had been excavated, but I knew the raccoons would not be out in the daytime.

Slowly I began to understand that my habitat was flawed. I had created an unnatural situation by having too many breeding age adults in too small an area. I began to include this information in my presentations on habitats. Do not mix genders, I now caution. A couple of females are fine, they are solitarily social. Males fight. Have only one in a yard. Turtles breed like rabbits, and you are overrun before you know it. And you are responsible for what you create. The dreams come less often now.
As my turtle awareness grew during this time, I was invited to participate in a group art show at Tortuga (Turtle) Gallery. The exhibit was to honor an artist who had passed away, a dear friend and mentor of another artist friend. Around 40 artists were asked to go to the gallery and select a form that inspired them-a mold that had been made by the artist being honored.

One of his passions was restoring and replicating ancient Native American pottery, and these forms were part of that history. The group of artists included painters, sculptors, poets, print makers, weavers and more. I was drawn immediately to the form I knew was for me. The maker of these forms, Bill Freeman, was many things-a cowboy, a naturalist, painter, sculptor, geologist, paleontologist, philosopher, collector, teacher, friend and mentor.

It was instantly obvious to me that my form resembled planet earth. I could see the finished piece in my mind. I had researched Bill Freeman before I went to select my form, and had seen a photo of the ancient pottery my form was based on. I saw examples of his work, and information about him as a human being. I thought of a creation story I had heard in the past regarding turtle’s role in earths beginnings. With my turtle habitat and turtle dreams, I saw the form supported on the back of a turtle. I would make my first stoneware sculpture in 40 years, loosely based on Mr. T.

During the time I worked on this sculpture, while driving to Santa Fe, I listened to Native America Calling on NPR. They had a guest who told a creation story about how Sky Mother fell to water world, where a turtle rose up to her rescue. Birds and fish brought up soil and helped her to create the world. I will not include all the details of that beautiful story, but I encourage you to look it up. I found that a similar story occurs in cultures around the world. Intrigued, I dug deeper into turtle mythology and meaning. One thing stood out to me. Turtles carry their homes (shells) with them. They represent the need to take care of your home (earth) and keep it safe (habitable). Turtles have many meanings in many cultures. Oh, and they can be fertility symbols.
We now have at least ten breeding age adults. There are fifteen to twenty babies in the nursery box, and the way they look stacked in and on the flagstone pieces reminds me of how they looked in my dreams. I wait for them to grow large enough to find them other homes, if there are good homes for them. I no longer search and rescue with such enthusiasm. I think of the documentaries about baby sea turtles and how few survive to adulthood. I am sure the raccoons get some, though thankfully we have never lost an adult to them in all these years.

In hindsight, the dreams were a warning that I did not recognize. I have thrown nature out of balance in my own backyard. Out of love for nature I thought, or was it ignorance and even greed? We are responsible for our actions, and must be mindful of potential ramifications of those actions. I am on an adventure that has brought great joy, but also sorrow, for now these creatures are my responsibility, and I do not know how the adventure ends.
But this I know. I come home from work, and go out to water the garden. The turtles find me. Usually it is Mr. T. He would like to drink running water from the hose, and perhaps play in it. He hopes I bring some worms. It is calming, like meditation. I like to think we smile at each other, though his beak is always the same.

In the fall, when all of the other turtles have long disappeared into hibernation for the coming winter, Mr. T lingers. In the late afternoon, as I sit in a patio chair, he finds me. He positions himself between my feet and I give his shell the occasional rub. He stays with me for an hour or so and I tell him I wish him a safe hibernation. Eventually he ambles away, and I hope to meet him again in spring.

3 thoughts on “Of Turtle Dreams. By: Wes Brittenham

  1. Nice writing. I love turtles the way you do. I did have to separate my male as I too have more turtles than I know what to do with.



  2. Turtle lover here as well! Had them as kids in our compost heap and have rediscovered these charming yard companions. Reading your blog caused me to smile inside and out! Thank u!!! Suzanne Marks


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