It’s unfair to judge tortoises by its shell

By Clyde David: CNJ columnist

The evening began, following supper, in a most normal manner. Dishes were washed (OK, the paper plates were thrown out). I went outside to exercise my grandson’s current project, two young box tortoises who were found in the roses. Taking them from their terrarium, I was more than slightly surprised when one of them (I never can tell Leonardo from Donatello) turned and winked at me, with a sly smile. Just before I placed him in the garden, he opened his mouth.

“You know, of course, that tortoises don’t talk,” he said.
“I had assumed that, in some manner or another, you communicate, but certainly not in the same sense as we humans,” I said, after I had squinted and popped my ear to make sure I was seeing and hearing correctly.

“After all, we are the most highly evolved of God’s creatures, while you are a mere tortoise, and a very young one, at that.”
He craned his neck, then blinked his tiny transparent eyelid. “Young is old,” he said. “And old is young. As an individual, I have only been here a brief time, but my species has gone unchanged for multiple millions of years. Yours, my upright biped friend, has maintained itself for, what, a few thousand decades as I understand it?”

“OK, Leonardo, what is your point?” I said, slightly irritated at this display of semi-arrogance from a reptile who probably weighs 2 ounces. “Since I am standing on my patio conversing with a box tortoise, what are you getting at?”

“Patience, my good man,” he said, and waved his clawed forepaw. “Patience and lifestyle — that holds the key to tortoise longevity as a species, not to mention a pretty good individual lifespan. Wanna know how we do it?”

I stifled the smart answer that first came to mind, and gave it a more polite turn. “Yes, Leonardo, how do you do it?”

He smiled. “For starters, what do you bring us every day for chow? Fresh fruits and vegetables, right? And why?”

I wrinkled my forehead and spoke. “Well, you know why. That is what box tortoises like to eat.”

“Precisely, O young-upon-the-Earth. We eat what is good for us. Have you ever fed any of your tortoises tobacco, hard liquor, or even chocolate? The occasional piece of meat, and lots of veggies — that has done the job for eons.”

Despite my common sense, I was becoming intrigued. “What else can you share with us that might help us learn?”
“Well, there is the issue of possessions. Given a perfectly good house to carry on our backs, we do not tend to accumulate items. You can only store so much in your house, when your house is carried on your back. Then there is the shell/skin dichotomy.”

“Shell/skin dichotomy? What on Earth is that?”

“My shell is tough, my skin is tender. I know when to let stuff roll off, and when to absorb it. Many among the human types are too thin skinned when they should be tough, and grow a shell when they should be tender.” He winked the other eye. “Know what I mean?”

“Oh, yeah. I know some of who you mean, too.”

“Nothing personal, but you’ve been guilty of that too, I suspect,” the turtle said. “Finally, there is the pace of life issue. That’s the one you humans base all your jokes about us on, but it’s true. Have you ever seen a tortoise in a hurry? Wherever we’re going, that’s where we’ll get to; whenever we get there, that’s where we’ll be.”

“What else?” By now, I was thoroughly enchanted.

He snapped his beak. “We’ll talk again. For now, just set me in the garden for my evening run. Two other pieces involve getting some exercise and spending lots of time outdoors. Oh, one more thing.”

“‘Yes?’” I leaned over close so he could whisper.
“I’m Donatello, not Leonardo. And, not to hurt his feelings, but would you tell your grandson Leonardo is a girl?”

Clyde Davis is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Portales and an instructor at Eastern New Mexico University. He can be contacted at: