Timothy the Turtle
What does a turtle think when it looks at us humans? That's the question New York Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg sets out to answer in his new book: “Timothy; or Notes of an Abject Reptile.”
CURWOOD: Okay, so a turtle—which after all is one of the most unassuming of all species on Earth –may not on the face of it seem like inspiration for a compelling and poetic novel. But then again, the turtle we have in mind was very real. For 40 years, she resided in the garden of Gilbert White, the author of “The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne.” White is considered to be one of England’s first ecologists. In his nature-writing classic, White observed the turtle and noted its comings and goings in meticulous and, yes, loving detail. And now the turtle’s observations of human behavior come out from under its shell in a book by New York Times editorial writer Verlyn Klinkenborg. It’s called: “Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile.” Verlyn, thanks so much for coming on the show, and tell me, just who exactly was Timothy?
KLINKENBORG: Well, Timothy was a tortoise that came from the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. No one knows quite how Timothy got to England. She--and, in fact, Timothy was a female-- turned up in the port city of Chichester in 1740, and was purchased for half a crown by Gilbert White’s uncle, Henry Snook. And she lived in the village of Ringmer with the Snooks for 40 years, in a bricked-up courtyard that was pretty muddy, pretty wet, pretty uncomfortable living, until Mrs. Snook died in 1780.
At which point Gilbert White, her nephew, inherited Timothy, and dug her up, carried her back to his home in Selborne, England, about 50 miles south of London. And she lived there until the spring of 1794, when she was, I believe, found dead in the spring. She just didn’t come out of hibernation. Gilbert White had died the previous June, 1793. And her shell was preserved by the family as a memento of a creature that had been very important to them, and was eventually given to The Natural History Museum in London, where you can see it today displayed in a wall case.
CURWOOD: Now, how did you come to make Timothy your central character?
KLINKENBORG: Well, I had been interested in Gilbert White for a long time. He had written a book called “The Natural History of Selborne,” and I was reading through his journals one winter and just noticing how much attention he paid to Timothy. He weighed her, he watched her diet, he watched her hibernate, watched her come out of hibernation. And it just occurred to me that it would be fun to write a book in which the tortoise watched the natural historian. And it was one of those ideas that seemed complete in itself; I wrote down in my notebook “Do this.” And the next day I was off.
CURWOOD: Verlyn, I wonder if you could read this passage where Timothy the turtle describes how comical looking she finds us to be.
KLINKENBORG: Happy to do so.
[READING] For a time I flinched whenever a human approached, especially Mr. Henry Snook, who carried such a stoop of belly before him. The feet would stop, but the top might timber on to me. I still doubt the stability of the species. All that brain bulk merely to prop them up? Or are they less top-heavy than they appear?
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Oh, my. What made you think of this perception? I mean, what’s the vision that came to your mind, Ah, that’s how the turtle sees us!
KLINKENBORG: Really just imagination. Really just trying to understand what it would mean, for example, to be that low to the ground. One of the real things I noticed that was most helpful to me is I thought about how many postures does Timothy really have? Well, you think about it, there’s up, and down, in, and out; and that’s basically it. But you think about a human, and how flexible and mobile and adaptable – able to scratch anywhere, able to stand from one leg and hang from your knees from a tree bough. All of these things must’ve seemed so strange to a creature that had just a simple choice of postures.
CURWOOD: Is this a work of philosophy or a novel? Or are you going to tell me what Albert Camus said, that if you want to be a philosopher write novels?
KLINKENBORG: That’s probably a good answer. But what I would say is it’s whatever any individual reader brings to it. For me, it sounds a little odd to put it this way, but it was an act of scholarship because it meant four years of devotion to trying to understand, in as much detail as I could, the rhythm and the character, the nature, of not just Timothy’s life, but the life of the garden she lived in. The life of the parish she lived in. The life of the world she lived in.
CURWOOD: One of, perhaps, your philosophical points might be, if I may, that the things that animals do perhaps make much more sense than some of things that we humans do. There’s a passage I’d like you to read. You start with the words “How the naturalist begins to understand.”
KLINKENBORG: [READING] How the naturalist begins to understand after years of study. He records the when, and where, and which, of the birds of passage and beasts of the field. Those are the very questions that system is poised to answer. But why will never by solved by system. No number of small corpses dissected, tagged, and preserved will ever begin to answer why. How the nightingale sings, pitch of the notes, melody of the song, structure of the voice box. But never fully the nightingale’s why.
Woodmen tell me, Mr. Gilbert White notes, that fern owls love to sit upon the logs of an evening. But what their motive is does not appear. Is not the love of sitting upon logs of an evening motive enough? What is the motive for taking tea at the hermitage on a blue afternoon, gray and still? To understand the motives of the rest of creation, Mr. Gilbert White will have to consult his own. But humans are blinded, even the naturalist, by being human. Barely able to witness what is not human.
Mr. Gilbert White rides over the commons from Newton, late May in the human year 1784, reins his Galloway mare at the crest of the hanger. Every manner of living thing in sight or in memory on this sweet, warm evening. Bees thriving, flycatcher nesting under the parlor window, rooks at their endless beach-top quarrels, swallows taking food up and down the river feeding their young in exact rotation. Mare beneath him feeling the pull of home. Tortoise making her escape into the fields among the grass.
Brute beasts that have no understanding, says the prayer book, driven only by love and hunger. Driven, they know not why.
CURWOOD: Verlyn, there’s this lovely passage you’ve written where Timothy is deciding whether or not she can speak to Gilbert White, a man who in some senses really sees nature and loves it much more than many of the people around him. And Timothy gets to wondering how Mr. White would react if she, Timothy, looked at him and said, simply, “Now then.” Verlyn, is your book your way of giving Timothy permission to say, “Now then?”
KLINKENBORG: Exactly. Exactly. She says that she hides her words in her skull, behind her obsidian eye. She calls it the stern prow of her skull. And the point of language for Timothy is that language is how often humans…it’s the tool humans use to separate themselves from nature. They say, simply, well, we talk, and nothing else on god’s Earth talks. Therefore we are unique, we’re special, we have a special relationship to the Creation itself, whether you frame that in a Christian context or any other way.
And Timothy’s point is that to a certain extent every creature, every species, has its language, has its way of communicating, has its way of relating through meaning to the world around it. And that to say simply to Gilbert White, “Now then,” would be to destroy his sense of isolation, to destroy his sense of privilege, the uniqueness of his place in life. Which is something we humans take absolutely for granted, and which enables us to be such a destructive, rapacious, environmentally overwhelming species.
CURWOOD: One last question before you go.
CURWOOD: If you were to actually sound like Timothy, take on her accent, what would she sound like?
KLINKENBORG: Well, I’m going to leave that question to Dame Judi Dench, okay?
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Is she making the movie of Timothy?
KLINKENBORG: I think she would have the perfect voice.
CURWOOD: Verlyn Klinkenborg writes the “Rural Life” column for The New York Times. His new book is called “Timothy: Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile.” Thanks so much, Verlyn.
KLINKENBORG: Thank you very much, Steve.
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