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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Turtle Wisdom for Earth Day

Air Date: Week of

An artistic representation of the World Turtle. (Photo: Matt Patterson)

Author Sy Montgomery joins Host Steve Curwood to share the multicultural story of the “World Turtle” and why turtles are remarkable creatures and models for human care for the Earth.


CURWOOD: With me now is author Sy Montgomery. Waddya have for us to help us celebrate Earthday?

MONTGOMERY: I've got turtles! [LAUGH] I just I love the symbol of our Earth Day. I love that photo of the blue marble taken from space by the crew of Apollo 17 on their way to the moon. But I also love an image of our earth that's much older than that. It's known in many cultures as the world turtle. In Hindu and Buddhist mythology, a tortoise called Akupara carries the world on his back, upholding the earth and the sea. In North America Haudenosaunee, Lenape, and Abenaki creation stories.

Sy Montgomery’s “Of Time and Turtles” is an upcoming narrative nonfiction book. (Photo: Courtesy of Sy Montgomery)

The Great Spirit creates the homeland by placing Earth on the back of a huge turtle. Many still refer to North America as Turtle Island. And indeed, ours is the continent boasting the most turtle species in the world. It's no wonder that turtles, creatures who arose with and outlasted the dinosaurs, are honored by so many cultures, from Alaska's Admiralty Island to Polynesia. Native peoples say the world turtle laid the eggs that hatched into the first humans. Who wouldn't be proud to claim such a storied ancestor? Almost everyone loves turtles, for their beauty, for their remarkable longevity, and for their patience. A balm to soothe the hurry of the human world. Everyone knows turtles. Yet turtles also surprise us. They're more exciting than most of us realize.

Sy Montgomery (right) with her illustrator Matt Patterson (left) and a turtle (center) named Fire Chief. (Photo: Courtesy of Sy Montgomery)

Many are vocal, some bark, some whistle. Some begin talking with their siblings and mother even while they're still unhatched babies still in the egg. Turtles may seem slow, but they're smart. Some species outperform rats in mazes. Though they're slower movers, they're faster learners. They have no ears, yet they can hear a human whisper. They help others in distress. Sometimes several will work together to flip a turtle who's upside down. In China, the world turtle is named Ao. The Creator goddess uses his legs to prop up the heavens. Without the turtle, we're told, the very sky would fall and it's true. Turtles are the foundation for many ecosystems. The Hawksbill Sea Turtle protects coral reefs from correlating sponges, gopher tortoises burrows shelter a dozen other species, many of which couldn't live without them. But these creatures who survived the asteroid strike may not survive us.

​​Sy Montgomery with turtle Lucy. (Photo: Courtesy of Sy Montgomery)

They're among the most endangered vertebrates on earth. Well over half of the more than 300 species of turtles are in dangerous decline. The usual suspects are at fault. Roads, pollution, sprawl, climate change, plus a deadly and rapidly growing illegal trade in turtles for medicines, pets, and ornaments. So my wish for Earth Day is that we remember turtle wisdom. Even now, a moment in history when it feels like the sky is falling, turtles remind us that we can find a way to regain our connection with creation. My prayer is this: that these strong, slow, smart ancient creatures inspire us. Like the world turtle. It's time we take our turn upholding our fragile blue marble Earth.

CURWOOD: Thanks, Sy. Sy Montgomery is the author of The Book of Turtles with art by Matt Patterson, published May 2nd 2023 by Harper Collins.



Visit Sy Montgomery’s website 

Pre-order Sy Montgomery’s picture book, “The Book of Turtles” here (Affiliate link supports LOE & indie bookstores)

Pre-order Sy Montgomery’s book of narrative nonfiction, “On Time and Turtles: Mending the World, Shell By Shattered Shell” here (Affiliate link supports LOE & indie bookstores)

Watch the trailer of Sy Montgomery’s “The Book of Turtles” here

Artist Matt Patterson's website


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