At the end of a nature-preserve cove, I saw in the water some dark, complex something. Two box-like shapes, attached to one another. An abandoned part of a car engine? Approaching a little closer, I saw that it was two midsized, black-backed turtles, one clamped on the back of the other. They were rolling in the shallow water, and a stubby leg of the one on the bottom at times waved helplessly, and the one on top seemed at times to be nibbling at the neck of the partner-adversary underneath.
My assumption was that these turtles were having sex. Yet there were times—standing watching until nightfall—there were times I thought they were fighting—to the death? or like siblings?—or that the one on the bottom was being punished. Not being an amphibian, I could not help feeling that the turtle underneath, whose head was most always under water, was being drowned. A crime to which only I was witness, there not being another human anywhere nearby, and the birds in the tall grasses across the water happily chattering with one another.
In the movies the camera may do as I have just done: pull back to give viewers an idea of the larger scene, and also disengaging our minds from the action, leaving us freer to reflect on it. In writing, the “camera” (that is, the writer) can pull back yet further, giving readers the writer’s own reflections. In writing, the “camera” (that is, the writer) can pull back yet further, giving readers the writer’s own reflections. This strikes me now as a mixed blessing, as what I have to say is both basic and futile. Even a great nature filmmaker could not help. You had to be there, at the end of that cove—in the rapidly cooling, spring evening air, and lost to the sounds of cars, planes, human conversations—in order to feel—to feel viscerally—the terror, struggle, hard work, self-absorption, punishing and punishment, and pleasure and love of sex.
Among the information I took in later, Googling, was that a male turtle often stays clamped on the female’s back and in her cloaca for quite some time (up to 24 hours)—trying to prevent other males from inseminating her. This effort, however prolonged, is rather futile, as the females, at least of some species, are able to store sperm for three years or more. They may well gather sperm from several males, and their eggs may end up fertilized by a range of males. In “compensation”—can it be called?—a male, in gripping tightly with his claws to the back of the female, often cuts into the soft flesh near her shell.
Afterwards, walking away, the pedestrian thought occurred to me that human sex lives must have been very different in centuries past when we grew up, not going to sex-education classes, but seeing around us other animals having sex. Under our sheets (or in our hay lofts), we must have been more in touch with what a primal act we animals were engaging in. For models—instead of those offered by the movies and porn sites—young people would have had turtles, pigs, horses, etc. And while a well-made “clip” might speak more directly to my twenty-first-century needs and desires, and thus, in a sense, be more inspiring, yet I found the fucking of these two turtles more erotic, indeed the most erotic event that I had ever seen. By way of explication I can only recall again the bottom turtle’s fluttering leg, and my senses, or projections, of punishment and hard work, and a sense of these two beings locked together, and lost to the whole wide world, near and far. Temporarily they were living only for one another and for this task that they could not help but carry out to the best of their abilities and with what seemed to be the last of their strength.
— Wm. Eaton
William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, will be published by Serving House Books. For more, see Surviving the website.
I watched these turtles in a preserve of several hundred acres where I, touring the whole of it in the course of several hours, encountered only three other people. I came to this preserve by riding on a bicycle two or three miles from a small town and along a neatly paved bike trail on which, going and returning, I encountered not one other bike rider. And on these same trails I had on other days ridden somewhat further to beaches which were deserted of humans because it was not “beach weather,” though from the shore I could watch seals swimming.
While cycling, I passed many large, and yet more expensive, summer and weekend homes. It being a “shoulder season,” the shades were drawn; the only sign of life an SUV or jeep, sitting not even stoically on the gravel driveway; the motor vehicle waiting to be rediscovered by its owners, currently driving other expensive cars in other expensive places.
I often recall how after the revolution, in the 1960s Hollywood movie Doctor Zhivago, the apartments of the Russian leisure class were turned into communal housing for the working classes. My home town, Manhattan, now has an increasing number of apartments that the global wealthy buy, not to live in, but to launder their money or try to preserve it against taxes and inflation. After the next, American revolution, no one need sleep in shelters or on the street. Plenty of free space awaits and in “nice neighborhoods” which the revolution could empty of such not-at-all-nice people slow in packing up their jewels and art works before fleeing to Mars or New Zealand.
While waiting, I have heard of celebrities who, with help from private jets, have been able, in a single day, to see and be seen at more than one famous, major-television-network event, in different parts of the world. The pleasure of such private-jetting or of knowing that somewhere, perhaps in several places, you have a very large house with the shades drawn and expensive cars in the driveway—let’s call these “almost pure pleasures.” The impurity comes from the fact that the pleasure depends on other, not-so-rich people—on there being many other people who do not have the money to do what you are doing or to have what you have.
And, cycling the deserted bike paths, and being passed by cars who massiveness seemed needed above all for this—as a testament to the fact that “I” could own such a massive thing—along with “almost,” the words “at least” came into my head. “Perhaps I will indeed die like everyone else, and perhaps it will be a gruesome death, or—on the way to this death, perhaps decades before it comes—I will know loneliness, fear and frustration. But at least I have this big car, this very big house, this private jet.” At least I am not like some other people or like people in general. (If only this could also mean that, unlike people in general, “I” was immortal.)
At least a writer of intellectual essays can enjoy the fantasies—and publish them! And at least the government could use the private-jetters’ money, however rotten, to fertilize more nature preserves, and pay for better and more ambitious public schools and health care. And at least—if we indeed lived in a democratic country?—might the life and culture of the United States not be so dominated by human beings whose lives have been given over to the almost pure pleasure of accumulating more money than other people have accumulated?
Should we pray, too, that in some unexpected future male turtles will know if they’re making babies or not, or won’t care? And (in compensation?) could female turtles come to find the baby-making, or love-making, more pleasureful because their males were less clingy (or claw-y)?
My pleasure and awe, watching the turtles, was linked to the fact that I was the only person who was seeing, or could see, this sight. But my feelings had much more to do with what an extraordinary (and primal) sight it was (at least for an urban-dwelling, compulsive reader and writer such as myself). That we are animals, that is as sure as ever, and we may be reminded of it daily by how savagely we behave toward one another and toward other species and inorganic others. And we can also be reminded of our animality when we rub more affectionately up against one another, or when we—however desperately—make love.
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