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IN PRAISE OF TURTLES: On Kei Miller’s essay The White Women and the Language of Bees


I’m not going to write about the white women. It’s the turtles I want to celebrate.

Of all the criticisms levelled at Kei Miller’s extraordinary and discomfiting essay, The White Women and the Language of Bees, the one that most mystified me was the accusation of misogyny.

I am a feminist, although not a feminist scholar or advocate, and I have had a woman’s life – dominant father, oppressed mother, rigid gender roles prescribed at puberty, threat, physical and verbal abuse from men at all stages of life – only when you are old do you escape the relentlessness of male attention, although you could still be one of those 80-year-old rape victims. I’m thrice married, have worked in a range of salaried jobs, spent most of my adulthood in enraging power struggles with husbands and bosses, I’m mother of a gay son. I’ve struggled with eating disorders. I’ve been fat. I’m acutely sensitive to male condescension and veiled insult, but I just didn’t get what was disrespectful to women in Miller’s essay. Then I saw a comment expressing outrage at his metaphorical field and the implicit comparison of women to turtles.

Perhaps, incomprehensibly, people didn’t like turtles? And then I remembered an article I had once written while a newspaper columnist, chastising a young male writer who expressed the view that as lions were kings in charge of their prides, so men should occupy a similar role in human affairs. I set him straight – that lions more or less lie about under trees, while the lionesses hunt and raise the cubs. And I thought of Donald Trump who, while campaigning, wanted to “drain the swamp” and how I had wanted to say to him, “You know a swamp is a Good Thing, right?”

It is time to redefine, reclaim and understand animal metaphors.

I have not seen the turtles nesting at Grande Riviere in Trinidad. I have not seen the arribada in Costa Rica, where hundreds of thousands of certain kinds of turtles arrive at their natal beach together. I have seen one female turtle come ashore to lay her eggs on Jamaica’s north coast, and she was grand. Majestic. Determined. Part of the old world. I was awed by her instincts – to haul her largeness as far up the beach as possible, despite each higher inch being so hard won, to lay her eggs where it was dry and perhaps somewhat hidden by vegetation, and after hours, to cover and disguise the nest from predators. Kei Miller writes: “Even gazing at them with the white woman, observing their ancient rituals feels like an intrusion of sorts, like we have forced our way into a woman’s birthing bed.” Yes. An intrusion because, as with a woman’s birthing bed, a female sea turtle nesting is about mystery. Travail. New life. Miller: “The weight of love and livity.”

No one who has seen a sea turtle in water can think of them as clumsy. Miller calls them ballerinas. It is their conservation of energy I admire, the slow sweeps of their flippers, the unhurriedness of their progress. They are the antithesis of people. You can follow certain sea turtles online – they have been tagged by scientists – and you can check where your sea turtle of choice is in the world every few months or so. They swim thousands of miles, with those aerodynamic, economical movements, distances completely outside the capability of a human swimmer. They mate at sea, and when it is time to lay their eggs, the females go home.

I have seen baby turtles – hatchlings – emerge from nests many times, but I remember one in particular. It was taken from a beach in Clarendon to the fresh water aquarium of an insurance brokerage in Kingston, a well-meaning act, I’m sure. I had just started my environmental life, and a friend in the brokerage called me to say this baby turtle was not doing well. I knew virtually nothing about turtles then, but I knew a sea turtle belonged in sea water. I went to the office and picked up the baby turtle, smaller than the palm of my hand. I had just collected my son from school and we went together to the Palisadoes to release the turtle hatchling. He held it while I drove. “I think it’s dead,” he said. I thought it probably was, but we drove anyway to the big breakers of Palisadoes and got out of the car.

We put the turtle hatchling on the sand and it lay there, tiny eyes closed. I could feel my own tears gather – then, I did not know about turtle tears. We watched, my son and me. I had given birth to him in a very different kind of bed, and he had needed much parental care. This turtle hatchling was alone from the moment it breathed air – alone to climb from the nest, alone to travel across the same width of beach its mother had traversed, alone to face feral dogs, seabirds and all the fish in the sea, alone to surf over the shore’s tumult, alone to swim, to wander, to find food, to survive, and if female, to find its way home again. “It’s dead, Mom,” said my son.

Just then a wave came to the turtle. It was not a hard and pounding wave, but a soft and foamy one, and it gently nudged the hatchling. And its head came up. And it got ready. And when the next bigger wave came, it moved its perfect miniature flippers and then it was in the wave, and the wave was taking it down the beach and for a little while we could see it, bobbing in the surf, going slowly out to sea. We cheered, my son and I. He’s nearly forty now and he remembers that day. One out of a thousand baby turtles live to adulthood and all sea turtles are under threat throughout their range. So compare me to a sea turtle anytime – wanderer, loner, seafarer, keeper of new life, survivor, island born, tethered to home by the sweep of the stars, the surge of the ocean and the refuge of multitudinous grains of sand.

All images and video courtesy ap. Grand Riviere, Trinidad and Tobago.

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