I spent a fair amount of Sundays at church in my life, and one of the things I came away with is a fondness for benedictions. Perhaps in part because the benediction was always at the end of each service, but one particular minister’s parting words, “Now go, and take on the day!” inspire me still. First thing in the morning I summon these words to sit down and write, and today is no exception.
Last week I was hiking with an esteemed naturalist in the Galapagos, crossing over an uninhabited island to a particular beach. I believe we were on Isla Espanola that day. Here’s the problem: my journal got lost somewhere on the long route home to Seattle by way of Quito, Ecuador, Lima, Peru, and Los Angeles, and all the days and islands of Galapagos are running together. I’ve filled out lost & found forms with every airport, every airline, and each day hope to hear from one of them. And yet I know, I should let it go. As Mark Twain put it, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
Billy, the naturalist, wanted to show us where an extraordinary number of sea turtles make their nests. When we reached the beach the only imprints were turtle tracks, running perpendicular between the water and the shore. High up on the shore—hours of trekking for a turtle—a honeycomb pattern of multiple nests were dug in the sand between grasses. Once eggs are laid, mother sea turtles crawl out to sea, never to return to the nest. Upon hatching, baby sea turtles make their own trek to the water.
Looking out to sea, we could see numerous sea turtles treading water by the edge. Billy explained that they were awaiting sunset—mind you, we are on the equator here—to start their journey toward the nesting spot. Half a night climbing up onto the beach, and half a night making it back. No predators around, it looked perfect but for one thing: two large sea turtles hadn’t quite made it back to the water. They lay on the beach, their heads buried deep in sand. Heartbreaking.
I questioned whether the three of us could possibly lift each turtle and help it back to sea, but Billy explained that they were dead. Most likely they had started their trek back to sea too close to sunrise, and got caught in the heat of the day. And besides, we are not to interfere with nature in the Galapagos Islands. I knew that, of course, but I had to ask.
At that point the three of us went off and took a little time to ourselves. I sat down on a piece of driftwood facing the two mother sea turtles and sort of praying. I’m not sure what I mean exactly by praying, but all my thoughts went out to those two magnificent turtles whose last act on earth was to lay eggs.
Suddenly–no not suddenly, for nothing is sudden with sea turtles on land–I noticed that one of them had repositioned her body. What had been a parallel position to the water’s edge was now perpendicular, with her tail end toward me. Running down there I could see she was moving.
“Billy, Billy,” I screamed, then I ran up the beach to get him. Billy ran back with me and the two of us were dancing around and jumping for joy—by now all the sand was marked up with human imprints. We saw the sea turtle reach the waves, and the waves wash over her, and we knew that with each laborious step she was finally cooling off after a long, hot, beached day.
Billy and I then went to inspect the other one. The body unmoved, head still buried in the sand, and once again Billy pronounced her dead. But we stayed with her, and in a sense that is what I think prayer must be: paying total attention. Sitting on the driftwood or standing by their side, I had no other thoughts but for these turtles.
She responded by blowing bubbles. At first we weren’t sure what we were seeing. But her head slowly came up, eyelids lifted, and this one too was alive! Slowly she swung herself around, orienting herself to the water. And we saw her off as well.
Call me crazy, but I felt we had witnessed two miracles that day. More than witness, I was certain that it was our thoughts, our prayers, and our love that made them rise. And that without our presence, it may not have happened. I still feel that way.
I may have lost my journal on the expedition, but the stories of Galapagos are etched in my heart. A place so perfectly environmentally balanced, it felt wrong to ever leave. And especially wrong to step on exhaust-spewing planes to go home…. except to spread the word.