Saturday, December 3, 2011

His Tail In The Water

       Here is a brief, but true, animal story.

       I was walking on a hiking trail near the bank of our river.  The day was cool and pleasant, and the sunlight was that beautiful pale thing that it can be in late autumn.  Most of the leaves of the trees were down by now; but the river had risen quite a few feet above its normal level.  There must have been quite heavy rains upstream.

       While I was walking, I had been mulling some slow thoughts of, to me, considerable profundity on the lives of the Apostles -- St. John and St. James, Christ's own beloved 'Sons of Thunder,' had been in my mind -- and my thoughts had unaccountably drifted to the more recent (and more mathematical) sage, George Cantor, who famously pondered the infinite -- but mostly countable -- mysteries of the Aleph, and bequeathed to modern mathematics its current fundamentals of set theory.

       At that moment, on a high bank overlooking the river -- and also, at that moment, overlooking a passing tow of barges moving several thousands of tons of something valuable from somewhere upriver  to somewhere else downriver -- my eye caught sight of a common turtle poised on a branch of driftwood that was jammed in the water, near the shore, a dozen or so feet below me.

       The turtle's head was fully extended; whether to better enjoy the fresh air, or to get a better look at the passing barges, or for some other reason, I do not know.  His feet clung to the driftwood branch.  And his tail was in the water.  Just a moment later, he dropped right off the driftwood and disappeared below the surface.  And then reappeared, swimming, head out of the water, a few feet downstream.

       I thought of the old Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu and his story about refusing a government appointment, preferring the happy life of a turtle, "dragging its tail in the mud."  This little story has delighted thinkers for more than two millennia, and is mentioned by Thomas Merton in his book, The Way of Chuang Tzu.

       I really can't say for sure whether the turtle was a he or a she -- but I am certain that he was not a mere it.  A little, four-legged, hard-shelled Fact in the universe, swimming right here in Lao-Tse's nameless Tao, living out his little purposes, reproduced from the thousand generations of turtles that join Chuang Tzu's times to our own, and perhaps destined to enjoy reproducing himself into a thousand generations to come.  Some species of turtles, they say, are long-lived.  Perhaps this little fellow will outlive me.  Perhaps his descendants will be seen by my own, along this same river bank, or some other, two or three centuries from now.

       When he suddenly pulled his head underwater, a ring of little ripples spread out, blending and merging with the larger waves raised by the passing barges.  Before they could reach the shore, they were gone.

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