Sy Montgomery is a New York Times bestselling author and naturalist. She is also a National Book Award finalist and has been honored with a Sibert Medal, two Science Book and Film Prizes from the National Association for the Advancement of Science, three honorary degrees, and many other awards.
Below, Sy shares 5 key insights from her new book, Of Time and Turtles: Mending the World, Shell by Shattered Shell. Listen to the audio version—read by Sy herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Even common animals we might take for granted are astonishing wonders, and worthy of our awe.
We all think we know turtles. Everyone has seen them basking on a log. Most of us have seen one, or helped one, as it slowly crossed a road in the spring. If you were born before 1975—when the sale of baby red-eared turtles was banned—you probably had a turtle as a pet. But much of what we know about turtles is wrong, and much of what we are learning is astonishing.
Turtles aren’t just these slow, somewhat hapless creatures who fall over on their backs and can’t get up. There are turtles so fast that they can outrun a 10-year-old in a 100-yard dash. There are turtles who hunt. There are turtles who sleep in trees and have grasping tails to help them climb. There are turtles with googly eyes, turtles who breathe through their butts, turtles who pee through their mouths, and turtles whose shells glow in the dark. Recent research shows that turtles even talk: a test of 50 different species found all of them used vocal communication. Some baby turtles start communicating with their nestmates and mothers before they have even hatched out of their eggs. Scientists have found that at least 15 species of turtles bask in moonlight as well as sunlight; that some turtles learn mazes as fast as lab rats; and that turtles have distinctive personalities, long memories, and deep emotions.
2. What looks like a hopeless disaster may instead be turned into a real-life miracle.
For three years, I volunteered with my artist friend, Matt Patterson, at Turtle Rescue League. We got turtles who looked like what motorcyclists call road crayons. There were turtles with broken jaws, turtles with smashed shells, and turtles with missing feet and paralyzed legs and tails. There were turtles with brain concussions so severe they literally didn’t know which end was up.
But what we also saw were the amazing women who worked to restore what looked like hopeless cases back to health. We attended the release of turtles who had been so badly injured that most vets would have euthanized them. Thanks to these women’s care, these turtles were released, healthy and whole, back to the wild, where they might continue to live and breed for another half century!
“We attended the release of turtles who had been so badly injured that most vets would have euthanized them.”
I personally did CPR on a coin-sized baby painted turtle who had drowned. After 45 minutes, we saw him come back to life! I released him that summer into the wild where I expect he is doing just fine.
We worked with a 42-pound snapping turtle, probably 60 years old, named Fire Chief. While crossing a street, he had been hit by a truck, his shell smashed and blooded, his legs and tail paralyzed, in 2018. Two years after his shell injury had healed, Matt and I were put in charge of his physical therapy. At one point we walked him around with a sling. At another, we used a custom-made turtle wheelchair to help him get around and exercise. This magnificent old turtle is now, again, ruler of his own pond. While even many turtle lovers are afraid of snapping turtles, and while Fire Chief certainly is physically capable of biting—we’ve seen him murder a banana—he is one of the sweetest and gentlest animals we’ve ever met. We can pick him up and carry him around. We can feed him by hand and he inhibits his bite so he won’t hurt us. We can even stroke his massive head, which he clearly enjoys. The motto at Turtle Rescue League is “Never give up on a turtle.” Turtles teach us never to give up, and to be prepared for miracles.
3. Anyone can make a difference that can last for generations, and heroes come in all different forms.
We met a wide sample of people while researching. We met a blind turtle rehabilitator (her partner had to tell her which end of the snapping turtle was the head, which was the part you have to watch out for.)
We met a juvenile delinquent who stole cars to crash into shops, led police on chases through the woods, set fire to two schools on three separate occasions, and once greased up a pig and let him loose in a Walmart. He grew up to become one of the few people on the planet to successfully breed some of the least studied and most endangered turtle species in the world—some of whom are extinct in the wild—so they can be restored to their rightful place in nature.
We also met a retired schoolteacher and a librarian who, for the past 17 years, have been almost singlehandedly responsible for the successful hatching of thousands of native freshwater turtles. These turtles nest in a suburban development in the back of a baseball field between an asphalt parking lot and a bunch of porta potties. Three of the species are federally endangered.
“Every turtle you save is saving generations.”
Saving any animal is a blessing because turtles can live for decades. Common snapping turtles, for instance, may live for 175 years, and they may breed and lay eggs till the day they die. So, every turtle you save is saving generations.
4. Time, too, has many different guises.
What is time? Is it even real? Do we flow through time, or does it flow through us? To tackle such a mystery, I needed more than human wisdom. Who better to lead me on this journey than these wise, ancient, long-living animals who arose on this Earth at the time of the dinosaurs?
It also happened that most of these stories took place during the pandemic—a period when so many people felt they were languishing, as if time itself had stalled. Back then, it seemed the clock and the calendar had been destroyed. Without the schedules of schools and offices, without birthday gatherings and holiday celebrations and graduations and even funerals, most people felt completely unmoored. But the turtles tethered us to a different kind of time—the kind the Greeks called Kairos, or sacred time, seasonal time. It is time that doesn’t shoot forward like an arrow, time that doesn’t run out. Instead, it was time that meets us where we are, and connects us with eternity.
5. Taking a hand at mending our broken world is the best way to restore our own souls.
Not only did these stories take place during a pandemic, but racial unrest was rampant, political divisions were tearing our country apart, and our pollution and human overpopulation had so disrupted the climate that our world was literally on fire. These problems remain. So how do we cope? How do we face the world and its uncertainly with courage and grace? How do we avoid despair?
The most powerful action we can undertake is to make repairs. The Japanese art of kintsugi—golden repair—honors the broken edges of a repaired object by sealing them back together with beautiful and precious gold, silver, and platinum. We all can make repairs in so many ways. Whether we are repairing broken pottery or broken political systems, whether we are fixing broken families or broken turtle shells, we do more than make these shattered things whole. In making repairs, we create new beauty, we summon new strength, and we make ourselves, too, once again, whole.
To listen to the audio version read by author Sy Montgomery, download the Next Big Idea App today: