Jul 31, 2013

Green: Thoreau, the Turtle, David Wagoner



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In looking for information about Thoreau and turtles (what? that doesn’t interest you?), I came across the site of Dr. Sandra Harbert Petrulionis:

She writes:
As some of you have doubtless noticed in your own reading of the Journal, in the mid-to-late 1850s Thoreau becomes . . .  obsessed with turtles. Robert Khun McGregor has characterized these scenes as 'small dramas of survival' where Thoreau attempts 'to find the meaning in a mud turtle’s lunch' (2). In 1854, Thoreau’s turtle endeavors include paternally watching over a nest of eggs that he’s stumbled on; struggling to lift the unobliging and unwieldy creatures into his boat; and sleeping with a large turtle shell in his bedroom — an event that occasions pure delight. Recalling in the morning that the shell lies near him, Thoreau exclaims, 'That the first object you see on awakening should be an empty mud-turtle’s shell!! Will it not make me of the earth earthy? or does it not indicate that I am of the earth earthy?' (Journal 8 300).
Should we ask ourselves to be of the earth earthy? If we do not sleep with turtle shells to feel earthy, what shall we do instead?

I’m not the only one who finds the subject appealing. Here is David Wagoner’s poem,  “Thoreau and the Mud Turtle” from Michigan Quarterly Review.


The poem is a bit prosy for my tastes—it feels like raw content more than honed poetry, but that raw content is pretty compelling. Based on the scant evidence above, what would you say about Thoreau's mental health?


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15 comments:

John Evans said...

Judging from Dr. Petrulionis' paragraph, Thoreau had his obsessions. Your post, and my own experiences with creative people, led me to The Creative Mind, a blog at http://blogs.psychcentral.com/creative-mind/2011/05/artists-and-mental-health/
I think of a host of creative persons, such as Beethoven, Handel, Van Gogh, Robert Schuman, and artists I know personally. This is not to say that all artists must have a quirk. But it's my impression that so-called mental disorders are correlative with, and perhaps necessary for, creativity.

Brenda's Arizona said...

What would you become obsessed with, Banjo?
I do like the poem. Very descriptive, if you have ever watched a turtle...

Banjo52 said...

John, thanks. I really want to check that blog. Of course, you're right--"quirk" is a kind word for describing the lives of many writers and artists. "Necessary for creativity" might be provocative, but there's lots of evidence to support it.

Brenda, HUGE question. I'm not going to rush into an answer, but you've got the wheels turning. As I've said before, "obsession" and "passion" are probably too grandiose for sedentary me, but I'm told I do get worked up sometimes . . . .

I do like nature, but not for too long, not if it's too hot, and not if there are mosquitoes or snakes. I like a fair amount of roots music, but still much less than half. Ditto that for poetry and other writing. And movies. I like youth's sweetness (if there's any left) and some of youth's dumber behaviors but not all. And so forth. Maybe I'm just a liker and not an obsesser?

Maybe I should've made this a post . . .

altadenahiker said...

What a delightful poem. I enjoyed it, head to tail.

I've thought about the question he poses, though not in quite the same way. Whenever I interfere with nature, in an effort to help some creature or other, I wonder if I've signed their death warrant in one way or another. For example, made them trust me, so now they trust humans in general. And no animal should trust humans in general, not even humans.

Banjo52 said...

Karin, excellent. As a kid, I started hearing that birds would abandon any baby that had human stink on it. I've since heard that that's not true (and still don't know the facts). But in any case, I've had thoughts or wonderings along the lines of your conclusion.

In the poem, do you hear that the turtle is definitely a goner or just that the speaker doesn't know what will become of him? That final image seems open-ended to me.

altadenahiker said...

I'm rooting for the turtle.

Banjo52 said...

Me too!

Barbaro said...

The Wagoner has a nice "flow" as my students would say but it's hardly powerhouse language.

I'd nominate a certain sticky marine crustacean as a poss obsession for you.

Banjo52 said...

Barbaro, obsession or alter ego?

Yeah, I remember the fondness for "flow" and "fluent." I had a college prof who told us to avoid that--it made her visualize water flowing down the bath tub drain, had nothing to do with style. And of course, it's "flow" that imperils our turtle at the end . . .

With or without her feelings about "flow," that college prof, Dr. Nancy Lewis, my only female prof in English, was my favorite in undergrad. Recently, I learned she's been dead for awhile, but at least I wrote her two letters of appreciation after graduating.

Paula said...

The poem is very cinematic so I don't know that the prose needs to be honed. In any case, nature is always about yin and yang which is prolly why I feel so inexorably drawn to it. I don't know of anything in life that's really all that clear cut. Maybe that's why I could never vote Republican and don't trust anyone who thinks they have the answer. I prefer the struggle, I certainly spend enough of my time engaged in it.

Banjo52 said...

Paula, thanks! It's been a while. Ambiguity, struggle, engagement--you bet. As if in response, I seem to be hearing more and more poets speak of the importance of attentiveness, observation, witnessing. Makes sense to me. Even when the animals are eating each other, I find them interesting--it feels like a lot to learn. Wall Street folks' eating of each other and everyone is merely disgusting, enraging. Not sure why.

Hannah Stephenson said...

I love the weirdness of the turtle shell watching over Thoreau while he slept :). It's very endearing!

Stickup Artist said...

I certainly do love the idea of Wagoner looking thru the eyes of Thoreau. Seems like a brave and brazen thing to do, but it's pulled off admirably.

All the comments here are fascinating and beautiful.

I think if "interference" in nature is performed as a result of compassion, then it must be the right thing, no matter what event proceeds it.

Ken Mac said...

sleeps with fishes I know. but sleeps with turtles? :)

Banjo52 said...

Hannah and Ken, I think I might try it. Should I? Will you write poems about me if I do?

Stickup, I agree about the comments and probably about "interference" in nature. And in that situation, what were the options for the real Thoreau or Wagoner's Thoreau?

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