Thursday, July 14, 2016

"Turtle Moon." Genealogy of an obsession.

 Sometimes writers write about the same thing over and over. Sometimes they discover something new with each re-do.

If you read "Space Heart" on this blog, you know that there is embedded in the piece a story about a sea turtle coming ashore and laying her eggs on the beach. In that story, the experience of watching the turtle one May night becomes an extended metaphor for the experience of surgery and anesthesia. It also serves as a contrast between the wild ancient natural world and the cutting-edge technology of Cape Canaveral during the Fifties and Sixties.

I have used that turtle story in multiple ways over the past twenty years, based on my own experience growing up on the Atlantic coast of Florida where masses of sea turtles make their way to the beaches every spring. In fact, the coast of Brevard County is still the largest nesting area in the world for loggerhead and green sea turtles.

My original version in the 1990s was in fiction I was writing in the voice of Celia Elizabeth, a twelve-year old in 1917 who lives in Fort Pierce, Florida. At the time, Fort Pierce was a small town, an outpost really, on the edge of undeveloped South Florida before the Miami land boom (and bust). In her diary, Celia records the story of going on a "turtle turning" expedition one night led by a Bahamian named Jack. Turtle turning was how they hunted sea turtles back then for meat and to use their shells.

As a turtle came ashore to lay her eggs, the hunting party would turn her on to her back, making her helpless before they killed her. (I know -- we can't imagine doing that now.) Celia Elizabeth separates herself from the crowd and sits against the dune as she watches one turtle come ashore, make her nest, and lay her eggs in front of Celia. The turtle's focus on her mission captures the preadolescent girl's attention in a way that feels important to her. 

And to me, evidently. I had to write about the turtle again in the poem "Turtle Moon" under the mentorship of poet Constance Hunting In this version, it is the beautiful mindlessness/mindfulness of the natural world I am most taken with.

A few years later, I realized there was more to the story for me. Instead of Celia Elizabeth's point of view, I had to re-tell it from mine in what were contemporary times when I was a pre-teen. This version is an essay that begins:  "It was sometime between the ages of 11 and 14, in an era when 'pre-teen' still meant inexperienced." What I realized as I wrote that version is that the experience represented to me, an impressionable young girl back then, the (female) focus of the turtle's work, duty even, and her commitment to make it a reality. I was of an age then to be wondering what my role in the world and how would I make that happen.

As I was putting together "Space Heart," I realized that all the major aspects of it -- my heart surgery at age 11, Alan Shepherd's launch, the turtle expedition -- all converged at the literal same time in my life but also in my understanding of it all. That is how I came to weave the threads together, each of which were originally stand-alone pieces in their own right.

But I'm not done yet. I've just used the story in a collection of short short stories (500 to 2,000 words) about American boomer women. In this story, the narrator is talking about coming to terms with dying of breast cancer.

So, what is it about this turtle story that so obsesses me? Where will it pop up next?

Copyright 2016, Linda S. Buckmaster


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