The Tortoise is (Wo)man's Real Best Friend
I own an animal that will live longer than anyone I know. She will outlive the next generation and the generation after that. When you buy a tortoise, no one tells you how much you will think about death. But when you have something living in your house that will outlive you by a century, mortality hangs in the air. Faintly, sure, but it’s tangible and suddenly on this side of the pane, like a note of old cigarette smoke ingrained in wallpaper.
A Seychelles giant tortoise called Jonathan, of St Helena island in the Atlantic Ocean, is currently the oldest land animal in the world at 183; my tortoise may live to 150, if she has a good run. Tortoises such as Sophie Chicken, for that is her name, have evolved to the point where their cells can stay alive much, much longer than ours. I could live for another 50 years, tops, and she will be just halfway through her life. My funeral won’t be the first of her owners’ funerals; my hypothetical great-grandchildren will have to find yet another owner. I wonder if they will read this, and how, perhaps through microchips lodged in their brains.
Call me morbid, but I find the presence of something that reminds me of my own mortality profoundly helpful in correcting a warped strand of thinking: the foibles of my self-involved perspective. I look at her and I hear this: “Your life is short. Way, way shorter than mine, so don’t waste it.”
We picked her up at a place called Seaview Café in Dover, on a day with a raging, stinging wind. The waves were smacking the sides of the cliffs and sea salt sprayed through the air onto the seafront promenade. It was a grim October afternoon but, as always, I fantasised about moving to the coast. I sat there warming my hands on a coffee cup and waiting for the tortoise guy, Darren, one of the few legitimate breeders in Britain.
Darren arrived and handed her over in a tea box. I think it was herbal, Twinings, the posh stuff. She was adorable, tiny and so sharply formed.
D.H. Lawrence wrote a couple of poems about tortoises. One – Tortoise Shout – is bonkers. In the other – Baby Tortoise – he describes the neck of a baby tortoise as a wimple. It is an accurate choice of word: Sophie Chicken’s head, like an old man’s, stretches out of her saggy wimple to clasp her beak-mouth onto a leaf. She clamps down on it and it leaves a perfect triangular mark. All day long, all she does is plod and explore and nap, all interspersed with scratching her cuttlefish, feeding and a bath. She loves to be warm, eat and snooze.
Quickly, her personality started to come through. There is a majesty to tortoises which is hard to define. Regal. Independent. Confident. Direct. Wise. Defiant. I know, I know – but it’s hard not to anthropomorphise a pet. I wanted to call her Mary Shelley, Titan, Electra or Enya, perhaps, for she is a Greek spur-thigh. Sophie stuck. Chicken was added. It works.
When I watch her plod around, and marvel at the way she moves, the way she’ll still be moving in 2150, things seem less significant. It’s like looking at the sea, or a birds’ eye view of a city, or a waterfall, or an amazing painting – the purest form of escapism. It shifts perspective from yourself, out of yourself. My worries seem inconsequential. They leave me and enter the soil under her as I just stare, transfixed and enchanted at her tiny wet pink tongue licking water drops from the petals of a dandelion. A tongue that evolved from a creature related to the dinosaurs. It is clever and perfect and beautiful.
Does your mind race? My mind races. Fast and furiously. Often aggressively. It’s full of bullshit, most of the time. Unhelpful bullshit. Self-obsessed, self-conscious self-criticism. It’s tiresome and boring. And life is noisy in 2015. To wit, things that have gone through my brain, some drawn in through the internet, over the last five minutes: “10 affirmations to tell yourself each day. How hipster are you actually? Should I have cheese on my cauliflower? I probably shouldn’t have cheese. I should go for a run. Did I tweet that right? Did I write that right? Ugh, I can’t believe I said that, how embarrassing. How should I phrase this so I don’t sound stupid? Do I have an uneven eye? I think I do have an uneven eye. God, I should deal with that. I need to get my teeth whitened. I need to spend less money. I need to meditate. I should go for a run. I miss smoking. I’m worried about X. Will X be OK? I. I. I. I.”
I get up to make my lunch and sit down with it to watch Sophie Chicken. Since leaving office life and working from home, it’s what I do with my – ahem – break. It’s a welcome diversion from my screen and it chills me out. She has the most beautiful eyes. They’re jet black, oil black, shiny and bright. She’s small, the size of an apricot at the moment, though she was more of a walnut when we bought her. Her shell curves perfectly and it’s dappled like the most exquisite patchwork quilt. You could fit maybe four of her in your hand. She runs over when I sit down next to her and if I didn’t know that her tiny reptilian brain makes this impossible, I’d think she was coming over to say hello.
Tortoises have been around for 300 millions years. We homo sapiens evolved from our hominid ancestors 20,000 years ago. We are newbies compared with them. Balm-like, Sophie Chicken puts me in better spirits; she reminds me that it’s just not worth holding on to shit. She is a psychological boost when everything seems too important, too much. When “the self” takes over, she is a living, breathing “anatta”, the Buddhist concept for the uncovering of the illusion of the self. Over the years, I’ve tried to switch off my head using most of the usual suspects, but I never thought I’d find meditative solace in a baby reptile.
The “slow” movement, of which tortoises are often a symbol, has been going for a while. It started with the Slow Food movement but there’s almost an A to Z of sub-communities: Slow Education, Slow Fashion, Slow Gardening, Slow Money, Slow Parenting and so on. Carl Honoré first explored the concept in 2004 and described it as “a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better.” Downshifting, minimalist living and de-growth are ideas that have gained currency this century. An International Institute of Not Doing Much even exists to celebrate life in the slow lane, with tongue firmly in cheek.
There’s something serious going on, though, because Pathological Rushing Syndrome (PRS) doesn’t work for everyone. I rejected the cult of busy a couple of years ago after experiencing major burnout. The realisation that I didn’t have to be out every night, say yes to everything and work 12 hours a day was a game-changer, and resulted in a better time all round. Tortoises knew this millions of years ago. Remember Achilles and the tortoise? One of Zeno’s paradoxes of motion shows that even if the tortoise gets a head start, Achilles can never beat the tortoise. In Aesop’s Fables, the tortoise beats the hare, who lies down for a nap in the middle.
Of course, our digital age is not unique in being a time of fast and rapid change. The pace of life in the Enlightenment, Industrial age and Renaissance would have felt fraught with energy and speed. In many different cultures, and for centuries, tortoises have stood as symbols of stability, longevity and wisdom. And now, in 2015, Sophie Chicken is here reminding me that I don’t need to rush. I just need to be.
Photograph by Lucy Jones