It takes a cool blood to feel
By Verlyn Klinkenborg
was gone for more than a week before they found me. A rustling in the bean-field, heavy steps nearby. A shouta boys voicemore shouts. Thomas the gardener catches me up in his hands with sickening haste. I weigh six pounds thirteen ounces. He lifts me as though I weigh nothing at all.
Ground breaks away. May wind shivers in my ears. My legs churn the sky on their own. I look down on bean-tops. Down on the blunt ends of sheep-bitten grasses. Over one field, into the next, into the hop-garden beyond. Past thatch and tiles, past maypole, past gilded cock on the church tower. All in my eye, all at once. So far to see.
My week gone in two-score of their strides. Through the meadow. Past the alcove and down the brick-walk. Wicket-gate clicks shut behind us. Thomas sets me down beside the asparagus. All feet square on the ground again. Ferns just joining in a canopy above. Print of Thomass warm fingers on my tiled belly, smell of tar and damp mould. The fuss the humans made when they found me. Escape of the Old Sussex Tortoise! Eight Days Pursuit! Captured in Hampshire Bean-field!
Out! the boy shouted when they found me, stumbling over his heels. Timothy got out!
The boy is mistaken. There is no Out! Humans believe the asparagus forest is In! Fruit wall, laurel hedge. Melonground. They prey upon the distinction. But I am always Out. Among the anemones. On the grass-plot. In the shade of the Dutch-currant trees. Under young beans a week away.
And I was In there, too, as always. In, under unhedged stars, dark of the moon. Among chiding of field-crickets, stirring of long grasses, gleaming wind. Clap of thunder and din of hail. The honeyed smell of maples and sycamores in bloom. Beyond sight of humans. Within my beloved shell.
Great soft tottering beasts. They are Out. Houses never by when they need them. Drab furrows of person-scented cloth hang about them. False head of hair or kerchief or hat. Contrivance of hide or wood on the feet, or none at all. That mass of body and brainpan to heat and cool with their internal fires. Fleece, hide, feathers, scales, and shell all denied them.
Humans of Selborne wake all winter. Above ground, eating and eating, breathing and breathing, talking and talking. Huddled close to their fires. Never a lasting silence for them. Never more than a one-night rest. When they go down in the ground, they go down in boxes, for good, and only with the help of others standing round. Peering into the darkness of the cold earth they fear.
To humans, in and out are matters of life and death. Not to me. Warm earth waits just beneath me, the planets viscous, scalding core. It takes a cool blood to feel that warmth, here at its circumference. The humans own heat keeps them from sensing it. I drift for monthsyears great nightfloating on the outer edge of Earths corona. The only calendar my blood, how it drugs me.
When autumn pinches, I dig. Stroke on one side. Stroke on the other. Slow as the hour-hand and just as relentless. Swimming in place, burrowing my bodys length and depth. Ease in, out, adjust the fit. No rush. No rush. A last fitting. Air hole open. Stow legs. Retreat under roof of self. Under vault of ribs and spine.
Loose earth covers my back. Laurel leaves, walnut leaves, chalk soil, Dorton mould. I wait, then cease to wait. Earth rolls repeatedly through day and night. Layer of rime. The frost binds. Then snow, that friendly meteor. Kindly mantle of infant vegetation. Insulating all of us who cling to the soil. Who have not got too upright, too far from the native horizontal.
rouse before I know Im rousing. Hatched from the great egg of Earth. I blink and blink. Surprised to come up always just where I went down. To be the only hatchling. Surprised to find myself in the parish of Selborne, county of Southampton, garden of Mr. Gilbert White.
In this place, I am considered a sign of spring. Year after year Mr. Gilbert White notes the occasion. Records the date, the weather. Conjunction, at my arrival, of a bat, a redstart, a daffodil, a troop of shell-snails.
"Timothy the tortoise begins to stir," he writes; "he heaves up the mould that lies over his back."
Yes, the mould sometimes clings to my back as I rise in April. Mr. Gilbert White writes to nephew Samuel Barker.
When a man first rouses himself from a deep sleep, he does not look very wise; but nothing can be more squalid and stupid than our friend, when he first comes crawling out of his hibernacula.
Who watches Mr. Gilbert White the curate wake? How wise does he look at bed-break?
Late on summer nights he comes into the garden. To see if the bat still flies. To observe by candle-light what moths and earwigs do in the dark. He clasps together the waist of a coat thrown over his open shirt. Hiding the animal within. Bare calves beneath, spindles of flesh. He does not look very wise, tossing stones into the hedge to make the sedge-bird sing its night song.
he humans talk to me. Talk and talk! They say what they think Ill understand. Hail me from a distance as though I were an unexcitable dog. Ask my thoughts about the barley, the wheat, the hops. About the weather down here. Forget themselves and keep talking. Remember themselves, pretend not to be talking. I keep my words hidden in the prow of my skull.
Mrs. John White crops vegetables for the kitchen. The curates widowed sister-in-law. Cuts flowers for the table. Apologizes if she comes upon me meditating in the foliage. Stoops beside me. Lays a warm hand on my shell. A gentle touch. If I look up at her and say, Now, thenwhat comes next?
Mr. Ralph Churton, rector of Middleton Cheney, pays a summertime visit.
Behold, the philosophic Timothy! he says in passing. Raising an arm in salutation.
Behold, the philosophic Churton! I might say in return.
My voice would shatter his human solitude. The happiness of his breed depends upon it. The world is theirs to arrange. So they tell themselves. A word or two from me Now, thenand they have all that arranging to do over again.
Can I trust Mr. Gilbert White with a syllable or two? He keeps his countenance turned toward the wild. Tunes his ear to natures sounds. On foot or horseback every day, over the parish.
Hears the inward melody of a black-cap. Titlark as it feeds in a nearby pasture. Notes the songs down. Chamois linings to his breeches pockets. Seven pockets to his jacket. Papers in each of them. Sermons, carefully docketed receipts. Most recent letters. Scraps with dates and birdsongs. Halves of a broken plover egg in pocket.
Mr. Gilbert White rears the cucumber. Coddles the melon. Improves the polyanth and hyacinth. Wages endless war to keep peaches and nectarines and apricots whole and unblemished. Mellow wall fruit. Catches hornets with half--glasses of his own strong-beer. Birdlime on the end of a hazel twig. Treacle in a bottle. A bounty for wasps nests and the capture of queens. Fifty thousand wasps destroyed in a single summer. Plundering invaders. Felon race, he calls them. Worthless soulsa harsh judgment even from one who loves apricots. Nothing to be done about the humans who steal his wall fruit in the night.
Sixpence he offers for stories of the bird of many names: goatsucker, churn-owl, fern-owl, eve-jar, puckeridge, Caprimulgus. The Selborne boys deliver. What they saw, where and when. Neighbors, strangers, carry curiosities to him. Young snipe, three snipes eggs. Common sea-gull still alive. Barnacle goose shot on a Bramshot pond. Butterflies, land-rail, half-fledged fern-owls. Three-pound trout, fine pike. Hairball from the stomach of a fat ox. Male otter, twenty-one pounds, taken in the rivulet below Priory Longmead. Last of its kind ever found in the parish.
Mr. Gilbert White visits the farmers to see what carcasses they nail to the ends of their barns. The countrymans museum. Two albino rooks, a peregrine falcon. Takes up the corpses in his Norway-doe gloves. Runs his fingers against the grain of the feathers. Death-clasped feet, sunken eye, flightless wings.
Sunday comes and he stands before the village in the stone shade of St. Marys. The Reverend Gilbert White of Selborne in the County of Southampton. Curate for an absentee vicar. Clean white surplice. Plain, unaffected voice, learned accent. A gentle tone for climactic words. Easter.
Let us therefore rejoice, Mr. Gilbert White says, reading from his own handwriting, & be glad on this day of Christian triumph; for our last & most formidable enemy is now destroyed. All his attempts upon the Captain of our salvation were weak & vain; and all the power of Hell cannot now prevail against them that fight under his standard.
Deaththe most formidable enemyhe says is now destroyed. The lamb who was slain now liveth again, he believes. And so he says aloud to his parishioners. Though on this earth, the lamb who is slain is supper.
met Mr. Gilbert White when he was twenty years old. The human year 1740, and I just come to England. Stolen from the ruins I was basking on. Jut of wall that had stood forever in sight of the Mediterranean Sea. In earshot of its mild tides. Thrust into a heavy bag by hand unseen. Stowed in darkness. Forgotten.
Then the wind set up a groaning in the ships bowel where I lay. Keel rising and falling. Months perhaps, many days and weeks certainly. Plummeting toward somewhere unsurmisable. Toward England, as it happened. Mr. Henry Snooke was the vicar of Ringmer. A churchman, like his nephew, Mr. Gilbert White. Business in the diocese of Chichestera ballottook Mr. Henry Snooke down to that sea-town one day. Chance encounter with a drunken sailor. Disconsolate tortoise wrapped in a scrap of soiled huckaback.
Half a crown swapped hands. One pair rope-chafed, salt-bitten. The other as smooth and white as Mr. Gilbert Whites writing paper. I was laid in a covered basket and slung at a servants side. Free at last from keel-heaving, I think. Only to suffer a swift, brutal trot. Jouncing against the servants hip for forty miles.
Arrived at a clot of houses on the shoulder of the downs, almost within scent of the sea. There to spend forty years. As Timothy! As Tortoise! Name bestowed by Mr. Henry Snooke. Exclamation by Mrs. Rebecca Snooke, his wife.
Brick-loam in the courtyard and clay beneath. Like living in a china basin. Tiny, miserable kingdom of one. I lived under a tuft of hepaticas. To hibernate was merely to daub myself in mire.
Great events of those years? Drought that undermined buildings and walls. Black spring of barren cows, whole dairies out of calf. Death by lightning of a coach-horse at grass. Dog-plague that killed them moping. Cannon of the Kings review at Portsmouthfirings at Spithead thundering about the house. Shaking the very earth.
And the demise of Mr. Henry Snooke. Twenty-three years of ignoring me after a chance purchase. A few obvious witticisms among friends. I was perhaps not discursive enough for his tastes.
Mr. Gilbert White was always struck by the fact that I recognized Mrs. Rebecca Snooke. She comes into the courtyard waving a lettuce-leaf. Calling from on high, Timothy! Timothy!
Who else could it have been? Only a few humans ever entered that courtyard. Was Mr. Gilbert White never struck by the fact that Mrs. Rebecca Snooke recognized me? If another of my kind had walked up to her on that pebbled path, could she have told the difference? Or would that tortoise have been Timothy too?
She died, late one winter. Early March. Earthed in still I lay. Aged nearly eighty-six she was, ancient for a human. Burying done. Mr. Gilbert White, nearly sixty years old, pries me out of my winters depression in Mrs. Rebecca Snookes brick courtyard. Not the picture of resurrection he preaches from the pulpit. He places me in a wooden box filled with earth and moss. Ship-board again for me, I think. Sea-borne back to the Cilician coast, to my antique city. Great wrong set right at last.
But no. Eighty miles in post-chaises. Not to the sea but to another clot of houses. To this place, to Selborne.
Mr. Gilbert White is a man of system. Naturalist, physico-theologist. He lives in inches and ounces and hours and degrees. Weather on March 20, 1780, the day I was first set loose in Selborne? Dark, moist, and mild. Fifty degrees. Southwest wind. Full moon. Crocuses in high bloom. A matter of record.
r. Charles Etty, newly returned from a sea voyage, and Mr. Gilbert White place the female tortoise upon the grass-plot. Mrs. John White at their side, garden shears in hand. Thomas finds me among the poppies and sets me beside the stranger. Sunlight embraces her and everyone around her.
A very grand personage! Mr. Gilbert White says, stooping in admiration. Very grand! says the young sailor, who has seen her, far grander, where she naturally belongs.
I stand beside her. Nearly of a size, though her shell rises like a haystack above me. Not kin, not even kind. Yet near enough in nature to know that she is on the point of death. Pupils as dark as mine, as reflective, as pooling. I cannot say that she sees me. Already looking far within. A bright film comes over her eye. A fall of cobwebs against the sun. Legs arch and tense, and in the grass behind her she posits a single egg. Then dies. Sinking to rest on her tiled underbelly.
The egg lies inanimate. The limbo of her breed. On that African island, far away, it might have hatched some months from now, if it had survived predations of the nest. Here it can only spoil. Misguided by the aberrations of this climate.
Just another small corpse. Ten and a quarter pounds when weighed. What makes her different isnt her beauty or her scarcity or the distance she traveled in order to die here. It is this. The humans meant her to live.
Mr. Gilbert White, better than anyone, could guess what a probable surfeit of life lay before her. At his work-table, he clears the contents of her body. Any faint regret undone by the habit of the knife, the disassembly of such an interesting creature. Finds thirty eggs waiting. Cleans the carapace in the water-tub. Dries it carefully. Daubs the interior with one of his preserving concoctions and sets it on a shelf to dry. Then tea.
What will become of her shell? For a time it will stand for the whole tortoisethat lustrous beingin the memory of those who saw her living. In a Madagascar clearing. On a sunny Hampshire grass-plot in the month of July in the very last moments of her life. Then the shell becomes a curio, an uncommon object of unusual beauty or interest. Separate from the identity of the creature who grew it and wore it. Testimony to a type, not an individual. Perhaps it enters one of the grand apothecary shops that humans call museums. Exhibited to the curious at half a guinea a head.
In dying her sex became manifest. Not by comparison to the male of the species. My own case is far less unequivocal. Nest-making devoted to personal hibernation. No eggs buried under the monks rhubarb or hidden at the foot of the muscadine vine. No seasons of the kind the mares enjoy, heat of the bitches, fervor of the gilts coming into their own.
And so Mr. Gilbert White has always supposed that I am male. Perhaps she would sound awkward for a tortoise. For the Timothy that Mr. Henry Snooke bestowed upon me so long ago in Chichester. A foolish assumption, a giving in to alliteration. Perhaps Mr. Gilbert White is also misled by the extravagance of my adventures. Perhaps a sympathetic assumption of companionship between us.
Timothy I have been this half century and more. Timothy I shall be forever after, thanks to Mr. Gilbert Whites scribbling. But female I am and have always been since that moment in the egg decades ago. Female I was in that ancient country. This climate, this England, has neutered me.
icket-gate stands open. No one by. What is there to deter me? No surtout to pack. No mare to saddle. No instructions to Mrs. John White. No guineas or bank-notes to tuck into my tiled waistcoat. Out I go. Leaving only questions behind me.
How? The wicket-gate.
Where? The bean-field just short of the Pound Field.
Why? Above all, why?
Why is two questions. How could I leave such a paradise? After everything we gave you. Needs provided for. Immoderate safety. Kindness, even affection of its humans.
But also: what impels me? What spurs me on? What is my motive in venturing forth? Mr. Gilbert White imagines only one.
Thomas catches me up in his hands. Returns me to the asparagus. Calm comes over the garden. That evening Mr. Gilbert White takes up the pen to summarize why. Timothy, he writes, had conceived a notion of much satisfaction to be found in the range of the meadow, and Bakers Hill; and that beautiful females might inhabit those vast spaces, which appeared boundless in his eye. But having wandered til he was tired, and having met with nothing but weeds, and coarse grass, and solitude, he was glad to return to the poppies, and lettuces, and the other luxuries of the garden.
He, indeed. The fable that humans love to tell. One bright morning the prodigal tortoise sallies forth. Rich in notions. Wealthy in prospect. But the world is an unrelenting place. Lonely. Coarse grass. Weeds. Imaginary females. Alas the comforts of home. Luxuries of the garden. Old settled ways. Rejoicing over the lost sheep. Fatted calf. A mammals tale told to the sound of a crackling fire. Never leave home unsure of your next good blaze.
Mr. Gilbert White offers another version in that book of his. The motives that impel him to undertake these rambles, he notes, seem to be of the amorous kind: his fancy then becomes intent on sexual attachments, which transport him beyond his usual gravity, and induce him to forget for a time his ordinary solemn deportment.
Humans have their motives. As many as they care to name. Reason is a warehouse full of motives. But only twosays the naturalistcan belong to the viper and the owl. Only love and hunger to drive the swifts and martins and all the beasts of Selborne. The urge to perpetuate their kind. And to preserve individuals.
How, the naturalist begins to understand, after years of study. He records the when and where and which of the birds of passage, beasts of the field. Those are the very questions that system is poised to answer. But why will never be solved by system. No number of small corpses, dissected, tagged, and preserved, will ever begin to answer why.
How the nightingale sings. Pitch of the notes. Melody of the song. Structure of the voice box. But never fully the nightingales why.
Today. Cold dew, louring clouds. Warming, softening. Iron going out of the ground at last. Sun less reluctant. Summer promising and overdue. Men wash their sheep. One by one. Ready the fleece for shearing. Ewes and wethers flow past dogs and men in the fields. Flat nasal peals shoal over the parish. Whistles of men. The very voice of mid-June.
Mr. Gilbert White. In his bed-shirt at the window above the kitchen. There for only a moment a few days past. Face washed by illness.
His plans are laid. To lie in his bed a little longer. To be borne from St. Marys by six day-laboring men with families to raise. Six shillings each for a short mornings service. To be placed in a grave in the natural ground in the shade of the church-walls. Simple stone. G. W. and the numeral of a day in June in the human year 1793.
The naturalist in Mr. Gilbert White will watch as closely as the cleric in him for the approach of that interesting moment. Quiet dissolution of self. Mrs. John White at his bedside. Warm, strong hands on his. And Thomas. Man, servant, and gardener to him these forty years. Standing beside the window. Looking now at the garden and the Great Mead and Hanger beyond it. Now at the form in the bed. Outside, the whetting of a mowers scythe on an early, dewy morning. Sound his master rejoiced in.
In their presence, the answer to one of Mr. Gilbert Whites lifelong questions comes upon him. Merely human at last. One earthly parish only.
istorical Note: This is a true story. Timothy was a tortoise from the Turkish coast, a member of a subspecies of Testudo graeca that still lives near the Byzantine ruin called Anemurium. Timothy died a year after her owner did, having lived in English captivity for sixty-four years. Her shell is preserved in the Natural History Museum in London (its shape shows that she was indeed female).
Born in 1720, Gilbert White was the curate of Selborne, a Hampshire town about forty miles southwest of London. From 1768 until his death, in 1793, he kept a spare but detailed natural history journal. An edited version was first published in 1931. He also wrote The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, published in 1789. These and other documents, including Whites household receipts and manuscripts of his sermons held at the Houghton Library at Harvard University, provide the basis for this portrait of Selborne and the life around it.
Raised in Iowa and California, Verlyn Klinkenborg earned a Ph.D. in English literature from Princeton University. He is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times, and has taught literature and creative writing at Bennington College, Fordham University, Harvard University, and St. Olaf College. His books include The Last Fine Time (Knopf, 1991), The Rural Life (Little, Brown, 2002), and Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile, which is being published this month by Alfred A. Knopf, and from which his article has been adapted. His work has also appeared in many magazines. Klinkenborg lives in rural New York State with his wife, Lindy Smith.