Turtles All The Way Down

The world rides on the back of a turtle! It’s a beautiful metaphor for that which is beyond our comprehension e.g., the nature of God, the origin of the Universe, or our existence in the spiritual realm.


My first exposure to “turtles all the way down” was during an interview of Dr. Patrick Byrne by Jan Irvin and Richard Grove on Gnostic Media, where they examined the “cosmology” of regulatory agencies that are supposedly monitoring our financial institutions and their speculative shenanigans.

… There was this story about Bertrand Russell, who was once debating with a Hindu cosmologist.  And the Hindu cosmologist said: “The world rides on the back of a turtle”.  And Russell asked: “What does the turtle ride on?”  And the Hindu replied: “On the back of another turtle.”  “Ok, and what does that turtle ride on?”, to which the Hindu replied: “Sorry professor, but it’s turtles all the way down“.

In the Hindu tradition the world rides on elephants, who are in turn supported by a turtle. It is mysterious that the turtle should play such a prominent role in the cosmology of traditions as diverse as the Hindu and Lenni Lanape. I just encountered it again in The Last Of The Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper in the character of Uncas, the son of Chingachgook, chief of the Sagamore.


In the story Uncas, the scout Hawkeye and major Heyward, in their attempt to free Cora and Alice, have fallen under the control of a tribe of Delaware Indians and Uncas is about to be burned at the stake. When his captors rip off his hunting shirt, they are frozen in their tracks by the sight of “the figure of a small tortoise, beautifully tattooed on the breast of the prisoner”. Seizing the opportunity to assert his rightful status Uncas declares: “Men of the Lenni Lenape! My race upholds the earth! Your feeble tribe stands on my shell!”


I often wonder what I stand on; is there any substance there? What is “there”. We have to start with principles and, per Mark Passio’s fantastic seminar on Natural Law, I’m trying to focus on the generative principle of CARE. What we care about is our spiritual currency. How we spend our time, and what we pay attention to, are the causes that manifest the effects we experience.

I was happy to spend another day paying attention to The Springs and satisfied with the effects, modest though they were. Given the recent heat wave, I thought conditions might be good enough to continue burning brush piles on the northeast end of the trail, where the cut-off trail intersects with the main trail near signpost #13.


I left my gear and walked down to the Hotel Spring to get some water.




We did get an inch or so of powdery snow the night before and I had my doubts about lighting the piles. I poked my chainsaw into one, consolidated a stack of wood, and tried to light it. My whimpering torch barely generated enough heat to light a doobie. Hmmm, must be the cold temperatures are not allowing the liquid propane to convert to gas at a fast enough rate, I speculated. The wood was wet and green and I barely got one pile going. I decided to switch gears and cut buckthorn on the east side of the old cranberry bog on the north side of the trail.


I gave it my best shot but, after bending a chain while trying to remove the bar from a pinch, and spilling the contents of the chainsaw gas tank on myself, I thought perhaps the price was too high to spend anymore time paying attention to buckthorn that day.



The white oak revealed above was my reward.

It’s a good thing I stopped when I did or I would have missed this classic winter sunset on the Indian Campground.







See you at The Springs!

p.s. don’t miss the workday this Saturday with Jared Urban and the DNR’s Natural Heritage Conservation Bureau at the Eagle Oak Opening State Natural Area near Eagle.

4 thoughts on “Turtles All The Way Down

  1. We don’t have to look far to see turtle mythology – Many of the First Nation’s tribes of Wisconsin share turtle stories – And considering that you and Pati enjoy backpacking, you temporarily become the turtle

    Wenebojo Made a House for Tortoise

    Long ago, when the world was young, there were only two tortoises. They didn’t have any shells or houses on their backs as we know them today. They were all soft. In the woods, the strong animals hunt the weaker animals, and Otter planned on eating the Tortoise. One day, Tortoise wanted to go on land to take a walk, but he couldn’t run very fast so he looked around to see if any of the other animals were there. As he looked around, he saw Otter coming so Tortoise turned around and crawled under a piece of bark and drew his head, legs, and tail in and Otter didn’t see him. When Otter was gone, Tortoise went back to the pond where he lived. But he didn’t know that Wenebojo was watching him and saw how had he saved himself from Otter.

    One morning Wenebojo was out fishing, he asked Tortoise where there were lots of fish. He said “If you tell me, I’ll give you a sturdy house that you can carry on your back.” As soon as the Tortoise heard this, he dived down and looked for fish and found a lot and then he came back and told Wenebojo where they were. Wenebojo thanked him and got out of his canoe and asked Tortoise to come up on land with him. There Wenebojo found a piece of bark and put it on the Tortoise’s back and got another piece and put it on his stomach. Then they watched for Otter to come. When they saw him coming, Tortoise went out on the path and pretended that he didn’t see Otter coming. When Otter saw Tortoise he jumped on him so he could eat him, but Tortoise drew his head, legs, and tail into the new shell and was safe. After Otter went away, Wenebojo told Tortoise that “From this day forth, every Tortoise shall carry his shell, or house, along wherever he goes.”

    (Adapted from G.E. Laidlaw, 1922, “Ojibwe Myths and Tales,” Wisconsin Archeologist 1[1]:28-38.)

  2. Pingback: A New Spring | Scuppernong Springs Nature Trail

  3. Pingback: The Tree of Life | Scuppernong Springs Nature Trail

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