Meditations on Monkeys
I am watching howler monkeys on TV. It’s David Attenborough’s “Life of Mammals” and I’ve been working my way up the food chain all week. The sound squeezing past their overlarge hyoids is so ominous that I can understand why it frightens even jaguars. The howlers’ big paws are gripping and shaking the tree, their red-brown throats furiously inflating and rippling and for a moment, I scarcely breathe. I’m frozen, like those smaller monkeys in the tree to the left.
A later segment shows an orangutan holding a blue-handled hacksaw and attempting to cut a board because she has recently seen a human doing so. She’s huge and orange, a baby clinging to her side, and she can’t quite figure out which is the best way to hold the board or the saw. First she tries holding the board upright, her left hand curving the hacksaw back towards her chest instead of straight, and then, when that doesn’t work, laying the board flat across some rocks. The baby pulls at its mother, but is studiously ignored. It’s clear to me that no matter how many tries it takes, Mama’s determined to saw that board in half. No one, not even the side-clinging baby, is going to stop her.
The program moves on again, this time to a group of chimps decidedly less docile than those Jane Goodall’s been sharing with me over the years. After all, chimps have culture; each group is different, and these ones, apparently, are capable of a sort of mindless mob violence. It isn’t clear what’s happened. But suddenly one of the males becomes enraged, starts hitting another chimp, and soon the others are joining in, and it’s as if I’m watching again the footage from Wal-Mart where a group of strangers trample a worker to death in their attempt to get some holiday deal. After a short while it’s over, and the chimp has managed to crawl bloodily to a tree where he is calling out in his chimp voice, his hands loosely holding a small limb, body swaying as he attempts to stand. No other chimp ever responds to the cries.
Attenborough tells me his body has never been found, and though I’d like to think he’s just off somewhere nursing his wounds and plotting his triumphant reentry into chimp society, in reality it’s more likely that his corpse has been dragged into the undergrowth, his flesh even now nourishing some other living thing—that jaguar who was unlucky earlier, or a host of fat white maggots erupting from eye sockets like lava flows. And as the program moves on from the lonely, bloody chimp’s unanswered cries for help into its segment on humans, I suddenly realize why so many people would deny our common kinship. It’s not the tool making or the social behaviors or the way they form relationships. It’s not those brown eyes or the lips, not the hands that are like our hands. Just the knowing that we can so easily turn on ourselves. That we could easily be that chimp dragging himself off screen. It’s why we can’t meet the eyes of a homeless man on a corner. Because if community implies inclusion, doesn’t that necessarily also imply exclusion?
Watching Turtles is Like Someone Leaving
I’m not kind, only Midwestern. Here we use politeness like a glass shard, a frigid ice that at any moment could crack and tip you in. Winter is only the unsaid parts of our personalities coalescing in the atmosphere above our heads. And like our hearts, even the turtles here freeze themselves. In winter, metabolic functions of the North American Painted mimic death. A terrapin butterfly, thawing to life in the spring, you can find them near lakes, watch their slow lumbering through the grass of apartment complexes. Maybe the only kindness I possess is toward these creatures, once carrying one across a roadway, remembering when I found one dead, some kind of brain matter or entrails squeezing out from the shell in a milky white spiral, an opal shimmer in the hot sun. I was fifteen and cleaning the roadside with the church youth group. The entrails were runic, a forgotten language communicating nothing but unease. I scooped its unmoving body and long gleaming strand of insides into a black trash bag I tied off with a twist tie. I’ll never forget that rope of inner self spinning outward, an unnatural umbilical cord, connected to no mother, unless that mother was death, which in all of its sizes, frightens me.
Like Darwin’s finches, studied by him to distraction, I have watched these turtles and others countless times over the years, in all kinds of settings: paddling through the ocean, in terrariums and aquarium tanks, spilling out of lakes onto logs dripping wet, even being raced out of circles painted on asphalt in two small Northern Minnesota towns. But unlike Darwin, whose study led to great discoveries, all I ever get is the sense that watching turtles is like someone leaving—I feel only loss.
When you look at turtles long enough, you begin to notice several things. First, even the young ones seem old, as if they hatch from their shells knowing some secret we all want the answer to. The second is how varied turtles are, like humans, in color and size, habits and habitats. They make their homes in water both salty and fresh, in grasslands and dry deserts. In fact, the only place turtles do not call home is the Arctic. They might have toes, or just paddles for propulsion, be able to turn their necks or not, have teeth or instead serrated jaw edges to rasp at vegetation with. Even their names vary, from red-eared slider to slug-thighed.
Though humans too have adapted to or created tools and technologies that let them survive in varied environments as well, we didn’t do it with their ease. Nor do we coexist with other creatures as peacefully as the turtles do. On the Galapagos Islands, Darwin’s finches and the tortoises have formed an essential symbiotic relationship—the finches eat off the parasitic bugs that would make the turtles their home, thus protecting the turtles from disease, the bugs in turn a food source that sustains the finches. It is not uncommon to see a tortoise lumbering along with a finch as passenger, riding the high hill of their domed shells, perfectly balanced. It is perhaps through examining the Galapagos tortoises specifically that my sense of how watching turtles can evoke loss comes from. These turtles are notoriously long lived. When kept as pets, they outlive their owners; need to be planned for in wills, passed down like sets of dusty china, archaic and unevolved. Caring for one of these creatures means acknowledging your own inevitable end and even, in a sense, accepting the idea of it. They’ll be around after you’re gone; maybe even after humans themselves have gone. Like crocodiles, like sharks, the tortoises are unchanging. You can see it in the way they slowly stare, and just as slowly blink.
For all their bulk, they’re surprisingly fragile, their shells honeycombed hives of air pockets sloping above their shoulders. Their very immensity necessitates this fragility; a solid shell would be too heavy for the legs of the Galapagos tortoise to support and would restrict its movement when seeking food. If a turtle cracks its shell open from a fall or from a too heavy weight being placed atop it, it will likely not survive for long. All that which a shell is designed to protect, the soft inner parts, would be at risk. We humans have our ribs to protect these things for us, yet we are ultimately more fragile than tortoises and can die in any one of a thousand ways: starvation, suffocation, disease, drowning, love. I think of these and the other thousand ways we humans expose ourselves to risk each time I look at a turtle and find it looking back. And then I shiver, pull my arms closer around myself, add an extra layer of protection over my heart.