Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

Yes, even a fairly small box turtle is happy to devour a tomato worm. (Credit: Dennis E. Powell)

When All is Bleak, Look to the Turtle

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 9:12 PM

What is there to say? Our country is governed by an ice-cream enthusiast who has combined the policies of Jimmy Carter with the presentation of Gerald Ford (if Ford had suffered rabies) along with his own diminished capacity — and he didn’t have that much capacity to begin with. In his speech Monday he sounded like that angry doddering guy on the front porch of the rest home who causes visitors to enter through the back door instead.

The vice president hasn’t been heard from in weeks and one wonders if she should be reminded that she remains vice president unless and until she formally resigns. (Though, to be fair, the less she weighs in, the better off the country is.)

We have abandoned Afghanistan, a country on which we expended lives and treasure. More than that, we have done it in a way that maximized our national dishonor. No one at any level, for decades now, has seemed to remember that wars must be entered only if there are the intention and expectation of winning them, and that if you can’t demonstrate that you’ve won, you haven’t.

China is poised to invade Taiwan; on Monday it told the citizens of Hong Kong that they need to look only to Afghanistan to discover that they’ll get no help from the U.S. Russia is ready to annex the Ukraine. Don’t get me started on Iran. China and Russia, the world is again learning, are fearsome totalitarian enemies. The United States, meanwhile, is apparently a shiftless, unreliable ally, always ready to betray those whom we’ve embraced as friends, both nationally and individually.

American citizens are not welcome in their own cities without masks even if they have gotten the immunizations that the governments that instituted those mask requirements assured them would render them safe from, among other things, mask requirements. Persons violating the law and crossing our national borders are welcomed with open arms and sent at our expense to any city of their choosing, even if they are maskless, unvaccinated, and actively spreading the pandemic contagion.

Prices are rising on — everything. The experts who assured us that this is only temporary seem to have been wrong. The party now in control is printing money at a furious rate, diluting the value of the money people worked to earn and save. We learned a little over a decade ago that economic collapse can be far closer than we think. That party, famous for the policy of never letting a crisis go to waste, is creating crises to exploit — didn’t we have enough of them already? I suspect that they want a disaster sufficient to allow them to do that which we’d never tolerate otherwise.

And even the famous “fact checking” outfit Snopes has, it turns out, harbored corruption of a sort that drove a dim young(er) presidential candidate from the race in 1988.

Together those things are overload and we become too numb even for anguish. The horizon and places closer are littered with bad news and portentous events.

So we turn to prayer because we should and must. There are many prayers and many of those are beautiful and complicated; I say some of that kind of prayer each day, as I hope you do. But the ones that I think are the most efficacious, the ones that our every breath should contain, are simple: “Lord, give me strength,” and “Thy will be done.” They are what I hope I will utter in my last seconds on this earth.

Some of my favorite anecdotes have to do with the response of saints to trying circumstances. One involves St. Teresa of Avila. The story is that she was traveling under harsh circumstances, in the rain. A wheel came off her little cart. Her few possessions were spilled into the roadside stream and swept away. As she sat in the muddy path, she looked skyward and said, “If this is the way you treat your friends, it is little wonder you have so few of them!”

Another is more recent. Pope John Paul II, on a visit, managed to close a car door on his hand. He winced in pain and groaned, “Thank you, Father, for loving me in this way.” Knowing a bit about him, I suspect that he said it at least in part ironically. But the lesson remains, and it is a lesson necessary to our happiness. Yes, God knows more than we do.

We can, do, and should pray at any and all times. Still, I think it’s best to converse with our Creator from a calm, reflective, even meditative mental attitude. The problem is, that’s increasingly difficult for anyone to achieve who is at all observant. Some of us have methods that bring about a more placid state of mind.

I do it by turning to the turtle.

It is, as you might imagine, a long story.

Seven years ago, plus or minus a couple of months, I discovered a strange excavation next to the compost pile at the side of my back yard. There were the shells of several small eggs there. Some creature — a raccoon, possum, skunk, maybe a feral cat (college students confirm what I think of modern higher education by releasing in the woods their dorm pets, by the score, each year) — had dug up the nest of, well, something and had consumed its contents.

Poking around a bit in hope of learning more, I found one egg that the predator had missed. I got a plastic gallon jar, collected some of the dirt, and placed the egg inside. Over the next couple of weeks I paid little attention to it, other than making sure that the soil didn’t get entirely desiccated. And one morning I heard very faint scratching from the jar. I looked inside and there was the tiniest box turtle you ever did see, only a little over an inch long.

It still had the remnants of a yolk sac, so it wasn’t immediately hungry, which was good. I offered it bits of various fruits and vegetables that a wild box turtle might encounter, with no success. And I made for it a home from a clear plastic tub with a couple of inches of dirt for a floor, a few biggish pieces of bark as places to hide, and a dish of the sort placed under red earthenware flower pots for water. If it ate anything at all that autumn I didn’t notice it. Come winter, it crawled under the bark and that was the last I saw of it. I kept some water in the dish but figured that come spring I’d pull up the bark and find the remains of the turtle.

I was wrong. One day in April I glanced down to see one very lively baby box turtle. It had to be hungry.

Like any infant, it eschewed vegetables, bits of fruit, and the like. Growing animals want protein — where to get it? I let nature be my guide, looked around, and after a little while I’d collected a few dozen sow bugs.

Do you know sow bugs and their close relatives, pill bugs? They’re sometimes called wood lice or “roly-polys” for their defensive posture of rolling into little balls when they’re threatened. They’re not pigs, nor medication, nor lice, nor toys. They are crustaceans, not bugs. I like to think but do not know that they descended from the trilobites of ancient prehistory, whom they slightly resemble. They are plentiful. Some people think of them as pests, but I don’t. Whatever their ancestry, they seemed just the thing for a hopeful and hungry baby box turtle.


This is a sow bug, also known as a wood louse or, to a turtle, lunch. (Credit: Dennis E. Powell)

And they were. While the little fellow (actually, it would prove to be a female) went wild when it saw them, the adult sow bugs were too much for it, but it needed no lessons in how to eat the little ones. So it came to pass that my daily duties included turning over rocks outside and harvesting tiny prehistoric crustaceans.

I made another discovery: Sow bugs breed in captivity. The ones too big for the turtle to eat had made their way to the underside of the water dish and the pieces of bark, where they apparently did what sow bugs do. One day I lifted the dish to rinse it out — for reasons unknown to me, box turtles tend to poop in their water — and found many, many very little sow bugs, far smaller then any I’d caught in the wild. The turtle saw them, too, and made a fast dash to where the dish had been. It was fascinating to see just how good this juvenile box turtle was at catching and eating them.

The system worked out perfectly: I had a growing population of what seemed to be the natural food of little box turtles. The sow bugs fed off the decaying bark, reproduced, and thus fed the turtle, whose diet was enhanced when I’d occasionally find a tiny earthworm or very little snail.

The turtle grew. By its second autumn it no longer looked like a vulnerable hatchling but instead was a fine, upstanding box turtle, albeit a small one. In due course it disappeared beneath the bark for its winter nap. I made sure that the soil didn’t entirely dry out and kept water in the dish, because indoor air is very dry. On one January day I heard a scratching and looked to see the turtle make its way to the water dish, take a very long drink, and return to its blanket of bark, the way anyone would who got thirsty in the middle of the night. (Except for the bark part.)

Spring came and now even big sow bugs weren’t enough. I found a source of mealworms, and the turtle was happy to dine on those. Doing a little reading, I learned that movement triggers something in box turtles, which I confirmed: it was especially interested in the worms (not really worms but beetle larvae, though now that I think of it earthworms, too) that wriggled around a little.

But I was concerned. Box turtles are omnivorous. They need the nutrition that vegetables and fruit provide. This turtle still wasn’t interested. I began adding a bit of beta carotene to its water — no idea if this did any good at all — and trying to persuade it to eat things that didn’t wriggle, without success.

I don’t know what inspired me to put a bruised bit of avocado in front of the turtle, but one day I did and was rewarded with the discovery that box turtles, at least this one, really like avocado. This remains a puzzle, because eastern box turtles from Ohio would never encounter avocados in nature. Since then, every time I have an avocado the turtle gets some of it.

This led to experimentation. The turtle is happy to have a small hunk of banana. It hates tomatoes, wants nothing to do with them. Sometimes it likes blueberries, but raspberries do not interest it. (I think that this may be a color thing: When I was young I had a chuckwalla, a very cool southwestern lizard. Given the choice between something red and something of any other color, the chuck would choose the red morsel every time. For the turtle the opposite seems true.)


If you want to make a box turtle happy, give it a slug to munch on. (Credit: Dennis E. Powell)

The little reptile was not so little anymore. It could now wrestle full-size earthworms and win. When it was junebug season I’d catch a few of those and the turtle would unenthusiastically eat them.

I have often grown tomatoes and have always been a little angry when I’d find evidence of tomato worms and then the worms themselves. Hmmm. Wonder what the turtle thinks of those?

I shouldn’t have doubted. While earthworms were readily accepted, there was no excitement (or what in turtles passes for excitement) in them. I could almost hear, “Earthworms again?” But the introduction of a big, fat tomato worm was cause for reptilian celebration, even though most of its innards squirted all over the place and didn’t end up in the turtle’s belly.

Box turtles, I knew, eat snails, but there aren’t a lot of snails around here. We do, though, have a plentiful supply of slugs.

Slugs are no fun to collect. Pick one up and you’ll be a while getting its slime off your hands. Fortunately, I have a nice set of foot-long tweezers that aid in the effort. I was a little concerned that the turtle, given a slug, might choke on it, but nope.

We cannot know if turtles are capable of excitement, but if they are there’s nothing that brings it out the way a slug does. Normally when I give the turtle an earthworm it will eat it dutifully. But if I introduce a slug or two or five, the turtle comes running. Literally running. It seems to detect the presence of the slugs before it can see them. And it devours the little snot monsters with more vigor than it does anything else. (I have wondered if it is perhaps seeking the calcium that it might get from snail shells, and have taken to adding calcium to its water, too.)

Now with a shell nearly five inches long, the turtle has achieved adulthood. Its long claws suggest that it is in fact a female — they use those claws to dig the places where they lay their eggs. Its shell shape points toward it being female. It’s a girl.

And we’re getting closer to the end of summer. This is when turtles like to fatten up for their inactive winter. So I’m spending more time collecting slugs and earthworms, and I’m eating most of more avocados.

I’m not much of a pet guy. I don’t have, nor do I want, a cat or a dog. People gushing over their domestic predators is to me more to be endured than embraced. And I don’t really think of the turtle as a pet. It is instead the outcome of a successful egg rescue.

But it has more than paid its way. No matter the other factors, conditions, and worries, tending to the needs of this once-tiny reptile — they grow up so fast! — is always interesting and even uplifting. It helps distill the complications of life into its simplest components.

Observing it and taking care of it have imparted a kind of peace that is conducive not just to prayer but to prayer of thanks. Maltbie Davenport Babcock found much the same thing when, as he told his wife, he took the long walks in nature that ultimately led him to write “This Is My Father’s World,” a sweet hymn that we all ought to understand.

And if I’d rather watch a turtle eat a slug than listen to politicians — no, come to think of it, that was the case before I found that little egg out by the compost pile seven years ago.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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2 comments posted so far.

Re: When All is Bleak, Look to the Turtle

This is such a wonderful story to help during such a disturbing week; thank you, dep. Looking to the turtle and then remembering God’s care for us is wise advice, indeed. An important question: does your not-a-pet turtle have a name?

Posted by Timothy Butler - Aug 18, 2021 | 9:45 PM

Re: When All is Bleak, Look to the Turtle

Thanks for the reminder and I love the way you write. Keep it up.

Posted by Lucas James - May 11, 2022 | 2:23 AM

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