In Case I Die: Turtle Problems

Hey buddy,

I’ve communicated to you that I walk around looking for dead animals, which you don’t seem to think is weird- good on you. I mean, it is weird, and fairly gross, but it’s also weird and gross to ignore dead animals, though far more effort is expended by municipal governments in removing them from view than there is in collecting them for display.  

If there wasn’t anyone removing them from view it would get gross (or more gross than it already is) very quickly. Animals rotting on blacktop smell worse than animals rotting on biotically active dirt, and so there would be heaps of rancid fat and half-cured leather sizzling all throughout our brutally hot summers. And since the road itself is such a gauntlet for these creatures, they’d pile up. The scavengers would lie on top of the deer and possums and only the flies would benefit. 

Among other outcomes of this dynamic, there aren’t very many fresh kills available for me, a scavenger who has not yet been pancaked, to collect. I’m grateful that I’m not eating them, and that my only interest is in skeletons. 

My winter project is to grow reishi antlers through skulls with moss painted over little glued-on circuit boards from e-waste. I think they will look pretty cool, and will speak to my interest in the purpose of death, the possibilities of our techno-organic future, and the tragedy of suffering arising from casual violence. I’ll post pictures up when I’ve completed some, unless they look terrible and stupid, in which case I’m never going to mention them ever again. 

Railroad tracks are far and away the best places to gather remains. No one bothers to remove things that get hit and so they cure in the sun for years and I get to avoid the viscera and stench. 

I like the railroad tracks, as I generally like these suburban waste areas where people don’t often bother to go: Power lines, sumps, superfund sites… People avoid them, except for adolescents, who are evidenced by bad graffiti and broken weed-smoking implements. I like that these places are forgotten and ignored and that they create opportunities for weird things to occur and persist. 

While walking along the tracks I often have to consider the fact that the train conductors might experience a twinge of panic when they see me. They might wonder, however briefly, if I’m going to step in front of the train. When I was younger I probably would have found the idea funny, but now I think that it’s entirely possible that this is a thing that they have reason to be worried about, and that despite the funny thought that “Man, this guy’s probably freaking out that I’m going to fuck up his whole day!”, it is far more likely that such an event would fuck up his (or her) entire life, to watch something like that in process, helpless to stop it. That’s a far less funny thing to consider. 

So, the other day, walking along, I discovered the remains of a box turtle. There was no flesh left, just bone, and her skeleton was perfectly preserved, anatomically and diagrammatically correct. 

I’m no turtle scientist. I wouldn’t have known that she was female if not for four perfectly preserved eggs inside her shell. Somehow they’d fossilized and were hard as rocks. This made me very sad, because she hadn’t been hit by a train, she’d just wandered onto the tracks and been unable to find her way to the other side. She’d just walked, with enormous, terrifying metal passing over her, until she’d died of thirst. Had she been struck her death would have been abrupt, but instead it was long and desperate, and so it crossed the threshold of pain into suffering. I found two more turtles in similar condition that day. 

I thought about this over the course of the week, and it galls me that something as inoffensive as a tortoise blunders into that death so frequently. If harmless innocence could be embodied by an animal, the Eastern box turtle is in the running for first place. 

I’ve mentioned ketamine in the past. I’ve been taking it in a clinical setting for over two years, and I think that I’m definitely in the 99th percentile when it comes to how many times a person has taken the drug. 

There’s a long through-line between psychedelic drugs and science fiction. Both are good at exploring the implications of the dynamics of the physical world and both cause the lines between imagination and possibility to become far more permeable, and to my mind ketamine is most exemplary of this. It removes a person so profoundly from themself that the physics that we’re able to grasp during standard human consciousness become much less matter-of-fact. 

A very important aside: There are a great many cautionary tales to pay attention to in psychedelia, in which the western mind wanders into a trap that it has set for itself, in which the metaphorical fluidity of thought that is facilitated gets taken as literal truth and the experiencer becomes a grandiose and self-important fool and prophet. Remember this: You’re completely special and utterly unique, just like everyone else. 

I often think about the concept of ‘God’ while I’m on ketamine, and I also think a lot about death. Good lapsed Catholic that I am, I’m fascinated by the idea of an intelligence that is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. Would such a thing be all-powerful or all-paralyzed? Can you think through how such a thing would function? 

So, last week I thought about God, but also about that turtle, and about suffering while under the influence of ketamine. 

While there are a great many caveats and qualifications to this assertion, I think we humans have an obligation to one another and to other conscious beings to alleviate suffering wherever possible, and I often wonder whether at some point in an impossibly distant and incomprehensible future these terminal instances of pointless suffering will be redeemed. What a Catholic thing to think about. All the same, I hope there is. I hope this universe is headed in a very kind direction. 

One of the science fiction insights I had during this experience is that this particular conception of God is a time traveler, and that all-knowingness and all-powerfulness follow from being freed from linear time. Of course there are a great many problems this presents for causality, and then I decided, at least for that moment, the following:  ‘Fuck causality and fine print. If I end up as God I have a lot of things I intend to do, but the very first thing is going to be sending a middle-aged weirdo down a suburban rail line a few years before July 25, 2022 so that he can pick that fucking turtle up and put her on the other side of the tracks. 

But I don’t think I’m likely to become God. Not for a long time anyway. Most people don’t get to be very powerful. There are some who kill with a word, but even they have little power, just  a scaled up instance of a capacity we all have to fuck somebody’s day up, or, possibly, like one of those train conductors, their whole life. Our abilities to build are more limited. We can alleviate suffering, if only for a short while. But that matters. You’ll meet some turtles in your life. Help them get where they’re going. 

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