The Gospel According to a Snapping Turtle

Pilgrim Turtle did not know that it was pushed along by the gentle force of global gravity pulling 1800 square miles of drainage across the earth, and yet, it expertly navigated the move. 

The Cahaba River runs through a tree lined channel about a quarter of a mile behind my house.  I take a short walk through a public park that used to be a golf course, across a meadow that used to be a fairway, through an opening in clusters of locusts, birches, blackberry bushes, and the huge trunks of mature sycamore and oak, and I reach the river.  Over the years, the river has flooded repeatedly, which led to the demise of the golf course.  The golf club management finally gave up trying to clear continual deposits of silt from the golf cart paths and sold out to The City of Hoover.  The City built a park, a picnic pavilion and even distributed picnic tables.  And since the Cahaba still overflows the channel from time to time, repeatedly the City has had to recover picnic tables from trees lining the downstream edge of the park.  Whether a private club or a public park, a flood plain is going to flood.

The Cahaba River where it cuts through the community of Riverchase in Hoover, Alabama.

I’ve walked to several locations along the bank of the Cahaba as it flows past our little park.  The north bank, where I always stand, falls to the channel in two steps, each about six feet high.  Descending the first “step” I stand on a level area about ten feet across and choked with brush, tree trunks, vines, and in some places where flood waters have swirled, exposed roots of massive oaks and sycamores.  The sun finds its way through the canopy overhead and sends sparkles off the water where it pours over shoals or a fallen tree trunk.  Often, as I stand there, or squat among the brush, I think about how the Cahaba’s headwaters originate in the southern Appalachian foothills just north of Birmingham and flow almost 200 miles to the Alabama River just south of Selma supporting one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. In fact, three times more native fish species swim in those waters than either the Columbia or Colorado rivers which drain much larger geographical areas.  And only about 20 miles downstream from my vantage, the Cahaba Lily blooms every spring between mid-May and mid-June.  This exquisite flower blossoms nowhere else on the planet.

Cahaba Lilies blooming in shoals not far from West Blockton, Alabama.

For eons water flowed through this channel, long before the Europeans arrived and drew up their maps and wrote down the Creek-Choctaw word “Cahaba” beside a thin, squiggly blue line.  In the Creek language, “Cahaba” referred to the cane they found growing in the river’s basin, but “Cahaba” might also derive from the Choctaw term for “upper waters.”  From my squatting point on the north bank lining the defunct golf course, I think about how likely it is that some Creek or Choctaw person paused in this same place and contemplated the gray shapes of gar and catfish in eddies just beneath the surface.

The picnic pavilion during one of the times the Cahaba flooded its banks. You’ll notice the picnic tables have floated away!

One Sunday during the pandemic lockdown, Vicki and I decided to sit beside the Cahaba during the hours we’d normally be going to, participating in, and returning from worship.  We found a spot on the lower step of the bank, set up our chairs and simply sat and listened to the happy whisper of water over a fallen sycamore.  I felt lulled by the undulations of sunlight through the flickering foliage above us and began to nod toward a nap when a splash jerked me back to attention.

A large snapping turtle had slid off its perch on a log beside the bank.  It did not dive but rode the current by us, inches beneath the surface.  I could see it quite clearly as it drifted past and I thought it looked like a dinosaur ready to do battle, its sharp beak obviously capable of ripping digits from my hands.  I watched, mesmerized, as it adjusted its position in the water and with an almost languid flip of its webbed feet aimed for the opposite shore.  I tracked its gray shape until it broke the surface just upstream from another log.  Sunlight glistened on its shell as it neared the log, grasped the saturated wood, and pulled itself into position just above the water.

I don’t know where turtles go when floods come.  Maybe this one had given me a clue: it rode the flow and found a new place.  For that turtle, the log on the south bank provided a perspective to troll for prey and watch for predators just as the log on the north bank had.  And when it was in the water, drifting downstream, I rather doubt that it lamented, grieved, or longed for the security of the old log.  Somewhere in its unsophisticated prehistoric, a-rational reptilian brain, it knew a new log would come along.

Pilgrim Turtle did not know that it was pushed along by the gentle force of global gravity pulling 1800 square miles of drainage across the earth, and yet, it expertly navigated the move.  It knew nothing of biodiversity, of the plenitude of fish species, and yet, given its size and ferocious visage, it obviously had found sufficient nourishment.  Whether it swam in the headwaters, moved about the shoals where the rare lilies grow, or drifted into the confluence with the Alabama River, that tortoise had thrived. 

It makes me think of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus encouraged his students to consider the sparrows who had no barns: this turtle had no dock.  Jesus addressed the anxieties of his students by reminding them that even sparrows, which never sow seeds, thrive in the providence of God.  They spread their wings and rise on the air.  And this turtle? It embraced the flow of the ancient river, knowing nothing of biology, hydrology, or geology, and arrived at a new place.

Might I embrace the flow of this ancient river of life with an equivalent confidence?  Might I trust that the current of life I now experience will bear me up to a new place?  Much in me wants to take control, to resist the flow, to paddle furiously against the stream.  But might this unforeseen illness possess a gracious potential my dogged denial would miss?  Indeed, if I trust this current flow, there could be rare blossoms awaiting. To do that, though, I will need to trust the flow even when it’s not clear where it’s going.

By Drexel Rayford

Drexel has been senior pastor of four churches in Kentucky and Virginia, a psychiatric ward chaplain, denominational bureaucrat, and an erstwhile indie singer/songwriter/story-teller and seeker of authentic human vocation. Currently, Drexel is working at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center in the capacity of The Support Team Network manager, a hospital-based community partnership aimed at nurturing healing communities for discharged patients. He loves kayaking, road cycling, hiking, and all kinds of photography, but he loves his wife Vicki and blended family of three adult children more. He holds a Ph.D. in the Psychology of Religion and a pastoral counseling certificate from the University of Louisville, Department of Psychiatry.

5 replies on “The Gospel According to a Snapping Turtle”

The next-to-last paragraph took my breath away: the reference to the Sermon on the Mount about sparrows not having no barns, the big turtle having no dock. You are such a good writer. Thank you from all of us who have anxiety issues for reminding us that God provides. I learned a lot from the snapping turtle!


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