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Endangered Turtles Offer Hope In an Era of Despair

A look at Sy Montgomery's compassionate portrait of turtles.

Key points

  • Montgomery offers an impassioned conservation message, her goal is to generate hope during an era of despair.
  • One turtle who died recently had been alive at the time of George Washington, and lived to age 288.
  • Turtles as a group are the most critically endangered vertebrates on the planet.

"Montgomery's heart-tugging conversations with teammates and her commitment to helping an octogenarian named Fire Chief reveal turtles to be perfect conduits for meditations on aging, disability and chosen family.” —Scientific American

Matt Patterson/with permission.
Male Wood Turtle.
Source: Matt Patterson/with permission.

Turtles are amazing and mysterious animals. I love watching them whenever and wherever I can and always want to know more about these highly diverse, long-lived survivors. My desire to learn more about these highly sentient and emotional animals has been answered in award-winning author Sy Montgomery's illustrated book, a New York Times bestseller Of Time and Turtles: Mending the World, Shell by Shattered Shell. Her "compassionate portrait of injured turtles and their determined rescuers invites us all to slow down and slip into turtle time."

Marc Bekoff: Why did you and artist Matt Patterson work together on Of Time and Turtles?

Sy Montgomery: The last time I devoted years of my life to researching a book resulted in the 2015 title, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. I'd waited all my life to write about invertebrates, and to explore the question of consciousness—considered one of the two "hard" problems in philosophy. What is it? Is it even real? Who has it? Once I hit the age of 60, I began thinking about philosophy's other "hard" problem: Time. Is it real? What is it? What do we do with it?

Sy Montgomery/with permission.
Source: Sy Montgomery/with permission.

In all my literary and spiritual explorations, I've always apprenticed myself to animals. I have followed them in their lives, as a species as well as individuals, rather like a disciple following a leader. Clearly, turtles were a great choice to lead me through my investigation of time. Their kind is as old as the dinosaurs. They survived the asteroid impact and the ice ages. And they are remarkably long-lived: one well-documented turtle who died recently had been alive at the time of George Washington and lived to age 288. I was very lucky to have met the wildlife artist Matt Patterson as I was heading toward 60. He is a turtle savant, and his friendship and knowledge helped point my work in a turtlely direction.

We began working with a local turtle nest protection group thanks to another friend of mine—and through these good folks, we met the wonderful ladies who run Turtle Rescue League, where in the basement of their suburban home care for anywhere between 250-1,000 injured, sick, abandoned or hatchling turtles. These connections were blessings. But perhaps most astonishing, in terms of making this book so extraordinarily relevant, was something completely beyond my knowing: that the true stories in this book about turtles and time would be lived during the Covid-19 pandemic—a moment in history when time seemed to stall. And at a time when the whole world seemed broken, Matt and I would have a chance to help make broken creatures whole—shell by shattered shell.

MB: How does your latest book relate to your backgrounds and general areas of interest?

SM: I exist in a state of awe, living among all the stunningly beautiful and talented species around me in this gorgeous, diverse, abundant, and broken world. To call attention to their glories, I write about rare and endangered species; about misunderstood and overlooked species; about animals we already know and love. Turtles fall into all these categories at once. Everyone loves turtles, and everyone has seen a turtle. But few of us recognize their astonishing powers—some climb, some hunt, some can run faster than a child doing the 100-yard dash. Or that, despite that some species are common, turtles as a group are the most critically endangered vertebrates on the planet. I write about the individual turtles I met during the pandemic to let them educate us all, especially about how we can help them.

MB: Who do you hope to reach through this book?

SM: Drivers (stop and help them cross the roads!), voters (support candidates who protect wetlands and fight global warming), and good-hearted souls who care enough about animals to help them in other ways: for instance, to bring injured turtles to rehabbers even when their cases seem hopeless. Many badly injured turtles can survive, with prompt, specialized treatment. But turtle rehabbers can even help turtles who are dead: at Turtle Rescue League, our experts extracted eggs from expired patients and were able to incubate and release the babies.

Source: Matt Patterson/with permission.
Eastern Painted Nesting.
Source: Matt Patterson/with permission.

MB: What are some of your major take-home messages?

SM: My major goal is to generate hope during an era of despair; to explore the nature of time during a moment in history when time seemed to stop; and to ponder with kindness and generosity gender and disability issues—two of our human heroes are transgender, one is blind; and many of our turtles are living their best lives despite disabilities most people would consider terrible.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

SM: There are many excellent books on turtles, including field guides. Few are nonfiction narratives. Although turtles seem the perfect guides to explore the subject—they arose at the time of the dinosaurs and some individuals can live hundreds of years—no other book about turtles considers, as this does, the philosophical mystery of time.

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about these animals they will treat them with more respect and dignity?

SM: This is absolutely my hope. We think we know turtles, but we do not. By showing how these animals are gifted with extraordinary powers with senses beyond our own, vocal communication, excellent memories, and powerful emotions, to name just a few, I try to dazzle the reader with these ordinary animals and refresh our worldview with their wildness and wonder.


in conversation with Sy Montgomery. You can find more information about her, including recent interviews, at For more information on artist Matt Patterson click here.

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