This week, my students and I read Edward Hoagland’s essay “The Courage of Turtles.“. I love Hoagland’s writing (if not turtles, in particular) because it is so descriptive. My students seemed to appreciate for that reason, too.
What divided my classes a bit about the essay was the end. Hoagland spends a few hundred words describing turtles – the various kinds, the ones he owns, where he finds them, how they can die easily in captivity – basically, the first section of the essay is an ode de la turtle. But at the end of the piece, it takes a turn (at most good essays do) and becomes much darker. Hoagland tells us about how he bought a turtle in Manhattan, thinking it would make a good pet, only to discover it was a Diamondback that preferred brackish water, not fresh water. At home, the turtle is “morose” and “spent his days thumping interminably against the baseboards.” Out of exasperation, Hoagland decides to carry the turtle to the Hudson and set it free. After he tosses the turtle into the water, he realizes the animals is “afraid” and realizes “that I must have done the wrong thing.” The turtle couldn’t survive in the rough water.
The final line of the essay is what we debated in class – “But since, short of diving in after him, there was nothing I could do, I walked away.” Some of my students thought Hoagland cruel to walk away; some thought he had no real choice in the matter. My interpretation rests on one phrase in that line – “short of diving in after him.” These six words tell me that Hoagland knows he had a choice, albeit a dangerous one, and that he feels bad about himself for making the choice he did. This phrase allows me to feel sympathy for the writer while still grieving the turtle. And since the entire essay is about Hoagland’s feelings for these animals, I find this last line to be quite fitting and masterful.
Hoagland’s last line shows, I think, the power of one phrase. Think how different that line would be if he just said, “There was nothing I could do; I walked away.” That’s the line of a heartless fellow.
Sometimes a simply set of words – in an essay (and in life) – can make a world of difference in how the people around us experience our stories. Our honest, aware sentiments wrought well in words can alter a perception monumentally.
Unless like one student, your love for turtles overwhelms all else, and well, then, what’s a writer to do. 🙂
– Diamondback Terrapin