All the Way Down

At the swimming pool, Wistar and I sometimes poke around in the filters to see what animal carnage might be swirling around. Usually it’s frogs, Japanese beetles, dragonflies, grasshoppers or some combination. This is especially true during summer storms, like this week’s heavy rainfall which surely killed hundreds of animals unlucky enough to be trapped in small spaces.

But yesterday we found something else – a turtle, exhausted and barely able to stay afloat any longer, supporting a frog on its back while a spider clung to the frog’s head to avoid drowning.


We guessed it had been 3 days since the storms hit, when the filters were last emptied. Somehow the three had survived in 8″ of water, one of top of the other like ice cream scoops. Even after their rescue, they were reluctant to part ways. Finally, the spider disappeared into the grass and the frog hopped in the other direction.

For some reason this weird little event stuck with me. I thought about turtles in mythology. The Hindu god Vishnu had taken the avatar form of a turtle (“Kurma”) and held mountains on his back. Another Iroquois creation myth depicts the North American continent as supported by the strength and steadfastness of a turtle.

These are great stories. Theoretically, they should make agnosticism more difficult, if you don’t ordinarily feel comfortable with supernatural explanations or resist speculation about what greater force might be out there, carrying us all on its back.

I’m more likely to be contrary and ask, “if the turtle holds up the world, who holds up the turtle?”, as the anecdote goes:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

It was Wistar’s father, a skilled surgeon, who held up this particular turtle yesterday so that we could snap some pictures. The turtle was surprisingly at ease in someone else’s hands. He may have been shocked or exhausted or just relieved to be found. On another day, all alone, he would not have been so lucky.


The picture has generated quite a few comments on Reddit and Post Punk Kitchen, plus an inspirational poster. The Cvillain folks also Dugg it.

I’ve also published a more comprehensive follow-up.