Timothy is a curious name for a female tortoise of Mediterranean descent, laments the title character of this exquisite examination of life. But Timothy is and forever shall be her name, as the shell of this much-studied turtle now resides in the Natural History Museum in London.
Kidnapped in her middle age in the 1760s, Timothy bounced about in steerage in a sailing ship from a sunny shore in Turkey to England's foggy meadows. She was sold for a few shillings from a market stall and delivered into the hands of a lady collector of all things tortoise, to roam a chilly English garden. Her future was uncertain, given the propensity for humans of that and succeeding eras to display curiosities of nature on tables and shelves. But she outlived the lady and became the ward of eighteenth century curate and naturalist Gilbert White, to be observed and memorialized along with other flora and fauna in THE NATURAL HISTORY OF SELBORNE, well-regarded by naturalists for 200 years.
It was in the well-groomed garden that she learned to observe the human beings who became her benign captors, the animals that shared her cloistered life, and the seasons to which she adapted.
Klinkenborg brings this captive soul to life to observe human foibles and offer philosophical musings as only one who has several decades of adulthood and a slow and studied pace from which to scrutinize her surroundings. This often wry, always wise and occasionally sorrowful commentary from a tortoise's perspective may alter your view of our place in the world.
Among Gilbert White's duties as curate of the town of Selborne is to deliver the occasional Sunday sermon. A favorite subject is to expound on the whole race of humankind, which he deems as God's numberless family.
"And only the race of mankind," Timothy grumbles. "Thereby cutting off most of creation. But numberless is not the race of mankind. Numberless is the race of beetles. Numberless are 'the most insignificant insects and reptiles.' Flying ants that swarm by millions in this garden. Armies of aphids falling showers over the village. Palmer worms hanging by threads from the oaks. Shoals of shell-snails. The earthworms. Mighty, Mr. Gilbert White avers, in their effect on the economy of nature. Yet excluded from the family of god.
"Humans believe that the parish of Earth exists solely for their use. Fabric of cottages, roofs, sheds and shops. Shelter of brew-houses, malt-houses, ash-houses, granaries, kilns. Handwork in brick and wood. Slate, stone, thatch. Greensand, blue rag, wattle. Walks and alleys and side yards of this village. The comfort of the human establishment. Chambers and hearths as welcoming as the human face. Houses looking out on street and Hanger with great staring human eyes.
"But martins brood among the eaves in the street as if the eaves had been hung for them. Coal-mice in the overhang of a thatched house as if thatched for them. Daws in the oaken church shingles as though shingled for no other purpose. Owls hiss and screech like goblins in the church tower, high above the church-yard. Their right to the tower as absolute as the vicar's. They flutter at the windows of the dying. Alarming the weak-minded, the more than usually superstitious. Swallows dash up and down the village street and over garden walls. Redbreasts fly into houses and soil the furniture with elderberry droppings.
"Crickets ring on the moist kitchen hearth, singing against rain. Harvest bugs bite the ladies in ways and places their spouses never do. Fleas and mites lodge in the skin and feathers of every creature, no matter how reasonable. Flies in the dining room. Bats under the chimney leads as morning rises. A living to be eked out in every corner, no matter how tiny. Shelter in every crevice. Village alive with creation, humans vastly outnumbered. Nearly seven hundred humans in the parish. Many thousands of Blattae swarming in just one of the neighboring houses'''
"Yet from the pulpit humans and animals form separate parishes. One in spiritual communion with the creator. The other --- herds and flocks and swarms and tribes and troops --- the parish of the merely created. The louse under the shirt of the Sunday parishioner leaves St. Mary's unblessed. No matter how its host prays. Eyes screwed shut. Hands folded. Beseeching hard. A next life, please, with no biting and sucking insects."
The lyricism and grace of this slim volume will live in your heart long after you close its pages. It deserves a place in your library or at the bedside. Verlyn Klinkenborg, a member of the New York Times editorial staff, has created a work of immense imagination through the voice of this ancient turtle.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 23, 2011
Timothy; Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile