fable + photography DAVE WADE

You know the parable about the hare and the tortoise, don’t you? Its moral is that the fastest doesn’t always win the race … and sometimes other animals try to get into the act, as in this classic showdown between two unlikely contenders.

This story unfolds in the middle of a half-submerged log, where a turf war has broken out between two critters whose claim to the turf title is at best tenuous, one being more a creature of the air and the other a part time denizen of the deep. Neither is fully a land animal, and that’s where the trouble starts…

Meeting midway on the log, the turtle and the heron face off. The turtle—not a ninja type but more the pond variety—is feeling ownership and convinced he has the right of way, and is telling the heron to buzz off. And in a scene that might be right out of Midnight Cowboy, is doing his best Dustin Hoffman imitation in a gruff turtle voice, hollering “I’m walking here… I’m walking here.”

But the heron is hearing none of it. Where does this lowlife get off, mocking me, thinks the heron, who has a very high opinion of himself and seems ready to tell this dumpy character to turn his trailer home around and head back to from where he came.

As fate would have it, the faceoff continues long enough for this passing photographer to take a few frames, and to reflect upon the place of these animals in the great scheme of things... The heron in Greek mythology was believed to be a messenger from the gods. To the Chinese, it represented strength, purity and long life. To the Native Americans, the heron symbolized wisdom and good judgment and was a symbol of good luck.

The turtle too had its mythological bona fides. In Chinese and Taoist philosophy, the turtle represented immortality. The turtle loomed large in creation stories in Native American lore, where it was believed the turtle was the creature who dove deep into the primeval waters to bring back mud upon which Mother Earth was first formed. To the First People, the turtle is the keeper of the land, and represents healing and wisdom.

Both the turtle and the heron were prominent figures in Native American social structure too, where tribes were divided into clans, based upon the elements water, land and air, and named after animals. The turtle, eel and beaver represented the water element. The snipe, hawk and heron represented the air element.

What at first appeared only a chance pondside photo op is starting to turn into a heavyweight title fight for the universe, smack dab in the middle of the pond. Elemental differences aside, these two animals are very different indeed. The heron is a cocky type, a showoff and bit of a dandy, given to preening his fine feathers and displaying his bright combed ’do. On the other hand, the turtle is a bit of a stick in the mud, and doesn’t really give a hoot for fine threads. In fact, he wears the same outfit every single day, although he does bathe daily, and occasionally applies a coat of turtle wax. The quiet, reserved type, Mr. Turtle is not given to any outward display of emotion like the flighty heron, but plods on slow and steady…

Clearly the heron has the upper hand here, but the turtle is well armored and not impressed.

If there’s any precedent for this match, I can’t find it, but there is an old Hitchiti tribal tale that might help. It’s about how the heron and the hummingbird raced for possession of all the fish in the rivers and lakes. The story goes that they agreed to race for four days. Whoever first landed on a big dead tree on the bank of the river on the fourth day would own rights to all the fish in the water. So they took off, with the heron flying slowly but never stopping while the speedy little hummingbird, who had a serious sweet tooth, would zip ahead but would stop to taste the flowers whenever he liked. While he was busy sipping nectar, the heron would overtake and pass him by… Once the hummingbird’s sugar craving was satisfied, he would take off again, easily overtaking the heron, but stopping at night to sleep.

While he was snoozing, the night-flying heron would once more pass him. The race went on for three more days and nights, and on the fourth day, when the hummingbird awoke, he sped ahead only to find the heron already standing there on the dead tree, the winner of the rights to all the fish and water. Since that time, according to the myth, the hummingbird does not drink the water and eats only nectar while the heron feasts on fish.

Back at our log, our two contenders remain at serious loggerheads. I can respect the heron for its patience and dignity, and the turtle for its determination and self-dependence. Both of them seem to have a legitimate claim to their place on the log, and I would hate to see any losers. If somehow they could only arrive at an amicable solution and find the middle road to resolve this impass...

Even in the animal kingdom, it seems, a little flattery can get you somewhere, so I remind each of them of their fabled past: the heron’s soaring triumph over the hummingbird, and the tortoise’s legendary victory over the hare. And sure enough, with their egos massaged, soon they are both basking in their fame. And so, with the turtle and the heron both declared winners, calm is restored upon the waters, and once more peace prevails in the kingdom of the pond.

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