My Turn: The warning dream of the turtle

  • A giant snapping turtle crosses Jenness Pond Road in Northwood in October 2016. Jean Stimmell

For the Monitor
Published: 9/12/2019 8:00:15 AM

I had a dream the other night I can’t shake:

I am driving through a desolate land, over a maze of logging trails, trying to find the location of my new job, when suddenly a giant snapping turtle, almost as wide as my truck, steps into the path and refuses to move.

Finally, in desperation, not wanting to be late, I winch her into the back of my truck and drive on. After several more wrong turns, I arrive at my job site: a nondescript building in the middle of nowhere, divided into a maze of warrens, where humorless bureaucrats, intent on saving the environment, crunch numbers and pore over charts.

I enter the reception area, a sterile room with no windows, only a sliding glass door looking out on a green meadow. No one looks up to greet me or the turtle, whom I brought in with me. The turtle shuffles over to gaze longingly out the door. I start to open it to set her free but remember that turtles are very rooted to their home territory and probably couldn’t survive in a strange, new world.

Realizing what is at stake, I decide to return her to her home. As I nervously pace back and forth, trying to remember the way back, the turtle loses her patience and starts charging after me, snapping at my heels with her gaping, guillotine mouth.

I awake in a cold sweat.

I interpret this dream as an urgent message from earth – speaking as Turtle – warning us she will tolerate no more abuse. Half measures or experts thinking they can accomplish a technical fix just won’t cut it any more.

Our only hope is a spiritual awakening to restore Earth to the center of our lives, the place from which all good things flow. Either we start treating her with the respect she deserves for being the very foundation of everything we are, or she will bite back – hard!

This interpretation may seem pretty far out, but bear with me while I present evidence for my case. In the end, you can make your own verdict: Either my dream is a premonition of the future from a power far greater than ourselves, or the ravings of a demented old man.

My first witness is Carl Jung.

His method of dream interpretation is based on the theory that our unconscious mind is organized by certain common archetypes we all share.

One archetype common to our collective unconscious is the turtle. That is why turtles and tortoises are central to mythologies around the world. They represent the subterranean ground of our unconscious, which supports all higher levels of life. Examples abound:

An Iroquois creation myth tells how primordial water birds bring up bits of dirt and place it on the back of a giant tortoise, floating on the surface of the sea; over time, the Earth grows and expands with the tortoise continuing to be the supporting force at its center.

In Hindu mythology, the world is said to rest on the back of a giant turtle, the underworld embodiment of the deity, Vishnu, the creator and preserver.

My second witness is science.

In the 1970s, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis theorized that the Earth, of which we are a tiny component, is a living, breathing organism. They named her Gaia.

Scientists have been able to find empirical evidence to support the Gaia hypothesis.

Way back in 2001, the European Geosciences Union issued the following statement: “The Earth System (Gaia) behaves as a single, self-regulating system with physical, chemical, biological and human components.”

My third witness is Joanna Macy, a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory and deep ecology.

Through her research, she confirms that we are all one, part of a living Earth.

She goes further to assert that, because we are an integral part of a living organism, we can’t help but feel despair about the harm we are causing our Earth body.

Most of us repress this despair, but it is the root cause of much of society’s rampant depression and anxiety. As the Earth is tortured ever more, Her pain appears more and more in our dreams.

This concludes my evidence to justify my dream interpretation. If you are still with me, here’s what Macy says we must do:

If we are going to confront climate change, we must first break through our denial. Words are empty and abstract. What we need are artists to create images of our ecological grief to facilitate processing our feelings and to create a strategy to fight back to save the Earth.

“To acknowledge our pain for the world and tap its energy, we need symbols and images for its expression. Images, more than arguments, tap the springs of consciousness, the creative powers by which we make meaning of experience,” Macy writes.

Without a doubt, we are in desperate need of contemporary, sacred images to move us in profound ways, like turtle mythology affected earlier cultures.

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. He blogs at

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