Miracle. All of it. (perfect in a way we aren’t)

Fred is 15 years old and 80 pounds, and since my parents adopted him two years ago, he has never left this yard. When he is dozing in the shade, the old shower trees outside the picket fence that surrounds the yard rain their pink and yellow petals down on him…Fred has nowhere to go and nothing to do, and my parents expect nothing from him.

Every morning, Fred must be fed: a mixture of timothy hay, romaine and protein-rich kibble, which is spread across a baking tray so he can see it easily…Some five hours later, lunch must be provided. Then, at around 6 in the evening, someone has to check that Fred has put himself to bed in his wooden house, where he spends at least 20 minutes bumping and scraping against the walls and the floor: the sulcata, which is native to sub-Saharan Africa, is like most tortoises a burrower by nature; in those arid climates, tortoises will dig deep tunnels in order to access damper, cooler earth. My parents’ neighborhood is humid — it rains every morning and every evening, a light, brief mist that makes the air smell loamy and slightly feral — but Fred is conditioned to dig regardless, his stumpy back legs chafing against the flagstones beneath his house. By 8 p.m., he is silent, sluggish; like all reptiles, Fred is coldblooded, and he will remain in his house until the morning and the return of the sun and its heat…

When the occasional passer-by looks over the fence and sees Fred marching across the yard, his legs churning with the same steady, hardy energy of a toddler delighting in his newfound ability to walk, they are always startled. The surprise is attributable to his size, as well as his shape and color; at first glance, you might mistake him for a large rock, only to then realize that the rock is moving…

To be in the company of a tortoise is to be reminded — instantly, inarticulably — of the oldness of the world and the newness of us (humans, specifically, but also mammals in general). Nature has created thousands of creatures, but most of us have been redrawn over the millenniums: Our heads have grown larger, our teeth smaller, our legs longer, our jaws weaker. But tortoises, some varieties of which are 300 million years old, older than the dinosaurs, are a rough draft that was never refined, because they never needed to be. They are proof of nature’s genius and of our own imperfection, our fragility and brevity in a world that existed long before us and will exist long after we’re gone. They are older than we are in all ways, as a tribe and as individuals — they can live 150 years (and can grow to be 200 pounds). As such, you cannot help feeling a sort of humility around them: They may be slow and ungainly and lumpily fashioned, but they are, in their durability and unchangeability, perfect in a way we aren’t. It is all this that makes them unique and unsettling animals to live with, for to be around them is to be reminded, incessantly, of our own vulnerability…

Fred doesn’t actually need company, or water, or even food; were he at home in Sudan, he would be eating (dry grasses; shrubbery) only every few days…A tortoise knows how to wait. It is another piece of wisdom that comes from being a member of a species that is so very old.

He was, I always thought, an unattractive animal: his eyes might kindly be called beady, his mouth a puckered seam — the writer Jane Gardam once described a tortoise as having “an old man’s mean little mouth” — but over my summer with my parents, I also realized that I was mesmerized by him — even that I respected him. How could I not? An animal that demands so little and craves even less? An animal so unlike the animal I am, one with such a developed sense of self-possession? What secret did Fred know that I did not?

…I liked to sit on the porch steps and watch Fred trundle across the lawn. A few weeks into my stay, we’d grown familiar enough that he would toddle right up to me and stretch out his neck, its skin sagging into crepey pleats, and let me pat his head, closing his little black eyes as I did. In those moments, I found myself talking to him, usually about banal things: asking if he’d enjoyed the hibiscus flowers I’d snapped off a neighbor’s bush; if he could feel the myna birds that occasionally perched on his back. This time, though, I asked him something else, something more intimate, something about what it was like to be the creature he was, what it was like to live without a sense of obligation or pity or guilt — all the things that make being a human so sad and so mysterious and so wondrously rich.

He didn’t answer, of course. But for a moment, he held his position, his head motionless beneath my hand, a short pause in his very long life. And then he moved on — and I stood and watched him go

~ Tanya Yanagihara, excerpts from A Pet Tortoise Who Will Outlive Us All (NY Times, May 17, 2017)


  • Inspired by Albert Einstein’s quote: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
  • Related Posts: Miracle. All of it.


  1. A wonderful essay, David. I found myself happily absorbed.. 🙂
    I also loved Einstein’s quote: 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. freddiegeorgia says:

    Oh how I love this! Of course I am partial to Freds.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. A tortoise knows how to wait. – yes. i love this line and their interaction at the end. so good.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Love, love, love this! 💚

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mary Ann Gessner says:

    Thanks so much for the effort you put into these posts…your writing and the ones your find like today’s are such a gift. I look forward to them every day with a childlike anticipation. What small gift will come today? Smiles, tears…never predictable…always a gift.

    Thanks, Mary Ann


    Liked by 2 people

  6. Edified and re-blogged at https://villageundertaker.wordpress.com/2017/05/20/its-about-fred/

    Thank you. I needed to read this today.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Now I want to be a tortoise next life time.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. moufidapl says:

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    Liked by 2 people

  9. Having made a pet of a tortoise I would worry about what will happen to him when I die.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I loved this essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. One great wisdom of a tortoise. Thank you for sharing the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I immediately wondered about what would happen to Fred when his human caretaker is gone. I hope his care is passed from one generation to the next, and his wisdom continues. 💛

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Silent, wise and a great reminder to live slowly with intent. 🍀

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I never thought about studying or ruminating with a tortoise. But now I want to find one to befriend. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. This is great! I love turtles and tortoises… I thought this was kind of cool because I painted a sea turtle a few years back, hung it in my room, and called it Fred! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Oh, Fred! What a great essay. Thanks for sharing, David.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. This is the coolest! We had a pet tortoise as kids – never knew what happened to him/her – we called him/her JohnMabel. Glued sequins on its back, and fed it lettuce. But I never would have called him ugly. That’s a term I reserve for certain human behavior 😦 xo

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Humbling, beautiful. I’ve read it 3 times. 🙏

    Liked by 1 person


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