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"Always Ask the Turtle"

Kim Kastens
Columbia University in the City of New York
Kim Kastens, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
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published Jul 19, 2017
I'm at the Earth Educators' Rendezvous, where Cathy Manduca gave a great plenary talk on the past and future of geoscience education. In looking towards the future, she emphasized the importance of teaching about the Earth in the context of societal issues and thereby serving the larger community. When the floor opened for questions and comments, the very first comment was something along the lines of "scientists need to be careful not to assume they know what the community wants or needs; the community has to have its own voice to express its own desires and needs."

By coincidence, my traveling story book on this trip is Gloria Steinem's new memoir My Life on the Road. She tells a relevant story, writing of her undergraduate years at Smith College (p. 177):


I took a course in geology because I thought it was the easiest way of fulfilling a science requirement. One day the professor took us out into the Connecticut River Valley to show us the 'meander curves' of an age-old river.

I was paying no attention because I had walked up a dirt path and found a big turtle, a giant mud turtle about two feet across, on the muddy embankment of an asphalt road. I was sure it was going to crawl onto the road and be crushed by a car.

So with a lot of difficulty, I picked up the huge snapping turtle and slowly carried it down the road to the river.

Just as I had slipped it into the water and was watching it swim away, my geology professor came up behind me.

"You know," he said quietly, "that turtle has probably spent a month crawling up the dirt path to lay its eggs in the mud on the side of the road—you have just put it back in the river."

I felt terrible. I couldn't believe what I had done, but it was too late.

I took me many more years of organizing to realize that this parable had taught me the first rule of organizing.

Always ask the turtle.



Many thoughts from this vignette have been swirling around in my mind. First, there is the apparently eternal nature of the assumption that geology would be the "easiest way of fulfilling a science requirement." And the near inevitability that a geology professor in the 1950's, even at a women's college, would be male.

But then, I notice that this unnamed and long dead geology professor managed to teach one of the premiere community organizers of her generation "the first rule of organizing."

The learning took effect years after the lesson was set forth. As teachers we sometimes have no idea what seeds we are planting. The lesson was a collaboration between the professor and mother Nature, made possible because the professor took his students out into the real world and then seized the teachable moment even though orthogonal to his planned lesson. Do you suppose he had any idea that reproductive rights would be central to this young woman's career, or was this a coincidence?

Although nature and the professor played essential roles, the final role in the lesson learned came from Gloria herself. It was left as a task for the student to transfer this wisdom from the domain specific context of one gravid turtle to the domain general context of all dealings with other beings.

Always ask the turtle.


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