Frank, an Eastern box turtle, lives in my family’s backyard. While he is pet-like in that we have named him (I don’t know what his turtle-mama named him, probably not Frank), he is not a pet. He is wild.
When he’s not gracing us with a passing appearance on the back patio, Frank wanders the weedy, rambling hills of our bucolic Nashville- area home, taking care of himself. As winter approaches, his natural instincts tell him to preserve energy; so, he nestles under a layer of dirt and leaves for a long stretch of inactivity. This seasonal rest—called brumation, kind of like hibernation for cold-blooded animals—lasts from roughly late October to April. Honestly, I don’t know how he stands the prolonged torpor. It is not in my nature to be still. A recovering productivity junkie who measured my self-worth by completed to-do lists for too many years, I still sometimes get antsy when I’m supposed to be relaxing. Unlike Frank, who shows no guilt over taking downtime, I feel a need to make every minute of daylight count. I often have to make myself slow down. Case in point: I don’t always know where Frank brumates, but I once saw him dig a nap nest under the big evergreen Euonymus hedge that wraps around one corner of our house. That hedge is my backyard nemesis, always either overgrown and scratching our windows with errant branches or sickly with some sort of spotty mold. Fallen leaves drift under it and form heavy, sour-smelling piles that are hard to reach with a rake. I wouldn’t have planted it—it’s not even a native plant to Tennessee—but it was here when we moved in ages ago. Recently, I finally thought, The hedge has got to go. I decided I wanted to pull it out and put in something that demands less maintenance, so I started browsing pictures on our local nursery’s website. As usual, once I’d identified the project, I wanted to attack it immediately.
The problem is, during winter our yard might as well have a “TURTLE HAZARD: DO NOT TOUCH” banner over it. If my shovel ever clanged against something hard in the dirt, something that felt like a turtle shell, I’d be beside myself. My family might never speak to me again. I owe it to everyone, but mostly to Frank, to pause. That hedge may be a nuisance to me, but it’s a cold-weather home for him. Dormancy it is, then—for both of us. Whenever I see Frank next, I will thank him for demonstrating the restorative value of inertia. I’ll tell him about the books I read and the hot toddy recipe I perfected while waiting him out. Meanwhile, I will not start pulling at the roots of the unwieldy hedge. I will not try to dig out that leaf gunk or get a jump on gardening. When my impatience flares, I will say to myself: Not yet. The time will come for all that. For now, we rest.
Mary Laura Philpott is the author of Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives.