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  • Writer's pictureLinwood Watson, MD

Connecting the Parts With An Elder

(Author Note: The following is an accurate paraphrasing of an interview with a Haliwa-Saponi elder. It is shared with permission. It is followed by some “book correlations” meant to enhance people’s understanding. All the truths belong to this inspiring elder. Any inaccuracies are mine.)

“So you see, people want to talk about plants. But you can’t focus on one thing. It’s not just the plants. It’s the birds, and all the animals, and the soil and the water. And it should be more of us. I watch things. There is a lot to see if you just watch. It will boggle your mind if you give it a chance. Just boggle your mind.

Take for example, see here we had a heavy rain couple days ago, and it is Spring. A lot of animals are out, moving around, eating and mating. I bet you have even seen some turtles on the road. Well, now listen here…”

The elder’s eyebrows twitched up. His arthritic index finger pointed sternly, but with a friendly undertone, towards me. His eyes were agape, unblinking. My eyes were unblinking too. Waiting.

The elder exhaled, ”Don’t ever, I mean never, hurt or run over an Eastern box turtle. I know what you’re thinking…. A box turtle???”

Truth be told, I was thinking, “ A box turtle???”

Seizing the pause, the elder sauntered on, “ Yes, a box turtle. They do a lot to help plants. They really help with moving seeds around, especially ones that may be too heavy for birds. A bird will poop a mulberry on your car, but it won’t fly with a persimmon. Heh. Heh. The turtle can eat that persimmon, and about anything else its mouth gets a hold of. Plus, while they move the seeds around, they tend to still stay in about the same region or area. New plants get space, but not so much space that the surroundings are too different. The Eastern box turtle helps spread over 13 different plants. It is important. If you see one on the road, slow down to avoid hitting it. Better yet, get out and help it across. Just be sure to move it to the side it was headed. Don’t turn it around. It was moving in that direction for a reason. Don’t throw it in water either. If you throw it in a creek, the turtle may drown. If the turtle wants water it will find it. Plus, the eastern box turtle is much better looking than those old mean snapping turtles. Colorful shells. “

Suddenly the elder snapped his wiry frame back into taut posture as he caught his breath and surmised, “ Remember, don’t ever kill an Eastern box turtle. Leave them alone. Let them be. They do a lot. We need them. They are getting scarce.”

I let his words reverberate in the silence.

The elder then burst back on the scene with a shuffle of his feet. He was looking off in the distance, grinning like a possum with a persimmon. He was summarizing a large collection of memories.

Resolutely, he stated, “ Tell people that box turtle can ‘plant’ a seed that ran through his innards and then you can plant a seed at the exact same time. That’s turtle’s ‘seed’ is going come up first. Plants need the turtles. And we need them.”

I stood there a bit nervously, because I felt like right then at that exact moment I needed to go plant something to make him happy. This way, the turtles’ seeds could beat my plants to germination. I would be a “happy loser.” But instead I stood still and said, “Thank you.”

Relaxing his stance he said formally, “ You are welcome.”

Returning to the deep but narrow confines of research and PhDs, I investigated Eastern box turtles and seed germination/plant propagation. Make no mistake, this was not about confirming or refuting the elder. Real truths tend to be strong and stand the test of time because they reflect the coexistential/ observational/listening knowledge of Native Americans while at the same time upholding Western academic research. The great American Indian writer Robin Kimmerer outlines in her book “Gathering Sweetgrass” a poignant example of how American Indians noted goldenrods and asters tended to couple together well. Amazingly and frequently well. Western research later added that bees actually have a human-eye-like retinal appreciation for this color combination (the 2 colors leap out at human and bee retinas because they are complementary colors), and in turn led to a more productive team in the typical flower meadow because getting noticed by bees means more pollination, and more seed production.

Again, the truth will cross cultures, because it is the truth.

Or, as Kimmerer writes, “Might science and traditional knowledge be purple and yellow to one another, might they be goldenrods and asters? We see the world more fully when we use both.”

The PhDs agree that many plant seeds have enhanced germination if they pass through a box turtle’s digestive tract. The academic term for this symbiosis is saurochory, the dispersal of seeds by reptiles. (Who knew?) Some often cited plants that academia has confirmed can benefit from “turtle digestive prep” are mayapples, black cherry, summer grapes, pokeweed, and Jack-in-the-pulpit. Furthermore, black huckleberries, elderberries, mulberries, blackberries, and American persimmons can increase seed dispersal/germination when eaten by box turtles.

One other startlingly frequent fact was that for every article I saw that mentioned saurochory, almost invariably the word itself was prefaced by phrasing like “the little researched field”, or “ the fairly unknown field.” Indeed, saurochory reflect an entire ecological chain and little is known about this interface between reptiles and plants. We may even learn more about ourselves if we saw this interface more. Perhaps saurochory would be less obscure if indeed the world used purple and golden vision. We can always hope, but we need to hear voices from both sides to attain this clarity.


1. Dodd, C. Kenneth. North American Box Turtles. 2001 University of Oklahoma Press. A resplendent cornucopia of box turtle knowledge. Like any great scientist, Dodd ofne mention how little we indeed know about these amazing animals.

2. Marinelli, Janet. Box Turtles in the Garden. A thorough but succinct article including excellent tips we can all use to protect box turtles. From the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. 2017.

3. Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. This entire work is an amazing honor song to plants and indigenous wisdom.

4. A Beloved Haliwa-Saponi elder

5. The Creator

6. Picture IUCN Red List website

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