November and the Honorable Harvest




During November box turtles start digging burrows to descend into for the winter. Their habitat includes dry prairies and other open areas with sandy soils, allowing them to do this deep burrowing so they can avoid freezing. Their range is small, an area the size of two fotball fields. These amazing beings have been on this planet for over 200 million years. The ornate box turtle, pictured here, is one of only two terrestrial species native to the great plains of the United States, and this special turtle is listed as threatened in Illinois and of concern and protected in six other Midwestern states. I became intrigued by the humble box turtle during a compelling online presentation and discussion in October when Devin Edmonds spoke in response to an invitation of the Sierra Club's Coal Mining Issues Team. More about that later.

Edmonds enthusiastically shared his love of turtles and then asked participants if we could name the cause of their decline, offering possibilities like climate change, habitat loss, over-harvesting, predation, and road mortality. I was inclined to say habitat loss and was chagrined to learn that over-harvesting for the pet trade was the number one cause! So, after 200 million years on Earth, their time might be coming to an end mostly because human beings here and abroad want them as pets. Ouch.

It seems past time for us to embrace the Honorable Harvest code followed by native peoples as described in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass. Before harvesting anything, including air, water, and literal body of the earth: rocks and soil and fossil fuels, Natives peoples: ask permission and abide by the answer; never take the first nor the last; take only what is needed and only that which is given; never take more than half, leaving some for others; harvest in a way that minimizes harm; use what is harvested respectfully, and never waste what is been taken; give a gift in reciprocity for what has been taken; and commit to sustaining what is taken so the gift will last forever. My conclusion is that the pet trade represents a Dishonorable Harvest.


Why was our Coal Mining Issues Team sponsoring a session on ornate box turtles? The Deer Run Mine in Hillsboro, IL, has been granted an expansion permit allowing it to encroach on the habitat of the ornate box turtle. Kimmerer has this to say about coal mining: taking coal buried deep in the earth, for which we must inflict irreparable damage, violates every precept of the code. By no stretch of the imagination is coal “given” to us. We have to wound the land and water to gouge it from Mother Earth. Coal mining is one among many examples of Dishonorable Harvesting in our industrial age.

Edmonds concluded his presentation by responding to the question everyone had in mind: What can we do to help? He suggested that we teach people to avoid acquiring them for pets, thereby reducing demand. We can make our backyards and other lands turtle-friendly by providing native plants and a water source. If we have to mow, we can do it carefully, on the lookout for turtles at home. (Click here for more ideas.)

In addition to these practical suggestions, I wish we could cast off our deeply embedded human-centered perspective and take on an Earth-centered one, as Native people have modeled for us. Embracing their Honorable Harvest code would benefit our suffering planet in no small measure.

All of this information evoked in me the desire to integrate tenets of the Honorable Harvest in my daily life as well. Now to ponder what that would mean!

Photo: Thanks to Devin Edmonds


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