Turtle Island

As a boy on vacation in the interior of British Columbia, I decided one summer to christen Turtle Island.

Turtle Island wasn’t truly an island. It was a “dead head,” a log submerged and floating on Lake Kalamalka not far from the cottage my family rented two weeks every year. Turtle Island was home to a couple of turtles who used it as a place to sun themselves. My idea, if a 7 year old boy can be said to have ideas, was to row out to the dead head, break a bottle over it, and say, “I declare this Turtle Island.”

There were several things wrong with my plan. First of all, it crossed two forms of ritual: christening a ship and claiming land. I was christening land. Rituals are particular about the details and I had got them wrong. Second, it wasn’t clear who my audience was. For some reason, I wanted to stage my ritual very early in the morning while everyone slept. Normally, a ritual has observers who validate the proceedings by bearing witness to them. My ritual would be seen by no one. Third, it wasn’t clear who the beneficiaries would be: Blue Water Lodge? My family and me? Turtles everywhere? Normally, rituals speak for someone. Mine appeared to carry on a conversation with itself.

My mother, acting as an uninvited ritual officer, suggested one small modification: that in deference to the turtles, it might be better to fill the bottle with lake water and drop it in the vicinity of the Island. This was disappointing because much of the point of the exercise was to give a small boy an excuse to break something. But I agreed to accommodate the turtle point of view. More difficulty! Now the ritual wasn’t even going to proceed according to my dubious plan.

But things went forward. Very early one morning, I rowed out into the perfect stillness of Lake Kalamalka. I heard two silvery “plops” as islanders took refuge. I coasted up to the deadhead, filled the bottle with water, tapped it on the “island” twice, and let go. As the dark green Seagram’s bottle descended to the lake floor, I intoned, in a piping voice, “I declare this Turtle Island.”

I was generally pleased with the event. I hadn’t got to break anything but I felt I had participated in something if not grand, at least worthy. But I cannot claim “ritual efficacy” for my little ceremony. My sisters and mother, with some prompting, are prepared to say they remember, “that, um, island” and, under duress of badgering (“you could at least try”), even the name “Turtle Island.”

But that was it. Nothing changed, really. The island remained a dead head. “Turtle Island” failed to make it into the registry of local place names. I think it’s safe to assume the turtles were unimpressed. (That summer I gave them significant looks as I rowed past. They would return that reptilian blink that is, I think, unreadable.) My ritual left no trace in memory. It had no “transformative” effect.

Reference and source:

McCracken, Grant. 2008. Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. here.

8 thoughts on “Turtle Island

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  2. Matt

    This is about rituals too. I recently became an American Citizen. I now live in the states and want to vote, so applied. People asked me if I had to renounce my Canadian Citizenship. The question always struck me as bizarre, but so many asked that I reversed the question. I asked them to describe the ritual. To whom would I denounce my citizenship? Would i stand on the corner of Yonge and Bloor and do it? How about a corner in Buffalo? Would I tell the people in the US, or would I have to go to Parliament in Ottawa? And would they even listen? Or would they consider me a nutjob?

    Most agreed, upon considering the ritual, that their question was absurd. A few kept on, noting that they didn’t think one could be duel.

    I didn’t have the heart to tell them I’m British too.

  3. El Gaffney

    My takeaway was a bit different: A Super Bowl spot is rarely the right solution to a brand problem…even if followed by a continuity print plan. Regardless, enjoyed the story.

  4. kcs

    “My ritual left no trace in memory. It had no “transformative” effect.” WTF (that is meant as a complement)?

    You are writing about it now, may I guess that life has taken you on many paths since that point on “Turtle Bay” and you are writing about it now? So the event left a trace in memory and had a transformative effect. Even if the memories of others about the event is coherced, the cohersion continues the original event. It was your place thereafter. It transformed the place from vacation into something about family hierarchy and gender, you being a boy and youngest your sisters being girls and older (it sounds like). But maybe it does not have all of the elements of a ritual. It happened once. But it did have a chain of events. You do mention the bottle was a Segram’s – what does that name mean or feel like now?

    I just read a book about ritual by Collins 2004 which is interesting and will be part of my dissertation.

    Ah, children can feel so lonely sometimes. I liked the nostalgia of this post, the way it reminded me of childhood, and how we look back on it. All children like turtles, perhaps because they are mysterious and small. The shell. Retreating. Evolution. Sea turtles.
    They are not like dogs and cats.

  5. Grant McCracken

    Just to clarify. This essay is in the book as a way of introducing that “new age” tendency to make up one’s own myths and rituals. Now, it turns out these things don’t have to descend to us from time out of mind to work pretty convincingly. We can reinvent the marriage ceremony and even write our own vows, and the wedding ceremony works like a ceremony. But it is also true we sometimes can create ritual and myth and all we do it make a hash of things. Some of these acts of cultural invention don’t take. Like my Turtle Island exercise. Thanks for the comments. Sorry to have been unclear. Grant

  6. Tim Dawes

    I heard an interview with Tony Horwitz about his new book, ‘A Voyage Long and Strange’ which chronicles the exploration of America that occurred before Jamestown. In the interview, Tony talks about Columbus coming to the Americas, though not to the US. And his comments reminded me of a chapter of a book in which Steven Greenblatt, I think, talks about how strange it was for Columbus to enact the ritual claiming the West Indes for the Queen believing as he said he did that he had arrived not in a new world at all but in India.

    Any thoughts on how to make sense of that?

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