Turtles All The Way Down

One of my favorite stories, probably apocryphal, is about a little old English lady at an astronomy lecture. The lecturer described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of an immense collection of stars––our galaxy––and gravity and centrifugal forces keep everything in its proper place.

At the end of the lecture our little old lady said, “You are wrong, young man. The world [being flat] is supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”

The lecturer asked her what, then, was the tortoise standing on.

Unfazed, she replied, “You think you are very clever young man, but it is turtles all the way down.”

This, arguably, is a cosmological system with more aesthetic appeal than spinning spheres. Continue reading

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The Tillum Gallery is in Mas, Bali, Indonesia, between the villages of Kuta and Ubud. It is in a typical Balinese home that seems to be only a garden until you understand the function of its many pavilions and small temples. A guide greets you at the gate and shows you the house, leading you past the seated wood carvers to the gallery at the back. There, among exquisitely carved wooden sculptures of Hindu deity, are carvings of Garuda––large, vicious looking, toothed and clawed birds that are transportation for the Hindu Gods. Garuda are often depicted with Lord Krishna riding on their back. I first learned about Garuda when I visited Indonesia in 1982.

In 1972 I attend the University of Oregon. Near where I lived in Eugene, at the edge of town, was a small park, Bodenberg Butte. It was a popular overlook with a parking lot on the back side away from the city lights and a steep, switchback trail up through large spruce to its summit. The year before I moved to Eugene I lived in a log cabin on a ridge above Fairbanks, Alaska and I hadn’t re-acclimated to cities well. I liked to climb to the top of the butte late at night when no one was there and sip hot tea that I brewed on a backpacking stove. I would sit with the woods at my back, look out over the city––often hazy through the typical Eugene drizzle––and enjoy the solitude.

One night the clouds lowered, the view disappeared, and it became pitch dark when it was time to descend. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, let alone the trail. The butte was steep and slippery and I worked my way straight down across the switchback trail in a crab walk on my hands, feet, and butt. It was slow, tedious, slippery, blind work.

When I was part way down the path and the trees lit up. I looked to the light’s source expecting to see a car’s headlights in the parking lot. Instead, I saw a giant, white, glowing bird soaring, on un-flapping wings, through the trees below me, lighting up the entire woods. It was at least 20 feet long with an even greater wingspan. It sent bursts of colored sparks from different parts of its glowing body like miniature, silent fireworks. It had a huge mouth and teeth; its feet, tucked up in flight, weren’t visible.

“Soaring” and “flight” are not descriptively accurate. The bird was only several feet off the ground and it was moving very slowly; only several miles an hour. It wasn’t aerodynamic flight.

“Through the trees”, though, is descriptively accurate. The bird’s wings passed right through some trees. Other times it disappeared entirely behind a tree and did not reappear until it came out on the far side of the next tree over, showing nothing between the two trees!

It was slowly turning it head––searching for me. I was scared and froze in place. After a minute or so the bird just faded out and I was left alone in the dark.

I didn’t learn that the bird I saw on the butte was a Garuda until a decade later at the Tillum Gallery. That was when I learned what a Garuda was and that they are transportation for Hindu Gods.

In Eugene, ten years earlier, I didn’t know the bird I stared at frozen in fear was a means of travel. I don’t profess to be a God, but I sometimes wonder if I had been summoned by One––and missed an important invitation.

If I ever see a Garuda again I am going to risk those teeth and climb on.

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