Home » A few figs from thistles » A meditation on death and turtles (Part 2)

A meditation on death and turtles (Part 2)

This column appeared in The Plantagenet on Saturday, August 29th, 2008. It is the other half of a piece Howard had written almost a year earlier, though he did not know it at the time that his story would have two chapters.

“A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor

Turtles and Muskrats…again

Last year I wrote here about the Muskrat Valley and two of its worthier species, the muskrat and the turtle, still found in our local waters. Both species figure prominently in the creation myths of other cultures, particularly the Hindu and the Iroquois.

Hindus believe the world was built on the back of a turtle, presumably a place of patience and imperturbability. The Iroquois go them one better: “Turtle Island,” a sanctuary created by the animals for humans to inhabit, was built of earth gathered from the ocean floor by the industrious muskrat, the only animal successful in that endeavor. Our local connection with both turtle and muskrat seems fortuitous, as it brings together two of the finer qualities: industriousness and patience or persistence. Admirable qualities each, and especially so when they come together in a single human life.

But the world became a little emptier this week.

Harold Russell Holt—Hal to most of us who knew him, and everybody did—has left the world of the living, and left it better than when he arrived eighty-eight years ago. I am better for it and so are you, though you may not have known his name or had the pleasure of his cantankerous company. Tuesday’s obituary will give you the facts of his life, the dates [1920-2008] and names and livelihood. But in Hal’s case the obituary format seems especially formulaic.

I have always known Hal, twenty-five years my senior, since my extended family made so much local history and Hal’s kept track of it. He, his mother Victoria Holt and his grandfather Malcolm Holt have been successive keepers of local history at the Fennimore County History Center, now so beautifully housed at the old Vakkerdahl place. That agricultural and local history facility has largely been the fruit of his efforts—of his patience and industry—and is become a model for the state. It is his legacy.

As an observer of the local scene (though not often enough a participant in it), I have habitually called upon Hal’s memory for names and dates and incidents in the colorful history of Agincourt, Fennimore County and the Muskrat Valley. And Hal has ever been forthcoming with those facts. But facts in isolation are merely ingredients in the recipe for a marvelous dish: until they are measured, proportioned, blended and baked—again, with industry and patience—we cannot fully enjoy their promise. Hal and the volunteers at the History Center have served up some wondrous fare; the nourishing history delivered there has been both tasty and satisfying.

I spent as much time as possible with Hal during his final illness and admire the persistence of character in that adversity. Death was near but knew better than speak up, or even clear its throat. Hal was never more cantankerous than in his religiosity; it seemed the one thing that genuinely irritated him. ‘My Christian friends,’ he would say, ‘tell me about their Heaven: endless Hosannas in the company of a bunch of Celestial ass kissers! Sounds like Hell to me.” He shared his vision of eternity; a mathematical perspective that harkens back to the fifth-grade and Miss Veronica Piper, (who taught us both).

“Eternity is going to be either an average or a median of my life,” he told me about a month ago. “Averages aren’t real; medians are. Either the sum total of your experience will be put in a blender and pulverized to a grey-green pulp—an average of everything you knew and did and were—and then you get to gulp a glass of it every day…forever. Or you’ll be privileged to occupy the median day of your life, a real day, one that you’ll remember. And from that place to view the full extent of your experience, high and low, sweet and savory, tart and bitter. Now that sounds like Heaven.”

Last year I tried to tell you about ‘Old ’88,’ the turtle who played such an odd role in the Holt family story. That story seemed then to have come full circle; to be complete. But the cycles of time have a way of fooling us. And that story wasn’t entirely over until last week. Like the turtle, Hal died in his native habitat, doing what he knew. He, too, was eighty-eight. And in his own cranky way, Hal’s ashes were scattered—illegally—last night at Gnostic Grove, the very place where Dr. Diane Stokes-Sanchez had found the shell of “Old ’88.” Hal’s DNA will mingle with the turtle’s for the rest of time.

gnostic grove

And a new boulder has joined the others in the Council Ring at Gnostic Grove. Except this one has an inscription: “Harold Russell Holt 1920-2008. He taught history and now he has become it.”


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