At the time I was President of the New Paltz Gardens for Nutrition, the oldest continuous community gardens in the State of New York. We had a monthly printout we used to talk about various ideas and incidents we encountered, and I wrote a story each month as my contribution.
I had gotten into the habit of growing diverse peppers. That year I had spotted some unusual seeds from a small, esoteric seed company. One of the six offered in a set came from Peru and were said to be unusually spicy and hot. I was intrigued, and when my pre-started seedlings appeared to be healthy, I planted three of them in my gardens after the weather warmed.
The bushes had grown to about 3 feet tall and were busy with glossy leaves. I was proud of them and looked forward to an early fall harvest. Then one day I came to inspect the gardens and water and the first thing I saw was that the pepper leaves had holes in them, good size holes. I looked for insect damage, unusual in hot peppers; I looked for slugs. There was nothing I could see. I sprayed them hard with hose water, and came back a few days later to look again. This time half of each leaf had been attacked. My neighbor was there that day and I asked her if she knew what was doing this. She smiled. “The turtle,” she said.
“What?” I was incredulous. She shrugged.
It was three days later that I saw him. I had parked in our parking lot and when I got out of the car I saw some movement coming out of the marsh half a football field away. What was that? It moved slowly, very slowly as I recall, walking in my direction. I waited. As it approached, I realized it was a turtle, maybe 200 years old with the marshland growing on its back. Three foot long and almost as wide. It stopped about ten feet from me and made a slow right turn, one foot at a time, and headed down the aisle, directly towards the peppers.
I decided to take action. Trotting, I took a position in front of the creature, and stood my ground. He stopped for a moment, then took another step. I put my hands up to make it clear I wasn’t moving. He advanced once more. I stomped on the ground. I was indignant. These were my peppers.
A pause in the conversation. He looked up. And then a sigh came out of the turtle, the deepest sigh I had ever heard. It was a sound of resignation, of defeat. Slowly, he turned and walked back to where he had come from, disappearing into the marsh. He was never to be seen again.
Some time later I was thinking over the incident. It seemed unimaginable. What would drive such a creature to the Peruvian peppers. How had he even found them? Had he smelled them? Been roaming the garden and happened upon them? And why come back every other day to have some. Was it life saving? An herb, a medication, so rarely found that there was nothing comparable and thus worth the trek. It must have been. Could he have been so old and so knowledgeable. Who knows the mysteries of nature. And then it hit me. Unexpectedly.
How could I justify my response. Yes I had defended my peppers, but really. At what cost? I no longer felt valiant; I felt . . . so deeply sad. It was I who had failed. I renamed the story — Meeting with the Buddha in the Road.