Exploring the art of prose


Following Floodlights Instead of the Moon by Gina DeMillo Wagner

alt text: image is a color photograph of baby turtles on a beach; title card for Gina DeMillo Wagner's Following Floodlights Instead of the Moon

Gina DeMillo Wagner’s “Following Floodlights Instead of the Moon” is one of three winners of the 2021 CRAFT Creative Nonfiction Award, judged by Ira Sukrungruang.

“Following Floodlights Instead of the Moon” beautifully weaves the story of an internship caring for baby sea turtles and a deep meditation on motherhood and womanhood and want. The essay moves through metaphor and meaning, and expertly juxtaposes the motherless journey of baby loggerheads, while the narrator negotiates the sometimes-thin line between nurture and abandonment.  —Ira Sukrungruang


The nature center has five baby sea turtles, each in their own 20-gallon saltwater tank. When I see them for the first time, I have to fight the impulse to plunge my hand into the water and scoop one up, cradle its body in my palm. I imagine the weight of it, like a silver dollar. Its skin like wet leather, tiny flippers tickling my fingers.

The lead scientist, a woman named Judy, has numbered them: 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6. She explains that she never names them, because we shouldn’t think of them as pets. “They’re wild,” she says. “Our job isn’t to love them. It’s to return them safely to the wild.”

It’s my senior year of college, and I’ve taken an unpaid internship caring for the young loggerhead sea turtles at a nature center near Athens, Georgia. I am studying wildlife biology and I’m drawn to vulnerable creatures, especially those that, due to their rapid decline in population, are on the national list of endangered species. Placement on the list makes it a federal crime to disturb the species and its habitat, to even touch it, without a special permit.

Loggerheads are among the most vulnerable, having lost more than 80 percent of their population in the past thirty years. But, vulnerability, I’ve learned, is not the same as fragility. Endangered species are not weak; they’ve been harmed. They’re at risk of further harm. They need a boost, someone to notice them, to care whether they live or die. This center is one of only a few places in the world permitted to rescue loggerhead hatchlings, to give them a head start.

I watch the turtles in their artificial habitats. The water rolls, like a pot nearly boiling, waves created by mechanical filters. Some of the babies are resting underwater, bubbles stroking their shells. Others zip around, breaking the surface with their flippers then diving to the bottom in search of food. They all came from the same nest, the same DNA, and yet they move and behave so differently.

“What happened to number 3?” I ask Judy, thinking maybe she’s made a mathematical mistake.

“We received half a dozen hatchlings,” she replies, gesturing to an empty tank in the corner of the room. “Number 3 arrived with a fungus on its nose and died a few days later. Suffocated.”

I search Judy’s face for a hint of sadness or regret, but she is calm. She dips a long glass thermometer into one of the tanks, squints to read the temperature, and jots it down in a notebook.

Loss, I realize, is part of the job.

I, on the other hand, hear each syllable of the word suff-o-cate-ed and feel a sharp pang in my chest. The turtle would have suffered. Loggerheads can hold their breath for hours at a time, but they do eventually need to break the surface and inhale.

I glance back at the other turtles bobbing around their tanks, their beady eyes following our movement behind the glass. It will be hard not to love them.

In preparation for the internship, I read every reptile guidebook and oceanography journal I could find at the university library. Sitting at a long oak table with leather-bound volumes fanned open around me, I learned how a female loggerhead migrates thousands of miles from her feeding grounds to lay eggs on the exact beach where she hatched. She navigates in ways the most brilliant marine biologists don’t fully understand. It’s thought she uses something called geomagnetic imprinting, sensing the pull of the earth’s magnetic field underwater. Her homeland leaves a signature in the position of the moon and stars, the rise and fall of the tides, subtle differences in the water’s temperature and salinity, the slope of the ocean floor.

This means that a loggerhead’s superpower is also its greatest vulnerability. Human activity (fishing, cruise ships), smog-filled skies, warming seas, and artificial lights on the shoreline throw off their internal GPS. The nesting females can’t find their way, and even if they do make it to the beach and lay eggs, many hatchlings get lost between the nest and the surf, following floodlights instead of the moon.

We call them nesting females and not mothers. Once they lay a clutch of eggs and bury it, their job is done. No mothering happens. No nursing. No teaching the babies how to find food, how to escape the talons of an osprey or jowls of a shark. Females deposit the eggs, then return to the water’s depths. A sort of prescribed abandonment.

My mother often said she didn’t want to be a mother, an opinion of hers that became the guiding principle of my childhood. I should have never had kids! she’d shout every time she tripped over one of my dolls on the floor. Every time we ran out of milk. Every time bill collectors called, and she slammed the phone’s green handset against the wall. Every time a boyfriend dumped her. Every time my father forgot to pick us up for visitation.

Sometimes, she’d laugh about it. My kids are killing me, she’d say to the bank teller while my brother grabbed fistfuls of free lollipops from a jar on the counter. People would chuckle. It was an inside joke she enjoyed with other mothers who felt suffocated by their responsibility to care for the beings they created.

My kids are killing me. My developing brain tried to make sense of the idea that I could murder my mother by simply existing. As I got older, I came to understand better what she meant. I wasn’t killing her in the literal sense. It was that my incessant needs—for food, for love, for safety—chipped away at her existence, her sense of self. She had given birth to me and my brothers but lacked the energy or capacity to mother us.

The sex of each baby turtle depends entirely on the ambient temperature of the eggs in the nest. If incubation happens under 85 degrees Fahrenheit, the hatchlings are predominantly male. Over 85 degrees, they are female.

I lie awake thinking about this. Curled up in my twin-size bed, I stare at a streetlight flickering outside my apartment window and consider the idea that if you heat a creature up to a certain degree, it becomes female. I wonder what it means—to the turtles, to humans—when you define male as cool and female as warm. The implications extend beyond the physiological—core body temperature—to the attributes we associate with warmth, which are more often assigned to women. A nurturing touch. A welcoming smile. Hospitality. Friendliness. Is there space in the world, in the nest, inside an egg, for males to aspire to be warm? Or is warmth always gendered, even in the wild?

And what about the implications of climate change on this phenomenon? As the earth warms, so does the sand. And the eggs buried within the sand. What happens then? Do only female turtles survive? Or does the heat exterminate them, like a scorching rage? The world condemns a hot, angry, aggressive woman. And yet, it is a focused temper, a fire in the belly, that activates humans to change. What if not anger and heartbreak led the scientists to the beaches to turn off the lights, clean up the trash, and rescue the hatchlings?

I pull a quilt over my head to block out the streetlight, but I still hear the distant hum of a city bus, cars swooshing through rain puddles, voices on the sidewalk, students stumbling home from the bars.

Somewhere out in the dark, featureless depths of the ocean, a nesting female is swimming, unaware that motherhood can be anything except transactional. She makes a pact, not with her offspring, but with nature, with the species as a whole. She comes ashore and deposits hundreds of eggs like leather ping-pong balls under the sand. Fewer than 1 percent survive.

Instinct is a prescribed pattern of behavior, written into an organism’s DNA over many generations. It’s innate, but it’s also learned. Scientists agree that instinct is not simply the body on autopilot. It calls upon genetic, behavioral, developmental, cognitive, and social influences. The turtle swims where it swims and abandons its eggs in a precise location because her nervous system tells her to, but also because that is what other turtles do. That’s what was done to her. She’s triggered by hormones and changes in season and the act of a male detecting and fertilizing her eggs. There’s no emotion in instinct, and yet there’s an evolutionary, intergenerational sense of obligation.

In the liminal space between awake and asleep, I pull my covers up tight and wonder what mothers really owe to their children, to one another, to the ecosystem, or world at large.

My body temperature runs cold: 97.3, sometimes 97.5. Someday I’ll understand that there’s a reason for this. A therapist will explain to me the neurobiology of trauma, how years of childhood fear and neglect accumulates in the body. How it’s forced my metabolism into a semipermanent state of freeze. Imagine a stunned bunny, immobile, holding its breath, waiting for the danger to pass. Now imagine the danger never passes. Does the bunny ever relax? Or does the nervous system rewire itself so it can move forward, albeit in a diminished way?

For now, it’s a source of amusement for me and my friends. Sitting in a sunlit courtyard on campus, I shiver under a thick hooded sweatshirt while they appear perfectly comfortable in T-shirts and shorts. They call me a lizard, their cold-blooded pet. They offer me a flask of bourbon to warm me up from the inside.

My boyfriend brings me a plaid flannel shirt to wear on our dates. I slip it on over my little black dress as we walk to our favorite Italian restaurant downtown. He helps me roll the cuffs above my wrists. This action is less chivalry and more self-motivation. He says he hates the look of goosebumps on my arms, the translucency of my skin, the way I tend to hug myself and rub my hands across my biceps. You look sick, he says. By this, I think he means I look weak.

It would be easy to assume I’m with him because I’m young or naïve or afraid of being alone. But I am none of these things. I’ve been old since I was young. I am vigilant and wise. And I love solitude. Alone is where I tend to feel safest, because when I’m by myself there’s no one else to care for but me.

I’m with him, the boyfriend, because my body is still cold. I say him or the boyfriend. He is the proxy by which I think I can warm myself. For a time, in his presence, I believe I can thaw and grow and awaken to my own feelings and needs. I can reach that magical temperature at which I become a woman. And by that, I mean womanly. I want to be a strong female, to evolve past the tender, frightened child I once was. I don’t yet know whether I am born of heat or whether I need an external source like the sand. But I long more than anything to break my shell and step out into the world as a woman, and I think he can help me.

Maybe it’s true then that I am naïve.

If I had to guess, I’d say Judy is in her early forties. Too old to be my sister, not old enough to be my mother. (At least not my mother now, though her features remind me of my mother long ago.) She has short, feathered, salt-and-pepper hair, freckles across her nose, and frown lines between her eyebrows that make her seem serious and unknowable. She wears a biologist’s uniform: khaki pants, sensible sneakers, and a green button-down shirt with a turtle embroidered across the breast. Her ID badge hangs from her neck on a shoestring like a necklace.

I watch Judy measure and mix liquid vitamins into the turtle food with a small eyedropper. Her precision and patience impress me. I ask her if I can give it a try, and she hands me the vial of serum and dropper. “Gentle,” she says, “you don’t want to add too much.” When my fingers start to shake, she clasps her hand over mine, steadying me. “You’re doing just fine,” she says.

I ask her if she sees herself as a surrogate parent to the turtles and she looks at me, puzzled. “I’m just giving them a hand up, helping the species.” This work is routine to her, I realize, as if helping creatures survive is as natural as brushing her teeth.

The boyfriend thinks I don’t know what I want. I’m unfocused, he says. In addition to wildlife biology, I’m studying English—literature and creative writing. He sees how hard I’m studying, how I’ve earned prestigious scholarships in both science and the arts. Still, he thinks it’s a waste. Pick one track, he says. You’re making things unnecessarily difficult on yourself.

He means I’m making things difficult on him. I study most evenings instead of going out. I discuss topics he doesn’t understand—environmental sociology, animal biometrics. I debate Darwinism versus creationism in Victorian novels. When I ask him what he thinks, his eyes glaze over. I don’t fit his template for a girlfriend, for a woman.

What he doesn’t see is how closely the two are related. Biology and literature. Aren’t both dealing in data and stories? Isn’t the currency all the same: love, loss, survival, desire? Can you not break down forces of nature into narrative elements just as much as you reduce them to their organic components? Water. Wind. Fire. Earth.

Who are the protagonists? The antiheroes? Predators and prey? What forces act against them? What events drive the story? What is at stake? How do organisms change over time, through the generations?

Judy is the only female scientist at the nature center. She’s also openly gay in a time and space where queerness is not only rejected, but often feared. I love this singularity, this authenticity. I’m drawn to her self-awareness, her confidence, her strength and trailblazing and intelligence. She embodies a unique kind of heat in an environment that is characteristically cool. On Thursdays everyone gathers around her while she reports the turtles’ progress. She presents data in colorful charts and graphs, her laser pointer moving swiftly over the lines and numbers. She speaks the language of biology: salinity, acidity, blood plasma, hematocrits, weight-to-length ratios, probability of survival. I watch the male scientists’ faces; they’re rapt. She eventually publishes her findings in the same scientific journals I read at the library.

In the presence of Judy and the turtles, I feel grounded and safe. I am integrated, the child in me standing alongside the woman I’m becoming. I am real. I have purpose. Part of this groundedness comes from the work, which requires concentration and precision. Measuring out the food in ounces, recording it in the logbook. Administering vitamins and using a little green net to skim any algae and feces that accumulate in the water. There’s little room for me to feel timid or doubt anything while I’m working. My body and mind are fully occupied.

I’m not sure if it’s her age, her leadership role at the center, her innate drive to help the turtles, or her casual declaration of queerness, but I sense that Judy has solved a puzzle I’m still wrestling with, that she’s untied a knot that I’m still tangling. She knows who she is, her sense of worth, and—perhaps most striking to me—in the face of adversity, she generates her own kind of warmth, of femininity.

Scientists understand that instincts can evolve, but they can’t say exactly how, except that the process requires time and a focused effort. The behavioral and cognitive centers of our body have to override other systems that were formed when we were children. If we’re abandoned very young, we tend to abandon ourselves. If we’re raised in an environment that invalidates us, one that causes us to question who we are and what our worth is, we’ll naturally gravitate toward people and situations that continue this invalidation—not because we’re dumb, but because our brains are extraordinarily wired for familiarity. Our nervous system confuses familiar with safe.

I can’t verbalize it yet to myself, let alone to the boyfriend, but I know I am not unfocused, and I’m not weak. I am the opposite of weak. I have survived to adulthood. It’s just that the adrenaline hasn’t fully cleared. The nerves are still rewiring. My brain hasn’t yet informed my body that I’m safe now, all on my own. I am already female.

Until then, I shiver.

When I was six, I found my mother sweaty and pale, crumpled on the kitchen floor sobbing, muttering repeatedly that she wanted to die. She sounded so desperate, so emphatic. She looked so small there on the ground, the kitchen dark except for a sliver of moonlight, her body in shadow. I thought if she willed herself to die, she would actually sink into the brown linoleum and disappear forever.

If I was heartbroken by this scene, I can’t remember.

I became laser-focused, vigilant. What could I do to relieve her pain? How do I get her to safety?

If there was an agreement, a mutual understanding of the surrogate relationship, it was implicit. The terms were never negotiated. My mother resigned. I grabbed her arm, pulled her off the floor, and escorted her to her bedroom, where she slept for hours, for days, for years. Everything will be okay, I said. I’m here.

I became the mother.

Any painful feelings I had, any desire for being nurtured, I tucked carefully away. There wasn’t room in the house for my terror or grief. My job description was clear: Cook dinner. Wash dishes. Kiss my brother’s forehead at night. Go to my mother’s room. Place a hand on her belly to see if she’s still breathing. Tuck her in. Put myself to bed. Don’t need too much. Wake and repeat. This is how we would all survive.

Looking back, I wonder if we all weren’t just hatchlings, abandoned, longing to be rescued.

The turtles need food. After a few weeks, they recognize the sound of my voice. When I enter the room and exclaim, “Hey little buddies,” they mobilize, swimming to the nearest edge of their tanks, knocking their tiny beaks on the glass. One of them, number 4, uses its flipper to splash me, to get my attention, though they already have it. I’m spellbound, obsessed with their beauty and intelligence, their amber-colored eyes and heart-shaped shells.

They know what they want, and they aren’t afraid to demand it. And so, I feed them bits of raw squid, slimy and cold from the refrigerator. With metal tongs, I lower the food into their tanks. In turn, they let me stroke their leathery heads. Their little eyelids close, like mine do when a hairstylist massages my scalp. Their flippers relax. They aren’t frozen in fear. They’re satiated.

When the turtles relax, I feel myself relax too.

The internship, the lab, begins to feel like a second home. I come in on one of my days off just to be with the turtles. I bring a bag of snacks with me—fancy cheeses and buttery crackers, fresh fruit and Pepperidge Farm cookies. All things I craved as a child but couldn’t afford. I use my excess scholarship funds to indulge in these small pleasures. Stuff that other moms freely gave to their children. While the turtles eat, I eat too. I sit on the black countertop in the science lab, listening to the soothing hum of the saltwater filters as I savor these treats. Warmth spreads across my belly. Tension evaporates from my neck. My chest opens, and I breathe deeper than I have before. On the radio, the local college station plays a mix of indie rock and punk. The beats sound rebellious and intoxicating. I turn up the music for the turtles, for me, and dance around the tanks.

Over the next several weeks, as the turtles grow larger, I begin to feed them more challenging foods. Sea snails. Crabs. If they are to survive in the wild, they’ll need to learn how to use their powerful jaws to pop oyster shells open, how to hook the flesh with their beaks. Their growing strength also means I have to be more cautious around them. I pick them up by their carapaces and keep my hands away from their mouths. They could snap my finger like a twig, Judy warns. To care for them properly, I need to care for myself.

This is mothering too, isn’t it? Equipping the vulnerable to face life’s challenges, teaching them to protect and nurture themselves. Mothering is not removing the possibility of danger and pain. It’s loving the child through it. It’s a slow release of a tether. It’s trusting that you’ve given them enough of yourself, that they’ve internalized care so much that they are empowered to tend to their own needs.

One day, the boyfriend asks if he can visit me at my internship. We’re sitting on his front porch swing, and I’ve just turned down his invitation to spend the day at a boozy country music festival. His roommates are inside the house, drinking beer, watching football and shouting at the television screen.

“I need to go to the lab,” I say. “It’s my day to weigh the hatchlings.” I hate his taste in music and am coming to realize that I don’t enjoy his company either. I struggle to remember why I was attracted to him in the first place. I feel my body inching away from him. I pull my jacket tighter around my chest.

“Okay, then, let me come with you,” he replies. He says he wants to meet the turtles. He wants to see where I’m spending so much time.

His request feels intrusive, voyeuristic. The turtles are mine, I think. Though I know that’s not the case. They belong to no one. They belong to themselves. But nonetheless, I feel protective of them…and of me. At least, the parts of me that surface when I am with them.

The lab is my nest, my own incubation chamber. Though I can’t yet put words to it, something is happening there. A transformation that I don’t want him to be a part of.

I lie and tell him visitors aren’t allowed. It will disturb the wildlife, I say, introducing someone new to their already fragile ecosystem. “We’re preparing them for an existence with less human interaction, not more.” I stand up, kiss him on the cheek, and leave.

A small act of rebellion. A boundary, even. But not quite the same as expressing a need.

When Judy is down the hall in her office, out of earshot, I start calling sea turtle number 4 by the name “Caretta,” another small act of rebellion.

I remember Judy’s warning—we’re not here to love them—but I am growing attached. I convince myself that it’s all part of the science. Caretta caretta is the official Latin name for loggerhead sea turtles. I think I’m being clever, that I’ve found a nomenclature loophole. I have not named the turtle, because it has already been named. Caretta has a nice ring to it. It’s fitting because number 4 is feisty, sassy, and even a little bossy. All the things I imagine someone named Caretta might be.

Caretta is the largest of the babies by several inches, outpacing her siblings by eating more and swimming faster. She snatches her food the moment it hits the water and dives to the bottom of her tank to protect herself while gobbling it down. Then, she rises to the surface and splashes me, demanding more.

Caretta has no English translation. If Caretta were to appear in the dictionary, it would fall somewhere near the words caress and caretaker.

Growing up, I called my mother by her first name—not Mommy or Mom, or even Mother. She rarely called me or my brothers by name either. We were “those damn kids.” Sometimes I was “the girl” and my brothers “the boys.” At her lowest points, as I forced her upright in bed to eat, as I removed her bathrobe and pushed her into the shower, turned on the hot water and aimed it at her back, I was “the selfish bitch.” As in, Leave me alone, you selfish bitch. Just let me die.

A strange thing happens after I name Caretta. I find it difficult to leave her. Every afternoon, when my shift at the nature center ends, I walk slowly to my car, climb into the driver’s seat, rest my forehead on the hot, sunbaked steering wheel, and weep.

Why am I crying? I wonder. Surely it’s not about a silly little turtle. Maybe I miss her, just a little bit. Maybe it’s the thought of her all alone in that tank, her siblings out of reach, no mother in sight. I tell myself I’m fearful for her survival, for the fate of the species at large. This is empathy, I think. It’s what makes me good at my job. Or perhaps my sadness is related to the job itself, the weight of the unknown. My internship will end before the turtles are big enough to be released into the ocean. I have nurtured these babies and will not get the satisfaction of seeing their emancipation. Whether they succeed or fail isn’t up to me after all. In the end, they still might die.

Of course, someday I’ll understand the pain is much deeper. As I drive the winding, tree-lined road back to my apartment on campus, I am slowly backing away from the fire. I have felt what it means to inhabit myself—not just physically or intellectually, but emotionally. I have thawed. I want to stay this temperature forever.

The grief, I realize, is decades of exiled emotion coursing through me, rising and falling like ocean waves. It’s finding my footing. It’s a letting go of the outcome. It’s a release of the questions I’ll never be able to answer. It’s an understanding that I have done all I can do for today, and now I must leave.

If you ask me how I survived my childhood, I’ll tell you it was by a thousand tiny dislocations. Every day I traveled from one ecosystem, my childhood home, to another ecosystem, my school, where there were adults who noticed me, who fed me, who gently untangled knots from my unkempt hair, gathered it into one smooth ponytail and tied it with a piece of yarn. Sometimes I played at other kids’ houses, where their mothers made peanut butter sandwiches and asked me if I preferred mine cut into rectangles or triangles, an option I’d never considered. Did one shape taste better than the other?

Caretta and the other turtles must go through a dislocation—from beach to laboratory—to survive. This is their trauma, which is the result of a much bigger trauma humans have inflicted upon the species as a whole. Is it not systemic abuse, when we traumatize vulnerable populations and then offer them a weak form of comfort and safety afterward? We hurt them and then write their names on a list of creatures we have hurt. In that way, they are dependent on us, forever caught in a cycle of harm.

How many mothers abandon their children because their mothers abandoned them? How many iterations does abandonment go through before it becomes written into DNA, imprinted like the magnetism of the tides, a generational pattern of survival?

One day I show up for work during a lightning storm. Rain is pounding the metal roof. Thunder shakes the walls. I find Judy in the lab testing the pH levels of the water in the turtle tanks. She’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt, not her usual uniform. Her hair is tucked into a knit cap. Her face looks relaxed, softer, younger somehow. She’s using a glass pipette to collect droplets of water and squeezing them onto a small strip of paper. With each drop, the liquid spreads like a watercolor painting, leaving a trail of pinks and blues that Judy compares to a chart on the wall. She jots down numbers on a clipboard we keep next to the turtle tanks. I think I catch her smiling, pleased with the results, perhaps, or maybe relieved to see a measure of the turtles’ good health, their growth and progress.

A particularly loud clap of thunder makes us jump. I grab Judy’s sleeve to steady myself. She wraps her arm around my shoulders, squeezes me, and laughs.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” she says. “Relax. You’re safe. It’s only nature showing off.”

Science and stories are colliding in the sky.

In a few months, I’ll graduate college and the internship will end. The boyfriend and I will sit across from each other at the same Italian restaurant we always go to downtown. I’ll hand him back his flannel shirt, suddenly aware that I don’t need it anymore. That I feel warm. That I’ve felt warmer for a long time now. His face, pale and round, will look confused, dumbfounded. I’ll be unable to explain it, to make him understand, but deep down I’ll know that his is the light I shouldn’t be following.

Sweat from our water glasses will pool on the red-and-white checkered tablecloth, and I won’t feel hungry anymore. I’ll stand up, walk out the door and into the humid night air.

In the beginning, before my internship began, sandwiched between marine biology journals at the library, I found a book about the role of turtles in myth and legend. The book itself was a dislocation, shelved in the science section instead of literature or fiction. Or perhaps, like me, someone working at the library had seen the ways biology and literature intersect.

According to Chinese mythology, sea turtles represent wisdom or inner knowing. A turtle is steadfast and strong, tenacious, able to carry the weight of the world on its back.

Another legend from Hawai’i told the story of a female sea turtle that could change herself into a human woman to watch over all the children playing on the beach. When the turtle digs her nest, a freshwater spring bubbles up, quenching the children’s thirst. By meeting the humans’ needs, this one turtle becomes the mythical mother and protector of everyone on land and under the sea.

As a teenager, I began to wonder what it would mean to abandon my mother, to trade my childhood environment for something entirely new. What if I stopped trying so hard to keep her alive? I wondered whether there’d been some cosmic mistake, whether I really belonged somewhere else, under the care of these other mothers or teachers or friends or any nurturing woman I met. Or maybe under the care of myself.

My childhood house was cold. At seventeen, when a friend offered me a cozier spot, a bed in her basement, I took it. I ran away and never looked back.

My survival came from a dislocation of self, but it was also a sort of exile. I exiled the pieces of me that wanted or needed the things that were out of reach. Comfort. Parenting. Protection. Maternal love. So much so that I struggled to recognize those gifts when they were offered to me, and I failed to learn that I could offer them to myself.

In all my questioning, all my research, I never asked Judy how exactly the turtles got there. Were they taken from their nests while they were still cocooned inside their leathery eggs? Or did the scientists wait until they’d already hatched and were clawing their way toward the surf to intercept them?

Maybe I never asked because I was afraid to look at the trauma of it. The abandonment and dislocation. No one could change the past. What mattered was our response to it.

Maybe I accepted that we were doing good for them in that artificial environment. The dislocation in and of itself could be a form of nurture. Their temporary captivity, the distance we took them from their ecosystem, that departure from their true selves, was necessary for them to become stronger and more capable of surviving in a vast, raging ocean.

It’s more palatable to believe that we humans were the heroes of the story. But it was the turtles doing the hard work to survive.

Years later, I like to imagine those baby turtles I cared for, now sturdy adults, swimming laps in the Atlantic Ocean. Their brain cells, their DNA hold the biological imprint of our time together. They embody everything, the tender parts and warrior parts. They are female and male, warm and cool, mother and child. Endangered and free.

These days, when I visit the beach, I look for their tracks. I close my eyes and listen to the waves. I feel the sand pucker and shift beneath my feet. I try to guess the temperature. I sense the magnetic pull.


GINA DEMILLO WAGNER lives and works near Boulder, Colorado. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Memoir Magazine, Modern Loss, Self, Outside, and other publications. She has a master’s degree in journalism and is cofounder of Watershed creative writing and art workshops. She recently completed a memoir and is working on an essay collection. Follow her work on Instagram @ginadwagner.


Featured image by Pedro Novales courtesy of Unsplash


Author’s Note

This essay takes place in the late 1990s, when I was an undergraduate studying wildlife biology and literature. There was a unique tension and urgency I felt during that period of my life—tension that was driven by external pressure to choose a specialty, but also internal pressure to figure out who I was and what I wanted as I crossed the threshold into adulthood. I had largely raised myself, but still longed for some external force to guide and nurture me.

It all came to a head my senior year when I took on a demanding internship caring for sea turtle hatchlings while also writing a thesis, building a creative writing portfolio, and having an existential crisis about who I was dating.

I decided to time travel a bit and write about these events in present tense, because many of the themes and questions I held back then feel relevant today.

In a sense, this essay is an experiment within an experiment. I experimented with form while chronicling the turtle-rearing process. I interrogated concepts like gender and motherhood. I tested my hypothesis that science and literature are more similar than not by weaving them together. And, I invited the reader into an experiment to see if they might feel warmer as they moved through the prose, whether they’d be distracted by the boyfriend like I was, or if I could lead them to a more grounded place by the end of the story.

In their purest forms, science and literature are born from curiosity. Biology seeks to define the world, while literature is a way of experiencing the world (or making sense of our experiences in the world). Like the laboratory, the blank page became an incubator for questions I’ve wrestled with for years: What does it mean to survive? To thrive? What do mothers really owe to their children? In the absence of parents, where do we find nurturing and guidance? Where and to whom do we really belong?


GINA DEMILLO WAGNER lives and works near Boulder, Colorado. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Memoir Magazine, Modern Loss, Self, Outside, and other publications. She has a master’s degree in journalism and is cofounder of Watershed creative writing and art workshops. She recently completed a memoir and is working on an essay collection. Follow her work on Instagram @ginadwagner.