Essay

After a Shelluva Life, Had He Seen Enough?

A zookeeper tends to Addwaita last June. The turtle had been at a Calcutta zoo since 1875, but was brought to India from the Seychelles in the 1700s.
A zookeeper tends to Addwaita last June. The turtle had been at a Calcutta zoo since 1875, but was brought to India from the Seychelles in the 1700s. (By Bikas Das -- Associated Press)
By John M. Whalen
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

One of the world's oldest living creatures died last week in Calcutta.

Addwaita, a tortoise believed to be 250 years old, died at the local zoo. The tortoise arrived there in 1875. Zoo officials, who have yet to definitively prove Addwaita's age, say he was one of four tortoises that had been brought to India more than a century earlier by British sailors from the Seychelles islands as a gift for Lord Robert Clive of the East India Co. Clive, who kept the turtle in his garden, was instrumental in establishing British colonial rule in India before he returned to England in 1767.

Reports said that the animal died of an infection from a crack in its underside.

Think about it. Addwaita the tortoise may have lived longer than the whole history of the United States. News reports indicated that the animal had never been sick until recently. Why did he die now, after all this time?

As I read the reports I could not help but remember a poem written by Don Marquis, who long ago wrote a daily column for the New York Evening Sun. Beginning in 1916, he published poems he claimed were actually written by archy the cockroach, who was a free verse poet reincarnated in the body of an insect. Every morning Marquis found a new poem in his typewriter banged out without punctuation or capitalization (he couldn't very well hold down the shift key, now could he?) the night before, by archy, who had to hurl himself from the platen onto the keys, one at a time.

One of archy's poems was called "archy and the old un." In this bizarre piece, archy said one of the saddest creatures he ever saw was a turtle who said he was a thousand years old. The turtle had been a pet of Charlemagne, and he finally committed suicide.

The turtle stood on his hind legs and "bit himself on the forehead" and held on until he died. The poem by archy opened with these lines:

why did he die perhaps he knew

too much about

the ways of men and turtles

he had seen too much no doubt

optimist in youth of course


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