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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Habits of the Tortoise
By Gilbert White (1720–1793)
 
Letter to Hon. Daines Barrington: from ‘The Natural History of Selborne’

THE OLD Sussex tortoise that I have mentioned to you so often is become my property. I dug it out of its winter dormitory in March last, when it was enough awakened to express its resentments by hissing; and packing it in a box with earth, carried it eighty miles in post-chaises. The rattle and hurry of the journey so perfectly roused it, that when I turned it out on a border, it walked twice down to the bottom of my garden; however, in the evening, the weather being cold, it buried itself in the loose mold, and continues still concealed.  1
  As it will be under my eye, I shall now have an opportunity of enlarging my observations on its mode of life and propensities: and perceive already that towards the time of coming forth, it opens a breathing-place in the ground near its head; requiring, I conclude, a freer respiration as it becomes more alive. This creature not only goes under the earth from the middle of November to the middle of April, but sleeps great part of summer; for it goes to bed in the longest days at four in the afternoon, and often does not stir in the morning till late. Besides, it retires to rest for every shower, and does not move at all on wet days. When one reflects on the state of this strange being, it is a matter of wonder to find that Providence should bestow such a profusion of days, such a seeming waste of longevity, on a reptile that appears to relish it so little as to squander more than two-thirds of its existence in a joyless stupor, and to be lost to all sensation for months together in the profoundest of slumbers.  2
  When I was writing this letter, a moist and warm afternoon, with the thermometer at fifty, brought forth troops of shell-snails, and at the same juncture the tortoise heaved up the mold and put out his head: and the next morning came forth, as if raised from the dead; and walked about until four in the afternoon. This was a curious coincidence—a very amusing occurrence!—to see such a similarity of feelings between the two [Greek]; for so the Greeks call both the shell-snail and the tortoise.  3
  Because we call “the old family tortoise” an abject reptile, we are too apt to undervalue his abilities, and depreciate his powers of instinct. Yet he is, as Mr. Pope says of his lord,—
  “—much too wise to walk into a well;”
and has so much discernment as not to fall down a ha-ha: but to stop and withdraw from the brink with the readiest precaution.
  4
  Though he loves warm weather, he avoids the hot sun; because his thick shell when once heated would, as the poet says of solid armor, “scald with safety.” He therefore spends the more sultry hours under the umbrella of a large cabbage-leaf, or amidst the waving forests of an asparagus-bed.  5
  But as he avoids heat in the summer, so in the decline of the year he improves the faint autumnal beams by getting within the reflection of a fruit-wall; and though he never has read that planes inclining to the horizon receive a greater share of warmth, he inclines his shell, by tilting it against the wall, to collect and admit every feeble ray.  6
  Pitiable seems the condition of this poor embarrassed reptile: to be cased in a suit of ponderous armor which he cannot lay aside,—to be imprisoned, as it were, within his own shell,—must preclude, we should suppose, all activity and disposition for enterprise. Yet there is a season of the year (usually the beginning of June) when his exertions are remarkable. He then walks on tiptoe, and is stirring by five in the morning, and traversing the garden, examines every wicket and interstice in the fences, through which he will escape if possible; and often has eluded the care of the gardener, and wandered to some distant field.  7
 
 
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