Recently, a friend and I took an impromptu Sunday-drive-on-a-Saturday to the countryside southeast of Raleigh, past the homesteads where my grandparents used to live and my parents were raised.

My mother’s family’s property consists of about 12 wooded acres, a couple of barns and shelters, and the old house. It was rented out after my grandmother died and it is falling into disrepair under a thick blanket of ivy. My father’s family’s property is about twice as large and is closely cared for by my uncle, who lives in one of the houses there. He happened to be out working on one of the barns when we stopped by, so we visited with him briefly. He showed us around his garden, telling us with pride and in painstaking detail, the name of every plant, when he’d planted it and why.

Being the eldest of four grandchildren–and the only grandchild on my mother’s side of the family–it will likely fall to me to assume responsibility for these places someday. That is, if they stay in the family. My father has talked about selling his portion, but so far has not taken action. My mother and her brother have also talked about doing the same with their land, but they’ve come to no decision.

I have told my parents that it would be better for them to go ahead and sell. Without being certain about where I want to live, I’d hate to have them keep the land just for me. Raleigh’s not exactly a bustling metropolis, but I do like being close to people I love and places I like to go in the city. I have only a 10-minute bike commute to work. I appreciate nature, but I’ve thus far not found it in my heart to live too far outside an urban center.

But something happened on our recent weekend drive that made me reflect more closely on my relationship to the natural world. While driving, we came across two big ol’ snapping turtles trying to cross the road. We managed to move them out of harm’s way with the help of a ratty, old blanket. They were magnificent creatures, armored like tanks, each with a steely gaze that simultaneously said, “Don’t mess with me,” and “I know more than you ever will.”

Ever mindful of symbols and meaning, I went on the Web and looked up snapping turtles’ significance in Native American lore.

“Turtle is the oldest symbol for Mother Earth,” said one site. “Turtle reminds us of the birth-life-death-birth cycle. Turtle reminds us to return to the earth to replace what we have used. Turtle is a reminder to ask Mother Earth for what you need, and she will provide. Turtle goes to the bank and digs into the ground. Are you understanding the message that you should ‘ground’ yourself to Mother Earth, as well?”

I thought of my uncle’s pride in his garden, of my grandmother’s house slowly being reclaimed by the earth. I think I’ll be driving back out to the country again soon.