Saving The Turtles: A Lesson Slowly Sinks In
Yesterday, as I was driving home from a job, I saw a dark shape in my lane up ahead. There’s always a moment when you think it might be a branch or a clod of dirt, and then you see that purposeful motion and know it’s a living thing. If it’s a squirrel or a woodchuck, it scurries to the other side and there’s little danger of hitting it, especially if, like me, you slow down. However, if it’s a turtle you have to come to a stop, because turtles are famous for one thing and that is being slow.
I am no longer content with merely stopping. In the past 20 years I’ve saved probably eight turtles from being hit because I do what I did yesterday. I zoomed to the side, put my car in park, opened the door and looked down the road. This time I saw a farm truck trundling toward me. As I rushed back to get the turtle, it started going faster, but I was able to catch it and held it firm as it pedaled its legs and scraped me with its claws. The shell was brown with some smooth and some raised areas, and its underside was orange. I ran in the direction it was heading and put it gently in the grass by the road. By then the truck was hurtling past.
I went home and looked up turtles with my laptop. What I had rescued was probably a wood turtle, Glyptemys insculpta, and it was almost certainly going to lay its eggs. It would produce anywhere from three to 18 eggs, bury them carefully and then go on its way. Predation by raccoons, foxes and skunks meant that most eggs would never hatch. Those that did survive would emerge from their nests in late August or September and head to the water. It could take between 14 and 20 years before individuals attained sexual maturity and began to produce offspring of their own. In fact, wood turtles are endangered in many of their ranges.
I also discovered that wood turtles had developed an extraordinary way of hunting worms. They would pound their front feet or bang their under shell on the ground, and these vibrations would cause the worms to rise up from their burrows where they were gobbled up. There are wonders in the natural world wherever you look.
When I was young, growing up in Massachusetts, we lived near a reservoir that provided water for Northampton. Every fall the road would be dotted with squashed baby snapping turtles, and we would use them as obstacles courses for our bikes. One summer a large snapping turtle (she was about the size of a big pumpkin) laid her eggs in our garden and my father marked the spot with a stick. In late summer we woke one morning to a lawn covered with snapping turtles, each only a little bigger than a fifty cent piece. The amazing thing was they were all headed in the right direction. How did they know where the reservoir was?
My father said we should gather them up and put them in a tub. We had almost 30 when we were done. We carried them across the road to the water and dumped them in. They swam off like a miniature armada.
I am not really fond of snapping turtles, but I’ve been known to save them, too. One time I stopped on Route 5 north of Norwich, and was toting a big fella across the road when a group of teenagers stopped. They craned their necks out of their windows and gaped at me. They didn’t know what I was carrying, so I told them it was a snapping turtle, and gave them a brief lecture on the species. I hoped one day one of them starts saving turtles.
I used to volunteer at VINS, and one of my jobs was to take care of Turt, the wood turtle that lives in the VINS Visitor Center. Feeding her was my last chore, and when I entered the area where she lived, she used to clamber out of her pool and waddle towards the glass. Since her brain was the size of a pea, it seemed amazing she could understand I was there to feed her.
I always took her out of the cage and put her on the board where I placed her tasty morsels: a worm, a piece of tomato, some dog food pellets softened in water, and a piece of banana.
Turt loved worms. She ate the worm quickly and then headed out onto the floor of the visitors center. The center had toy stuffed turtles, and sometimes I put them on the floor so Turt had the illusion of company. She waddled up to them and eyeballed them from a safe distance. I let her do this for exercise, and in the summer I took her outside so she could walk around on the grass.
Invariably, when I took Turt outside, she headed right for the nearest body of water, the Ottaquechee River a mile away. It was hard work and she had to pull herself over the tussocks of rough grass, but she headed off as if nothing could stop her. If I picked her up and faced her in the opposite direction, she turned around and headed off toward water again. What instinct propelled her in that direction? She seemed to be informed with a will much bigger than her brain, bigger even than her body.
One of the good things about living in the country is that we are pushed into a closer relationship with the earth. We are made to remember that in spite of our computers and smart phones we are animals, too. If peak oil or climate change catch up with us, we will be forced into a closer relationship with nature, the teacher we cannot do without. And that’s not such a bad thing.
The writer lives in Norwich.