Self-Portrait with Turtles: A Memoirby David M. Carroll
A renowned artist, author, and naturalist, David M. Carroll is exceptionally skilled at capturing nature on the page. In Self-Portrait with Turtles, he reflects on his own life, recounting the crucial moments that shaped his passions and abilities. Beginning with his first sighting of a wild turtle at age eight, Carroll describes his lifelong fascination with
A renowned artist, author, and naturalist, David M. Carroll is exceptionally skilled at capturing nature on the page. In Self-Portrait with Turtles, he reflects on his own life, recounting the crucial moments that shaped his passions and abilities. Beginning with his first sighting of a wild turtle at age eight, Carroll describes his lifelong fascination with swamps and the creatures that inhabit them. He also traces his evolution as an artist, from the words of encouragement he received in high school to his college days in Boston to his life with his wife and family. Self-Portrait with Turtles is a remarkable memoir, a marvelous and exhilarating account of a life well lived.
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The First Eight Years
Consecrated to the God of my parents before my eyes were open, I lived my
first eight years in a closed circle of family, relatives, church, and school. I
lived in a totally human environment filled with human concerns and
considerations. It was a world built by people for people. To the four
directions, all horizons were human horizons. All constructs I knew were
human constructs, from God on high to carpets and sidewalks underfoot. The
physical, intellectual, and emotional aspects of my life had their dawning in a
place where there seemed no purpose beyond the getting of the daily bread.
In season I went out to play, but my life was essentially an indoor
life. Curtained rooms, a velvety quiet; white lace on the credenza, carefully
dusted knickknacks, glass doors closeting cups and saucers, parlor for
Sundays. There were stairways and wallpaper, brooding harpy aunts and
furtive alcoholic uncles, the clock and the evening paper. There were supper
and love and, at times, exceptional wit for relief. My earliest field work lay in
reading the faces around me, interpreting gestures, listening to intonations,
analyzing turns of phrase. From behind, from a certain angle (I would position
myself or wait for him to turn), I could read my father's cheekbones and tell if
he'd been drinking. I had to have an idea of how things were going to go.
The difference between inside and outside was not profound.
Beyond the door, the steps of furnitured porches descended to sidewalks.
Narrow alleys between close, high houses, creepings of moss in crevices of
stone or cement where thesun never reached. Backyards, fences,
hedgerows of phlox, sweet peas climbing the backs of houses, some
butterflies and occasional birds. Sun-blinding summer streets, tightly clipped
hedges with spiders and ants; rows of houses ascending hills, homes facing
each other in long columns. Porches with gliders, shades lowered against
the sun, raised with its passing; people sitting, at almost any hour,
overlooking the street. On my walks I crossed the street time and again,
seeking passage by vacant porches.
The central Pennsylvania summers were marked by heat and
drought. Hot pavement, attic bedrooms hot even in the dead of night; after
dark heat lightning always flickered, almost never bringing rain. When
afternoon thunderstorms did come, they were torrential. Street floods surged
against curbs. Quickly into swimsuits, we kids lay and splashed in gulleys,
pavement-heated stormwater's ephemeral streams. There was no detaining
this water. Streets and sidewalks steamed and dried in less than a quarter of
Not far beyond my home and my street were my church and
school. Church and school were one, and I in uniform. High stone steeples,
dizzyingly high. Cold imposing stone ornamented with stained glass and
reaching to heaven. No sun inside; the light of God was a mixture of wavering
candlelight and unreachable jeweled gleamings of glass; light enough for
crucifixes and tortured saints with strangely serene faces, and for the faithful
gathered to pray to them. The purpled, incensed hush sustained a
bewildering blend of ecstasy and guilt that I seemed to have no choice but to
embrace. Everything in my nature resisted this.
Any corner I turned led to another street. Beyond that lay another
street, always lined with houses of other people, and seldom far away,
temples to other manifestations of God. For my first eight years I was in a
cocoon, awaiting that first swamp, that first turtle.
The First Turtle
At age eight, on June tenth, after supper, on my third day in a new town eight
hundred miles from the circumscribed streets I had known all my life, I set
out on a walk alone. My new street was called an avenue, and its houses
were low units arranged in clusters, imaginatively termed courtyards, in a
housing project. Here, in one direction at least, there were not other streets
and rows of houses encircling my backyard. To the east, beyond a chain-link
fence, parking lot, and ball field, I could see a horizon of trees. I headed there
along the fence, passing the back ends of six courtyards. Even the people in
my own court were still strangers to me.
I turned a corner and followed the fence to where it ended at the
deserted ball field. The woods to the left grew deeper and darker. Windows
and rooflines fell away. I could hear no voices. Although I had never been in
the woods with anyone, let alone by myself, I did not feel intimidated, but
beckoned. Still, I kept to the lighted outer edge of the trees as they dropped
to lower, wetter ground. Here I slipped through a dense screen of brush and
grassy growth and emerged on the bank of a brook that sparkled out of a
darkening swamp. Here was the first border I had ever crossed that did not
have the same thing on the other side. The water's slight murmurs and
movements among stones and plants were entrancing, and beckoned me
even more than the woods.
Frog calls and the sound of intermittent splashings drew me to
cross the brook on stepping stones that seemed to have been set out for my
passage. A short push through tall, thick growth brought me to an opening at
the edge of a pool, where the lowering sun cast an otherworldly light across
dark water. It glimmered in dragonfly wings and sporadic silver-beaded sprays
tossed up by leaping frogs. Sweet songs from unseen birds drifted on the still
air. Everything here was new to me, every sight, sound, and smell a new
experience. I doubt my eyes had ever opened wider or tried harder to take in
my surroundings. I was in another world, a new world utterly distinct from any
I had known. It was all the more miraculous for being real.
For some time I stood still, absorbing, becoming absorbed. A
shivering intensity came over me, all my senses became heightened; it was
as though I had new senses. Stirrings in the reeds caught my eye. Not far
from my watching-place, with slow deliberate movements that caused
partings and closings in a bed of emergent grassy growth, something moved
in the water. After a long pause, more stirrings. I had no picture to go by, no
idea what to expect, as I waited for something to become visible. More
jostlings. Afraid to move, lest I frighten away whatever was on the prowl, I
continued to wait and watch. Even before I saw my first turtle, in watching
and attempting to interpret these reedy shiftings, I began to develop one of
the search-images that was to became a foundation of the rest of my life.
At length a small section of the outer fringe of reeds was pushed
aside and a turtle appeared in the shallows, moving slowly, gracefully over
the bottom, so at ease, at home underwater. I was transfixed. How could any
living thing be marked like this? The turtle was as black as jet and adorned
with radiant yellow and orange; head, legs, and tail aglow with scatterings of
spots, intense blazings of orange at the sides of her head, markings all the
more brilliant for being seen through clear water. I was spellbound by her
patterns and the way she moved. With the living vision of this turtle at its
center, the realm I had entered came all the more to life for me. Everything I
was seeing and feeling suddenly became magnified. I was keenly fascinated
by the frogs and dragonflies and all, but this turtle . . . Her cautious black
head turned slowly left and right. I could see her pale orange face, her black
and amber-gold eyes.
Shaking all over, barely breathing, I watched her. I had to hold that
turtle but was frozen by the feelings surging through me. Shifting her eyes
toward the surface, the turtle saw me. She began to turn back into the reeds.
I was afraid that I might never see her again. I could not let her get away.
Suddenly I was in the water, shoes and all, my hand closing over the jeweled
dome of her carapace.
Back up on the banking, I marveled at the feel of the turtle in my
trembling hands. It was as if I had been allowed to clasp life itself in my
hands. How could I begin to imagine all that was represented by a
connection this tangible; the smooth, flat bottom shell resting on my left
palm, the caressable contour of the perfect dome of her top shell lying
beneath the fingertips of my right hand. Gradually, with great caution, the
turtle came forth from her shell. I could see no more than the tip of her nose
for some minutes, then her spectacular head (so close now) and gracefully
extending neck. The deep eyes of the wild living thing I held in my hands
appeared so calm. Holding that first turtle and looking into her eyes, I bonded
inextricably with her kind and her world. She became the center of an
endlessly expanding universe within the universe.
Her wild eyes imparted patience. But her legs began to reach out
of the protection of her shell, tentatively at first, then suddenly with
resistance, struggling against my hands with spasmodic thrusts.
I couldn't let her go. I carried her home with me. I was only
beginning to sort out, to learn. It would take a regrettably long time for me to
understand that no turtle should be taken from its place.
With that first turtle I crossed a boundary of greater dimensions
than I can ever fully comprehend. I changed lives within a life, worlds within a
world. Metamorphosis . . . I had wings now, and different eyes; the sun was
not the same. I could not yet name a plant or animal around me, except in
the most general terms: "grass," "bird," "frog," "turtle." I had no idea what kind
of turtle I had found, and when I asked someone in my neighborhood the next
day, I was told that it was a "sun turtle." It was certainly a turtle of the sun to
Turtle was the alphabet of a new language, and not only a
passkey into a new world but a key to open the gate of a world I knew I had
to leave. The entering was immediate, the opening I saw before me extended
forever. I never turned back, though the leaving was gradual, much of it a
struggle. The swamp, the marsh, looking for turtles, being there; every time I
went out was a reaffirmation. It was too real for superstition and far exceeded
magic. I needed no ritual, no priest or priestess, shaman, intercessor, or
interpreter. I needed only my eyes, ears, hands and feet, awakening mind,
and deepening intuition. I didn't even need a map. I was home.
The morning after I found the first turtle I was out again, back again; passing
along the fence, turning the corner, leaving houses and yards behind with an
almost unbearable eagerness. With gathering elation I slipped among the
alders. It had not been a dream. The screen awaited, and on the other side of
it the brook still sparkled on. The stepping stones awaited me; the sweet
rank growth of summer along the stream was all the more fragrant in the
morning. I watched the water sliding by. Where to go? What watery route to
follow? I had never entered the heart of a day before. This was not just an
evening run; the landscape and the whole day spread out before me, and
hidden somewhere within them, there had to be another turtle. Here was a
returning I could almost taste. From the first entering I knew I would have to
come back at every chance.
I crossed the brook on stones I would walk countless times over
the next ten years and retraced the route that had led me to the first turtle. A
lifelong quest whose dimensions I could not begin to grasp, had no need to
grasp, had begun on a single turning in time. Spotted turtle was touchstone
and magnet. In searching for the turtle, following the turtle, I was drawn into
the turtle's world. I discovered what seemed to me a limitless landscape, with
the turtle at its center. I had crossed to Turtle Island.
The spotted turtle's world was different from mine, yet it was a
world I could enter, and come to be in. It was unknown but not alien, a world
of endless revelation and abiding mystery. From my first solitary setting-out
as an eight-year-old boy I was never afraid. Though uneasy at times, on the
rare occasions when I became lost for a while, I was never afraid. I was where
I belonged. I began to map the world I had entered by mapping the turtle's
world. In a pattern that would persist throughout my life, water led me on to
more turtles, turtles led me on to new waters. And so my landscape, laced
with waterways, unfolded.
There were pressures, spoken and unspoken, that would keep me
at home, have me stay in my neighborhood . . . chores to do . . . wasn't my
house good enough? To go off to the swamps and woods was to abandon—in
some measure to reject—home, family, and community. Human social units
have a tendency to feel threatened by one who moves apart, particularly by
one who goes toward the nonhuman. In the face of many uncertainties people
seek reassurance, the reinforcement that they find in having a family stick
close together, always having others be near them, never out of contact—
thinking like them, saluting the same flag, attending the same church. A
psychological and spiritual, even a physical, confinement becomes
established, a subtle, binding entrapment. One who strays afield can come
to feel the communal critique for separating out and be in for a difficult time.
I relished the days when I could feel free to walk out the door and
leave the yard, to go back out to my new world and take the turtle day as my
own. I meant no slight in setting out and could never understand why this
could not be more freely given. But I could not wait for it to be granted. I knew
that I had to take it for myself, no matter the risk, the eventual cost. At times
I had to slip away, go out into the heart of that great glad day, not thinking
ahead, letting what would come at the end of the day come. From the finding
of the first turtle I became a time bandit, watching faces and the clock, the
corner of my eye ever on the door.
I was alone when I found the first spotted turtle, and over the years I would
need to be alone to achieve my greatest awareness of the turtles and their
places and find my deepest sense of being there. But in third grade, as my
first full turtle season was beginning, I found one whom I wanted to bring into
my outdoor world. She bonded with it at once. Although not always together,
we were inseparable, and bound to swamp and stream, field and wood.
She could run faster than most boys, and certainly faster than I.
Even in boyhood I walked far more often than I ran. "You have two speeds,
David," my father told me. "Slow and all stop." I jogged when the goal was to
get to a certain place, but once I entered the wilds, I mostly walked. Like a
turtle, I had endurance, not speed. I walked and waded all day long. And
always slowly, for the moment I slipped through one of those screens of
brush I was where I wanted to be, and the more slowly I moved, the longer I
kept still, the more I would see. My swift companion had that patience, too;
her dark eyes searched with a similar focus. We would separate, fanning out
to different shallows in a pool or working the opposite banks of a stream,
calling out to each other when there was something that had to be looked at.
We parted grasses and sedges, peered into the water, stirred
mud and leaves, searched under rocks and logs. We looked at whatever we
could not catch and shared brief holdings of anything we could get our hands
on. From the beginning I had a way of pulling turtles out of nowhere. Once, at
the edge of a small pond on her grandmother's property, among tree roots at
an undercut bank, I saw a bit of a pattern of yellow spots in black water. I
called out to her, and as she came near I reached in and caught the turtle.
When I pulled my capture up to show her, I found that I had two turtles in
hand. The dark-faced male whose shell I gripped was clasping an orange-
faced female. Despite the dramatic intrusion, he would not let go of her. I set
them back in place at once.
She lived in a cottage on her grandmother's lingering estate, in
circumstances at least as economically stringent as mine, perhaps more
stringent. She was the only girl, with five or six brothers. I never really knew
her family. Our shared world existed away from both of our houses.
Sometimes, though, especially if rain came on, we'd visit her grandmother.
Her grandfather had died some time before. He had been in the China trade,
and there were marvelous paintings, sculptures, furnishings, and carpets in
every room. I always spent some time looking at a large Chinese screen
painting, ink on silk, a landscape with high mountain peaks, twisted pines,
clouds, and flying cranes. On some occasions her grandmother read stories
to us from Ernest Thompson Seton's Wild Animals I Have Known.
We were rather like wild animals ourselves, always quick to be
out of doors, rarely even meeting indoors, but by some pond or stream. Off in
the woods, following brooks, we made altars of moss and leaves, branches,
stones, and wildflowers. We dug claylike silt from a spotted-turtle stream
near my house and made pottery vessels, leaving them to dry on stones. We
made sailboats from autumn leaves and set them adrift in breezes over the
spotted-turtle pond by her house.
Her pond drained into a salt marsh via a narrow stream that
glimmered between mossy banks, fresh water's final run before entering the
sound. We caught elvers in this brooklet, tiny eels impossibly journeyed from
the Sargasso Sea and were en route to their six-to-eight-year life in fresh
water before returning to the great salt sea. We walked the salt marsh along
tidal creeks alive with fiddler crabs. At times we rowed over the tidal flats and
caught blueshell crabs. At low tide we could wade a shoal to a little island
ringed with seaweed-covered rocks and forested with oak. A stranded brass-
studded chest always portended treasure, but every time we opened it, the
trunk held no more than the nest of a field mouse.
One summer she gave me a present: Reptiles and Amphibians, a
Golden Nature Guide, with page after page of full-color illustrations of turtles,
snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts. The accounts of their
life histories were fascinating, although I supposed I never would go where
most of them lived, and so had no expectation of seeing them in the wild. But
some of the local ones I already knew well, and others I would try to find. The
pages featuring those that I had spent so much time among electrified me—
time and again I turned to page 40, with its spotted turtle. Here was a part of
myself, part of what I lived for, pictured and storied in a book.
I wanted to give my friend a gift for her eleventh birthday.
Searching in a watery ditch that ran along the railroad tracks, I discovered,
among obscuring shadows in a small opening in mats of fallen cattail, a
single yellow spot, signaling the carapace of a baby spotted turtle. My eyes
were keen, my search-images becoming ever sharper. I was not looking for a
turtle for her, I was just looking for turtles, as I always did. I did not give
turtles to people. But as I held this exquisite little one, I saw it as a living
jewel she could keep for a time.
While turtles slept through the winter, we were in school together.
It was not the same as our wild-hearted hours in wild-hearted places. The end
of our outdoor season was marked by end-of-day partings as darkness
overtook us with surprising quickness, the air chilling down suddenly. The
base of a railroad cut through high stone ledge, cliffs halfway between our
houses, was our place of parting. A clasping and kissing of hands and
turning away toward home, a mile or so for each of us.
She would start off on a run. I jogged, then slowed to a walk as I
passed the red-maple swamp where some spotted turtles went for the winter,
part of what I called the Old Swamp. I took deep breaths of its dank autumn
scent and scanned its bits of silver, the last of the day's light on its silent
water, a sky-tinted mirror leaded with sharp black lines of red maple and
alder. I had come to know its every rock and log, every blueberry and red
maple island, to know the Old Swamp in somewhat the way its spotted
turtles knew it. Once past this place (no time for stopping in) I picked up my
pace, the stream along the tracks providing a thread of light to follow.
It seemed there would always be another day. But in seventh grade I entered
the public junior high school and she went away to private school. I did not
follow her, and as we passed into our separate later lives, the landscape of
our time together completely disappeared.
Weakened by thaw, the outer edge of a great ice sheet gradually gives way
under my weight and eases me into two and a half feet of mud and water,
floodwater filled with the new light of spring. On the twenty-second of March I
begin the first day of my fiftieth year with the turtles. In a far different place I
set out on the same search, with the intent and eagerness and much of the
heart, if not the legs, of the original, even aboriginal, boy. My eyes are not as
keen as they were; I now see more by way of experience and a long accrual
and sharpening of search-images. As I peer into water pockets blacker than
shadow and scan sedges burnished by winter and reflecting the near-blinding
ascendant March sun, I am grateful that I still have a turtle place to come to
and that I can find a way to be here.
So much opens up before me at this annual returning. The midday
quiet here—not even a whisper from the water gliding by— the stillness and
apparent torpor of the snowy woods and ice-bound alder thickets I crossed in
coming here belie the urgency of turtle season about to break. The need to
be everywhere at once is never greater than during the first few days of the
turtles' emergence from hibernation: there are so many beginnings, renewals,
and first instants set in such simultaneity. Every place I am is a hundred I am
not. I never have a harder time reining myself in, focusing, slowing into the
day. There is such a rush within the tranquility and timelessness of thaw, the
stunned, blinking coming forth in so many hidden places, all in the space of
any hour, any moment; somewhere, everything.
I have been watching turtles in this great wetland mosaic for
twenty-seven years; fifteen years ago a turtle led me to discover this corner
within it, one of the most significant habitats of my turtle life, a place of water
and sedge, shrub and fern mounds, spotted turtles, knowledge, and mystery.
In my mind it is linked with seasons past, with turtles and turtle places that
no longer exist. Memory and renewal . . . I come back for another season.
Who is still here? Who is no longer here? Who is here that I have yet to
know, will never come to know?
I look for many, but one in particular has become the touchstone
of each year's searching, a spotted turtle I have followed, as best I can follow
a turtle, for at least eighteen years. During my first years of coming here,
after fleeing from a place where the wetlands had become unbearably
diminished, I went out to be there, to observe, to become lost and found in
what surrounded me, as I had done as a boy. I was naturalist as artist-poet,
not yet having added the dimension of field biologist. This turtle was among
the first I began to track in a new way.
At my presentations on turtles and wetlands, I am often asked,
especially in elementary schools, "Do you have names for your turtles?"
"No," I always respond initially, "I don't think of them as 'my'
turtles, or as pets or as people with shells. They are wild animals with a
unique history on earth that dates back more than two hundred and fifty
million years." Then I pause. "But I must confess that I do have names for
several spotted turtles I have known in the wild for a long time." And I go on to
tell them about Ariadne. When I first found her, she struck me as a
particularly beautiful turtle, and I decided that rather than listing her
as "female spotted turtle number 57," I would give her a beautiful name in my
notebooks. Ariadne has provided me key insights into the life history of her
kind and has become emblematic of every spotted turtle I have seen. For
many springs now, a central theme of my searches for the first turtles up
from hibernation has been "looking for Ariadne."
As I search for her in this shrub swamp today, I also have an eye
out for another turtle, the one who led me to discover this overwintering
sanctuary. For several years I had wondered where the spotted turtles I found
in vernal pools and backwater fens went for the winter. Seeking them in
shallow still-water red-maple swamps and sedgy marshes, the kinds of
habitats in which I had seen them emerge from hibernation in milder coastal
areas to the south, I was looking in the wrong places. Thinking that some
deeper pocket in this great shrub swamp might serve as a hibernaculum, I
made a dedicated mound-by-mound search here. Well into the afternoon I
spotted two vertebral scutes of a turtle's carapace, dry, with a dull, shadowy
luster and subdued spots, showing through the fern duff and dried-leaf
covering of a hidden basking place on a mound of red maple and royal fern.
The sighting gave me as much of a start as had that of the first spotted turtle.
The instant I saw her, I knew I had found one of the niches where the spotted
turtles wintered. Like Ariadne, this turtle was an adult female with a well-worn
shell. This discovery occurred on the thirteenth of April; I decided to name a
second turtle, and entered her in my notebook as "13 April."
In its seemingly magical way, the water in this compartment of
the floodplain wetland has warmed to 42 degrees, even though it is ringed
with ice shelves, and the neighboring still-water wetlands, where painted
turtles hibernate, are frozen over. The heavy shrub and sedge growth here
acts as a solar collector, radiating heat that melts the ice, and the steady
drift of floodwater from the permanent stream 250 yards away further erodes
the frozen mantle. This seasonal hydrology, along with the mucky substrate
and exceedingly dense underwater weavings of roots and rhizomes in shrub,
sedge, and fern mounds, accounts for the spotted turtles' coming here to
avoid freezing and escape detection by predators over the winter. These
characteristics serve as my revised model as I search for new places where
spotted turtles might hibernate. In some of these habitats they are joined on
occasion by snapping turtles, and some winters by young Blanding's turtles.
A deep and abiding uneasiness tempers the elation I once felt
during my first wadings of the year. My long history with turtles has been
marked time and again by loss of place, by the physical and spiritual
annihilation of the landscape, compelling me to move on in search of wilder
places. Over the past decade I have witnessed an inexorable encroachment
on this landscape and its ecology. Every spring now I wonder how much
longer I will be able to come here and where I can turn next.
Red-winged blackbirds call, gently drifting water glimmers by, heat
waves dance from dry, sun-flooded sedge. Slowly retracing familiar channels,
I wade into the birth of another spring. Wind out of the southeast soughs in
the pines of the bordering upland rise, fairly roars through them at times, but
in this low-lying wetland it barely stirs the sedges. At 2:32 in the afternoon I
catch sight of the first turtle of my fiftieth turtle-following year. A young one,
she appears stunned by the brilliance of these first hours out of hibernation,
the cold of the past winter still lingering in her. I pick her up and see two
notches on the marginal plates of her carapace, marks I make in recording
individual turtles. I can't remember when I first encountered her, but the date
is in one of my past notebooks. The annuli on her plastron show that she is
twelve years old. If she survives for another eight years she will become a
breeding adult. If she lives as long as Ariadne, she will probably outlive me.
And if her habitat stays as it is, she is likely to live decades beyond her
threshold breeding age.
My concern deepens as I wade on. I feel uneasy that I haven't
seen more than one turtle by now. There is an apprehensiveness in my first
searches of the year that I can't shake until I begin to see numbers of turtles.
The habitats themselves are my first concern: Have the upland margins been
cleared for development? Have drainage ditches been dug, culverts put in,
beaver dams torn out? I know others who study turtles who have had the
populations they follow decimated by collectors. In this area, however, human
disruptions have not occurred as far as I can tell. I begin to think that natural
causes might account for the fact that I have found only one turtle. We have
had a record three hundred days without snow, extending back into the
previous winter. Without an insulating snow cover, this wetland might have
frozen so deeply that turtles froze to death. Or predators such as otters could
have gotten them. Or perhaps a change in hydrology or water chemistry or a
transition in the plant composition caused the turtles to shift their
overwintering grounds. For all that I have come to know of these turtles from
my long association with them and from other field workers and scientists, I
begin each season wondering if I really know anything at all.
At 3:40 P.M. I find a second spotted turtle, another subadult
perhaps only minutes up from her fourteenth hibernation. Eyes closed, she
rests on a mound formed by sweet gale, alder, and royal fern. Stems of
meadowsweet and steeplebush, some broken by winter's winds and the
weight of ice, help to conceal her. She too has notches on her carapace,
meaning I have recorded her in past notebooks. From what I know of this
place and the turtles' seasonal timings, I feel I should have seen four to six of
them by now. "It is early, it is still so early," I keep telling myself.
The sun hangs low over the distant western hills. Out along the
margins of the permanent stream whose floodwaters sustain this winter
stronghold, red-winged blackbirds take up the communal calling that marks
afternoon's transition to evening from the time of the first openings in the ice
until summer. I wade out of the densest zone of shrubs and ferns to a more
open sedge meadow. At a narrow turning I am jolted by the startling black
and orange markings of a spotted turtle's plastron; I never see a living turtle
on its back.
When my son was very young, he asked as he held a wood
turtle, "Does it hurt turtles to be on their backs?"
"It isn't good for them—they can't breathe properly," I answered.
"Then why do they make them so beautiful on the bottom?" he
I wade to the plastron that glows softly in shallow water. On a
sunken mat of sedge, the empty shell lies upside down. I retrieve it from the
water and turn it over. On the tooth-scraped carapace there are notches on
the twelfth left and eighth right marginals: male number fifteen. His low, broad
shell and distinctive decorations are very familiar to me; I knew him for more
than a decade. He was a brightly marked, prominent member of this colony,
active in this wetland and the large, grassy vernal pool to which many of the
turtles who overwinter here migrate for the peak of their feeding and breeding
season. Except for some skin remaining between his carapace and plastron
at front and back, his shell has been cleaned out—head, limbs, tail, interior
bones all gone. The vibrant, living yellow of his markings has faded to pale
bone white. He was probably taken by a predator last fall, perhaps during a
final mate-seeking excursion before he went into hibernation.
All that remains of the turtle's life is this final architectural
structure, an enduring representation of the unique adaptation of the rib cage
to enclose the shoulder and pelvic girdles and even allow the head to be
withdrawn inside it. This skeletal arrangement, which distinguishes turtles
from all other vertebrate groups that have appeared on earth, fits into my palm
just as the shell of the first living turtle I held did. I close my eyes. The form of
the shell describes the life it held for so long. How many times did I hold this
shell while it held that life? Turtle shell becomes memory stone.
I run my fingers over his shell and look into the space between
carapace and plastron, imagining the life this bony fortress encased until its
defense was at last to no avail. This shell first appeared aboveground when,
as a hatchling, the turtle dug out of a nest after an incubation of one hundred
days or so. He at once took up his nest-to-water journey, his orientation to
the wetland habitat required by his species. He may have spent his first
winter within twenty yards of where his shell lies now, emerging from nearly
half a year insensate to take up basking and finally feeding for the first time,
at the outset of his first growing season, some ten months after his mother
secreted in the earth the egg that cradled him. For ten years or so he
probably kept close to the marsh-bordered shrubswamp compartment where
he first wintered. In his second decade he began to wander, mapping the
world of his kind in the broader landscape, until around age twenty he took
his place as one of the colony's breeding adults. It was in this phase of his
life that I first found him.
He survived against the great odds and intense selective pressure
that hatchling spotted turtles face in reaching adulthood, which takes twenty
years or so in this part of his species' range. He had not yet taken on the
appearance of an older turtle and it seems reasonable to think he could have
lived for decades more. I wonder how it goes with these turtles, how for so
many years they live unscathed among the agents that can, on the turning of
a single moment, bring an end to that life, and the potential for longevity that
is so unusual among wild animals. Tooth marks have cut through the black
lamina of his carapace and left scorings and broader scrapes that reveal the
white bone beneath. The teeth that inflicted these wounds were small, almost
needlelike. His shell, beautiful even though its once-brilliant spots have faded
in death, is not cracked or broken. I have seen far more severe gougings and
chewings, inflicted by bigger teeth and stronger jaws, on the shells of living
turtles. I cannot guess what predator overtook him in an unguarded moment,
caught him too far from escape cover, and managed to overpower his court of
last resort, his withdrawal into his shell. Probably it was a variety of
scavengers that cleaned out his shell so thoroughly.
Only rarely do I learn the fates of the turtles I follow. For most
there is only one last record in a notebook, and beyond that I don't know
whether the turtle has died, been taken into captivity, simply eluded me, or
migrated beyond the rounds I make. My last note does not necessarily imply
the end of a life, and many I have recorded will outlive me.
Leaving the water and climbing back up on the ice shelf, I nearly
pass by a spotted turtle in tussock sedge on an alder mound, but my eyes
sweep back to register her presence in a shadowy chamber arched by a
swirled confusion of sedge. Nearly all of my turtle sightings begin with a
detail detected by peripheral vision. Extremely well concealed, she basks as
a shadow among shadows, barely revealed by a shaft of sunlight. The
concern that has mounted in me over the course of the day is eased by this
sighting of an adult who has safely emerged from winter's lengthy grip. She
does not move. Like a wood turtle, she relies on a camouflaging blend of light
and shade and mazes of vegetation to keep her from being detected; she will
not risk movement that would reveal her in a situation where it would be
difficult to elude a predator. When I pick her up, I immediately recognize the
shape and markings of 13 April, who provided the initial clue to this place
fifteen years ago, basking then even more cryptically about fifty yards from
where she hides and warms herself today. Among the turtles I have come to
know here, she has struck me as being exceptionally dedicated to hiding,
even when she is not sunning herself; I rarely encounter her during the active
season. Is this an individual characteristic, possibly a trait she passes on to
her progeny and thereby contributes to her species? Here is another spotted
turtle's chapter, this not a final one, at the dawning of another spring.
During my first full summer in the swamps, after finding more spotted turtles
in the backwater pooling where I had seen the first, I began to roam farther.
Every fifty or a hundred yards was a new territory. I passed through a narrow
wood and came to a railroad track with watery ditches along both sides of its
raised bed, slow and shallow streamings with pockets and pools, luxurious
with marshy growth, low grassy sweeps, and intermittent cattail stands.
Spotted turtles lived here too.
I ranged along the railroad bed, which was bounded by woods:
high, dry oak forest on one side and low, wet red-maple swamp on the other.
Once or twice a day slow-moving trains came by. Otherwise I was as good
as alone in a wilderness. I crept through tall ferns and braved head-high
blackberry canes, looking into the water, and waded the ditches barefoot. Up
the tracks I came to an old dirt road and followed it, discovering a large,
open, weedy pond ringed with velvet-mossed islands crowned with blueberry
shrubs and red maples. It was alive with the twanging of green frogs, the
resonant thrumming of bullfrogs, glitterings of insect wings, and calling of
blackbirds. This wooded swamp was the Okefenokee in comparison with my
first turtle pool. If I could so easily find so much in that first little backwater,
what would I find here?
The promise that hung so heavily in the summer air did not fail
me: during my first hour along the swamp's shallow margins I saw the pale
orange face of a spotted turtle regarding me from dense mats of grassy
growth. I rolled up my pants as high as I could and waded to where I saw her
go down, but there was no finding this turtle. Catching one in the Old Swamp,
with its broader and deeper waters, mucky bottom, deadfall trees, and
Sargasso Sea–like vegetation, would be no easy matter.
Day after day that first summer I traversed the alder thickets, the
red-maple woods with its skunk-cabbage-and-fern-bordered brook and
spotted-turtle backwaters, the ditches along the train tracks, and especially
the Old Swamp. With an eye out for turtles, I kept closely to wet places, but I
was also fascinated by toads, salamanders, and snakes, and I took to field
and forest to find them at times. Every meadow or wood, and especially any
stream or pool, all of these theaters of summer taken together, held no end of
spellbinding forms, colors, and patterns, moving in a seasonal rhythm of life
habits I was only beginning to decipher. And these places they lived in—
places of water, stone, and plants; sunlight and shadow; water lilies, reeds,
and ferns; mossy hummocks, grassy swirls, and blackberry tangles; woods
and shrub thickets with drifts of leaves; grassy fields—all joined to create one
great landscape. I entered, came to know, the design of this living landscape
before I knew any of the specific definitions of that elusive word "design." And
as I moved through it I felt myself part of the pattern, or at the very least a
witness to it.
The sheer joy of being there, of simply bearing witness, continued
to be paramount. I went out neither to heal my heartbreaks nor to celebrate
my happinesses, but to be in nature and outside of myself. Turtles, spotted
turtles most significantly, were a living text moving upon an endless turning of
the pages of the natural world. I read a natural history that breathed. The
moment I went out to meet it, it would open up before me. Each time out I
could enter anew. An ongoing learning experience, or experience-learning, it
called for a lack of confusion, a focus and dedication I wanted to give.
Once I got away to the swamps the sun seemed to stay in the
sky forever. I had no watch and lost track of the time as soon as I left my
house. Turtle time was best unmeasured. The end of the day always took me
by surprise, and I had to learn to keep an eye on the lengthening shadows of
late afternoon, to leave enough time for my shoes and socks to dry. I took
them off to go after turtles but invariably managed to get them soaked, and it
went much better for me if I got home dry-shod and on time for supper.
As summer waned and autumn came on, I felt a sense of loss I had never
experienced before. Over the course of my first full season I had become
Turtle Boy. When summer vacation ended, that tremendous richness of time,
in which hours could pass unnumbered and days go unnamed, was over.
Feeling far removed from turtles as I watched the leaves fall, I
found solace in the school library. I had always loved books—their feel and
smell, the pleasure of opening a new book and turning its pages, of being
read to, reading, and looking at illustrations. My mother had read fairy tales
and other stories to my brother and me, and she bought us a set of children's
classics as we got older: Robin Hood, King Arthur and His Knights of the
Round Table, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn, The Jungle Book, and others. Now I was attracted to books that might
not have caught my eye before my summer in the swamps.
I found a beautifully written book about a frog with naturalistic
drawings depicting his life and surroundings. Just the existence of such a
book gave me the shivers. I was all the more entranced because the story
included a turtle, even though he was relegated to a minor and fairly lame-
brained role, and the drawing of him was the only one in the book that wasn't
naturalistic. Again and again I signed out Wagtail, never tiring of reading the
tale of the little frog and his compatriots in Blue Pool; though
anthropomorphized, the account was true enough to nature that I could
equate it with what I saw in real pools, with actual frogs and turtles. I looked
long and hard at the illustrations, graphite renderings printed in green ink,
which were even more evocative of the world I had bonded so strongly with
than the captivating text.
The little library was rich in animal stories, and I went on to read
them all, classics such as Carcajou the Wolverine, The Grizzly King, and
Tarka the Otter. I also discovered a remarkable field guide, Ann Haven
Morgan's Field Book of Ponds and Streams, which described and illustrated
the lives I was getting to know. I revered the color plates of salamanders and
frogs, and especially plate xxiii, with its "two common pond turtles" in vivid
color: the spotted turtle and the painted turtle. The account of wood-turtle
mating convinced me that those intriguing stories I was hearing about where
babies come from were not without foundation.
Even more astonishing was Holling C. Holling's great saga of a
turtle, Minn of the Mississippi, the life story of a snapping turtle interwoven
with a history of the Mississippi River. The margins of the book's large pages
were filled with extraordinary, lifelike drawings of snapping turtles, from
hatchlings to full-grown ones. Nature drawings surrounded the text on every
page, and full-page watercolors showed the most dramatic scenes from the
life of Minn.
I was granted permission to enter the gated special collection at
the back of the library in the city next to my town, where I found more books
on turtles: Raymond L. Ditmars's The Reptile Book, and Clifford H. Pope's
Turtles of the United States and Canada, as well as the ultimate reference on
the subject, the recently published Handbook of Turtles, by Archie Carr,
which greatly expanded upon Pope's work of 1939. I would check out Pope
and Carr for two weeks, return them, wait a week, then go back to take them
out again. The next year I asked for Carr's book for Christmas. When my
mother saw the price, she was taken aback and said that if I got that gift
there wouldn't be anything else. I assured her that if I got that book I wouldn't
need another present. All I got for Christmas was Carr's Handbook of Turtles.
Despite all these books and my school friends, winter was
interminable. When the water chilled down so much that I was unable to find
turtles, I looked for snakes after school, making searches in a brushy field.
Even after the trees were bare I could find them, curled up beneath boards
and stones still warm from the day's sun: baby and adult garter, northern
brown, redbelly, and smooth green snakes.
As autumn deepened, I took up a practice that became one of the
banes of my mother's existence. I brought in cocoons, leaves, special rocks,
clumps of earth, even chunks of frozen turf hacked from streambanks. The
latter came to life under the indoor sun of the gooseneck lamp on my desk:
sprouts came forth from roots and seeds; tendrils, stems, and shafts
emerged from thawing mud. The veneer of my desk buckled and split from
constant thaws, seeps, and the occasional inaccurate watering. A praying
mantis egg case launched what seemed to be hundreds of perfect, pale,
minute replicas of the menacing-looking adults. My desk became an
omniumgatherum of cherished bits of the wild outdoor world I had such a hard
time relinquishing to winter. I sprouted a potato in a glass of water. I kept a
little spotted turtle and bought two dime-store sliders, but not even these
could substitute for the seasons and places I had had to surrender to school
and the hard cold.
At the earliest hint of spring, I began walking the brooks and
ditches and visiting the Old Swamp. The red-winged blackbirds had come
back, but it was still too early for turtles. I had started my life with turtles the
previous June, well into their active season, and I didn't know exactly where
to look or what to look for when I set out to find them coming out of
hibernation. For all the life histories in reference books, there was so much
more to be learned from being there, from observing the turtles in their
habitats. I didn't find any in my early searches of the brook and its backwater
or in the railroad ditches. And on a warm, sunny afternoon in mid-March, as I
stole into the blackbird-singing Old Swamp, there was still no sign of a turtle.
But, though I had never before witnessed the phenomenon, I sensed an
imminent explosion of life. I cautiously circled the swamp's sodden borders,
hopping from mossy stone to mossy log or tree root, waiting and watching
the water from behind red maples. A dull sheen caught my eye as I scanned
shrub-thicketed island mounds, their velvet-mossed carpetings more vibrantly
green than ever. On a mound, reflected in the water, a carapace partly
screened by a maze of twigs glowed softly in the sun that was bringing its
bearer back to life. Then I made out two more turtles, together on an island,
and a fourth on a sedge hummock nearby. After the long winter sleep,
absolutely motionless and partially hidden, they were giving themselves up to
the rays of the sun that would fire the long season before them.
I had found a secret corner of the Old Swamp where some of the
turtles went to spend the winter. A dream of spring had become reality. The
light on their shells . . . I could hardly take in what I was looking at. I had
kept an appointment with the turtles and, through them, with the year itself,
an appointment I would devote the rest of my life to keeping. From that
moment on, every spring would have the feeling of this first spring. This was
my New Year's Day. All at once an endless summer opened before me. I
was beginning to learn. Other than an almost instinctive, accruing knowledge
there was nothing here that could be carried away; images and experiences
faded as I left. There was nothing tangible that I could take back with me. Not
even the turtles, if I were to take barefoot to icewater and manage to catch
one or two. I did take turtles out at times, too often, but nothing came with
them, really. So much is left behind. One can only go back to it. It all moves
as life and time move and can only be encountered along the way. The place
must be there, the wild and sacred meeting ground. Once it is lost, the bond
is broken, and all that was found there disappears.
Over that second turtle summer, the ninth summer of my life, I
continued to expand my network of turtle places, moving beyond the Old
Swamp. I added painted, snapping, and musk turtles to my repertoire. But
my first watery hollows and their brooks remained my center, and there I
continued to spend most of my days. I became more familiar with plants,
getting to know some well enough to eat them, browsing wintergreen-tasting
bark and the buds of black birch twigs in spring, blueberry flowers in May, the
berries themselves later on. Blackberries were abundant along the railroad
beds, and huckleberries among boulders and ledges on some of the oak
ridges. In autumn I dug duck potatoes, the tubers of broadleaved arrowhead,
and boiled them on fires made of dead branches circled with stones.
In shallower waterholds I would slide, alligator-like, into the water
and deep muck. Stretched out full length, with only my head above the water,
I was far less conspicuous to turtles than when I waded. Occasionally I could
slide along and slip close enough to a basking turtle to grab it before it
tumbled into the water. I groped about for unseen turtles in murky, algae-filled
water, dense mats of submergent vegetation, and mud.
When I set my hand down on a snapping turtle he would
sometimes surge away, but more often he'd hold still as I gingerly ran my
fingertips over the smooth or mossy carapace, seeking the saw-toothed rear
margin by which I could catch him. When I did take hold, he would struggle
mightily and with great strength to get away but would begin striking and
snapping only if I lifted him out of the water. A snapper never attacked me in
In search of musk turtles, I slid and groped through an even
shallower, muckier pond, a warm, green soup of algae. The carapaces of
these small, extremely cryptic turtles usually were covered with algae for
added camouflage. They rarely put more than their pinpoint nostrils above the
surface, and only at intervals of an hour or more. One day while groping for
musk turtles, I felt a fiery sting that shot through my hand. All the joints on
my right hand began to swell, and gradually my elbow did as well. For three
days I couldn't close my hand and could barely bend my elbow. After I was
taken to the doctor for shots, the swellings gradually subsided. I suspect that
a giant water bug bit me when I inadvertently pinned it down with my hand.
Because of this experience, and my increasing tendency to get itchy,
swollen reactions to the leeches that became attached to me as I slid
through the water, I abandoned this highly successful method of looking for
Wandering farther along the railroad tracks, I found yet more
streams and marshes bordering brackish creeks well beyond the Old
Swamp. I walked through forests of giant reeds, and found spotted turtles in
long, narrow ditches. Straight as an arrow and no doubt man-made, these
channels of fresh water just above the saline margins of lower tidal creeks
had probably been dug for drainage in an effort to control mosquitoes. Now
they were water-filled and bordered by heavy cover, so spotted turtles had
The trains that passed through were so slow-moving that I would
occasionally hop one and jump off at the Old Swamp or a little farther down
the line. From various points along the high railroad embankment I could look
down and discover low-lying marshes and streams. As I followed one of the
new brooks in a red-maple swamp one autumn day, I came upon a traveling
spotted turtle slipping beneath brilliant floats of red and red-orange leaves.
One day I invited my brother John and a friend, Dicky, on an
expedition to a more distant marsh, a place of giant reeds and meandering
creeks on the outskirts of a saltwater cove farther down the tracks. Hearing a
train approaching as we set out, we decided to save some time and energy.
We jumped onto the last two boxcars. I had never taken the train very far
past the Old Swamp and didn't know that it had different speeds for different
runs of track. After crossing a narrow bridge and starting down a
straightaway, it began to pick up speed. We looked at one another and down
at the crossties and crushed basalt passing faster and faster beneath our
feet. With visions of ending up in Providence or Boston and setting an all-time
record for being late for supper, I signaled my fellow passengers to jump
before the train sped up any more. Leaping as far from the iron wheels and
rails as we could, we hit the ground rolling, and we kept on rolling down the
steep, gravelly embankment. Picking ourselves up, cut, scraped, and
bleeding, we were relieved to find limbs, fingers, and heads intact. Dicky may
have been the most relieved, having broken both ankles jumping out of a tree
the previous summer.
Though I found new turtle places every summer from age eight to
age fourteen, my closest connection was always to my original core of
discovery, with the Old Swamp at its heart. This turtle mosaic was complex
and mysterious enough to fill long summer days year after year, always
seeming to hold another hidden corner here and there. As I reached
employable age I began to take on small jobs and paper routes, but if I had a
choice between earning money and spending time in the swamps, I went to
the swamps. Their hold on me was such that I simply could not stay away,
whatever sacrifice I might have to make.
Still surrounded by the overwhelmingly human-centered world that
was all I had known for my first eight years, I thought of myself as "Lucky
Fox" each time I went off to the swamps. Looking at the lives around me, I
told myself over and again, "It doesn't have to be this way . . . there must be
another way." I knew that in my turtle revelations I had some luck working for
me, had come to insights not widely shared; but I also knew that I had to be
ever watchful to dodge the trap, ready to elude the snare. I devoted myself to
slipping the noose. I was always on the lookout for openings, as a bird heads
for daylight, a salamander for darkness.
Meet the Author
DAVID M. CARROLL is the author of The Year of the Turtle, Trout Reflections, Self-Portrait with Turtles, and Swampwalker’s Journal, which won the prestigious John Burroughs Medal. In 2006 he won a MacArthur "genius" award for his work as a writer, artist, and naturalist. Carroll has been featured on Today (where he reached down into swampy water, miraculously pulled up a turtle he knew, and told her history), in numerous newspapers and magazines, and in the most popular documentary in the history of New Hampshire public television. He is an active lecturer and consultant to conservation institutions throughout New England.
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