The Calming Power of Chelydridae Persistence

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The bubbles alerted me, snaking in my direction, and occasionally skirting off course. I knew what they were, or at least I thought I did, and I stayed to get confirmation. The reflections on the pond were more vivid than their source and made it impossible to see below the surface. Suddenly the bubbles stopped moving, but they continued to rise, looking like a dinner plate expanding in size. I imagined it frozen in place underwater, waiting, just as I was frozen on shore. Show yourself.

Finally, I decided I didn’t have all day. I need to finish picking blackberries, so I melted out of the moment, but not without stealing a glance over my shoulder a few yards later. Yes! I was right. Chelydra serpentine, the common snapping turtle, had poked its head above water. So again, frozen in a moment, we sized each other up. Me, wishing it could know I’m grateful for its presence. No, more than that, that it calms my troubled soul. Its head disappeared after a few more frozen moments and the bubble snake continued across the pond.

The common snapping turtle cannot pull its head into its shell for protection because its plastron is small, compared to the plastron-carapace ratio in other turtles. This means more body remains exposed. Some scientists theorize this morphology led to the adaptation of strong jaw strength in order to protect itself. When encountered in the water, a snapping turtle will usually flee or bury itself in the sediment. When encountered on land, most likely feeling vulnerable, they are aggressive, earning their reputation for being a creature not to mess with.

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I love that snapping turtles live in our pond at Halcyon. I have seen three at one time, but I am not sure how many actually live there. This spring we saw a female constructing a nest in a clay bank at least 300 yards away from the pond. Young turtles spend a few years near streams before migrating to a pond to establish a territory. They face numerous predator pressures from before hatching – skunks and raccoons will dig up nests – to migrating – birds and larger mammalian predators including humans will hunt them, and cars will crush them – and even while hibernating – otters have been known to dig them out of their muddy nests and eat their arms and legs. But once they reach a sufficient adult size, snapping turtles are ‘top dog’ in the pond.

Their natural history is interesting to me, but it’s not the reason I’m grateful for their presence. What endears them to me is how long a presence they have. Not just that an adult turtle can live 100 years, but that the species has existed for 90 million years with little further evolution. Snapping turtles lived in the western hemisphere when the first peoples crossed the Bering Land Bridge. They were here with the dinosaurs. And that feat of tenacity, of persistence, is calming to me. Our pond is spring fed, and between the spring and pond edge lives a large patch of skunk cabbage. The setting has always felt primordial – a sense I can only imagine from science and movies. You can read about a previous post on skunk cabbage here http://www.halcyonnature.com/2014/03/31/late-winter-wanderings/

Because of the skunk cabbage and the snapping turtle the pond allows me a glimpse into the world of long, long ago. Thankfully, I don’t need dinosaurs to complete the mood! It’s not the past I think of though when I find myself brooding at the pond. It’s the future. Maybe not mine, but probably my children’s future and definitely the future of humanity on earth. At the pond, I find hope in the small spaces of wildlife that hang on despite mankind’s destruction of habitat, and the scary prognosis of climate change. At the pond, I find peace when our politics are full of chaos. I remember constructing an essay for an art class when I was a student at Mary Baldwin College and feeling frustrated about Bush and the Supreme Court stealing the presidency from Al Gore. I believe our society would be further advanced with regards to environmental protection and progress to slow down climate change if Al Gore had been our president. But the snapping turtle tells me we’ll get through this eventually. I go to the pond now to find sanity when I hear the hate and nonsense that comes out of Trump’s mouth. Society may oscillate forward and backwards with regard to what I believe is true progress for our species: gender and race equality, universal health care, closing the poverty gap, and environmental protection. That snapping turtles keep on keeping on through all our missteps is somehow comforting to me.

Whenever I feel troubled or anxious, I’m drawn to our pond. I know I will feel better after some time spent there. I don’t know exactly how the snapping turtles were drawn there, but as long as I live at Halcyon, there’ll be a space for them to persist.

 

Since I’ve only one good photo of the snapping turtle to include, I thought I would be brave and also share the essay I wrote in 2004. In class we had brainstormed a word splash (not knowing why). The assignment then revealed was to use all the words in a poem, story or essay. The words in italics were the words we had to use. It is sad that some of what I wrote still applies twelve years later.

 

Inquiry in the Arts/October 8, 2004/Art words assignment

Buried in Lies

I emerge from my house like a turtle from its shell; like an artist from a coffee shop after hours of writing her craft in low light. I walk slowly to the pond to let my body wake up. Passing the garden, I see that the beans are done for the year, dead on the vine. But the pumpkins are doing well, lined up on their vines like paintings in a gallery hall. There is the crisp smell of fall in the air, and the color of gold in the trees around me. As I arrive at the pond, the Kingfishers’ call greets me like the sudden music of a radio just being turned on. I can’t help but wonder if she is screaming an expletive in bird language at me as she flies away. Then all is quiet again.

Ah quiet, why do people think it boring? Quiet is so good for my mood, calming and invigorating at the same time. The water is serene and the sun feels good. I wish I could paint this feeling. I just stand at the edge of the water letting the sun reach into my blood and warm me. The sun is warm. The sun is perfect. Weird!

Why is it weird for the sun to feel good? Oh yeah, because it is usually too hot. Here I go with thoughts to wreck this lovely ambiance. But the sun so rarely feels good to me anymore, always too hot, with spring too short and summer too long. Why can’t people see what we are doing to the atmosphere? Even George Bush said global warming is real. Hmmm, then maybe it is a lie! Ever since November 2, 2000 when a wise child said to me “ My stuffed animals voted for Al Gore, but their vote does not count,” I feel like I am immersed in lies. I can’t even figure out where to find the truth anymore. Why do we still not know what really happened September 11? Why is no one questioning the way the towers fell? Why is there mercury in our water and smog in our Clean Air Act? Maybe we are all to blame. Don’t we start out early lying to our children? We tell them about Santa at Christmas.   We tell ourselves we deserve a break because we work so hard, forgetting that we chose to be married to our jobs. No wonder we do not know what is true anymore.

What if . . .

we replaced B.C. with A.B.B (it would now be 13 billion years after Big Bang), and we celebrated our relationship with nature?

multi-cultural was not just an expression of tolerance, but really meant we embraced and celebrated all the interesting kinds of culture in our world

history was not stuck in libraries? What if Americans had to take field-trips to live with starving children in Ethiopia?

presents were always homemade?

we valued eclectic personality traits more than the status quo of the majority?

all Americans from Seattle to St. Louis to Miami used less resources, built smaller homes, got rid of garage-door openers and backyard fences? What if neighborhoods and neighbors existed again?

our President knew the difference between ‘pre-emptive strike’ and ‘last resort for war’?

snow was considered a decoration rather than a nuisance, a reason to have a party?

 art was a conduit for empathy more often than a symbol of status?

What if . . .

 schools valued all kinds of talent, not just math and verbal skills?

honesty was valued over money and power?

I was awakened from my design on life by the sound of my dog jumping into the pond. His splash made a ring around his body from the waves he created.

I wish I had a boat to sail away from all these lies, but now the sun is too hot. As I walk back to the house I wonder (more realistically) what if? What if there is a change in the guys on Capital Hill this fall? My hopes are not high. Perhaps I’ll just settle for no more bad coffee. Especially if I have to listen to the same old lies for four more years!