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A Fondness for Turtles

By (September 1, 2009) No Comment

Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook

By David M. Carroll
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009

“Wood turtles,” David Carroll informs us in his charming, beautiful, elegiac new book Following the Water, “always place themselves in harmony with their surroundings, with the configuration of the earth or stream bottom on which they have settled or over which they move.”

He might be talking about himself as well, since he’s been sliding in amongst the turtles he so loves his entire life, wading through their riparian world, losing himself in their timeless rhythms, standing still enough amidst trees and reeds to let their surprisingly alert senses calm to his presence. Carroll has seen things few of his harried, city-dwelling readers have seen – indeed, he’s seen things few naturalists have seen, because he is tethered to no laboratory; the agenda he pursues is Aristotelian in the purest sense – he is the all-watching eye that precedes systematization.

In the stream that borders the back of my property, I too have made something of a study of turtles (not nearly on the scale – or with the artist’s eye – that Carroll employs, but enough to understand his fascination), watched their comings and goings, listened for the sounds of their passage in the brambles, seen them dart away in the currents where they move so effortlessly.

I, too, have braved early spring’s chilly mornings to see the first emergence of these creatures from their winter hibernation. Carroll’s experience doing this in Following the Water is unexpectedly spiked with unpleasant discoveries:

[after finding a turtle who’s had all of one front leg and half the other chewed off, probably by an otter] Does he even know that those powerful forelegs are no longer there? Perhaps not, or perhaps he has some awareness that all is not the same. After recording him I set him down. He shuffles back into his basking hollow and doesn’t move again. In the past, after being disturbed he would have scrambled into the brook and surged off through the water with strong strokes of all four legs.
… A turtle leg – or even two or all four – seems so little sustenance for a predator such as a river otter. And it is such a great loss for an animal as long-lived as a turtle. But that is my reckoning, as one partial to turtles.

A long-time reader of Carroll (his gorgeous, generous previous books, Year of the Turtle, Trout Reflections, Self-Portrait with Turtles, and especially Swamp-walker’s Journal are equally, and enchantingly, meticulous) will smile at that ‘after recording him,’ although some will no doubt puzzle over his apparent uncertainty as to whether or not a turtle would realize that he’d had his front legs chewed off, when it hardly requires a Doctor Doolittle to assure him that the answer is yes. This is perhaps the mechanistic habit of the scientist peeking through, and it happens from time to time in Following the Water. Fortunately, other things happen to counter it, most especially Carroll’s unflagging zest for description. In his renditions, every inch of ground he traverses comes alive for the reader:

In its final run this lowland drift is channeled into a network of deeper cuts through belts of alder on wetland plateaus, sharply defined races banked by unyielding root and turf. Here the constricted runnings become forceful enough to keep their courses clear of sediments, cutting down to underlying sand. As the great depression slopes downward to its lowest point, the bed of Alder Brook, water quickens in these sluiceways and takes on the voice of a babbling brook, as though eager to get on with the race to the greater stream.

This is of course equally true for his descriptions of the wildlife all around him. His eye is by no means fixed on reptiles:

As daylight diminishes, the peep-frog chorus intensifies in the backwaters of a fen a quarter mile away. With raucous clamor and a rushing wind of wings beats a flurry of grackles lifts off from the topmost canopy of the red maple swamp. In the quieting that follows, I hear again the drift of evensong from their red-winged cousins on the far side of the wetland mosaic. The season, like the water glimmering all around, extends before me.

Such flights of description happen on virtually every page of a Carroll book, and Following the Water, like his other books, is graced with his own black-and-white illustrations (perhaps predictably, they are uniformly excellent when depicting small-scale pond-and-stream life – to say nothing of turtles – but grow sketchier and fuzzier – if a double-pun may be pardoned – when extending to mammalian life).

A Bog Turtle. All pictures © David M. Carroll

Anyone who’s spent a great deal of time out of doors – especially those of us who spend a great deal of time watching animals in the out of doors – will attest to the curious attenuation of time that happens when you stop looking at the clock and begin trying to experience the world in the same parameters as do the living creatures who share it with us. I once watched a pair of sea otters lolling about and sporadically diving in a kelp bed a hundred feet offshore, and after a while I ceased to be aware of the boat under my feet, the gear in my bag, the waiting obligations back on shore. As dopey as it sounds, I became more otterlike, more aware of how they order their time, and it was, as usual, a revelation – one that both drew out time and froze it solid, as Carroll likewise experiences:

I am in the quiet here, the silent now of this slowly moving shadow. Time stays with me awhile. There is always a sense of returning for me in such a place. I come back again to tree bark and shadow, intervals of bird song and silence, the voice of the wind, the streamlet in its silent slipping by … back to a day in the swamp in boyhood, when I had a sense of the present day of in some deep past. I enter a confusion of time that allows not a better understanding of time, but a deeper relationship with it.

He’s extremely adept at evoking the subtle, agreeable loss of self that such a deep relationship produces:

A catbird’s call and a brief, solitary piping from a peep frog is followed by the almost whispered trill of a gray tree-frog. The wind that talks in the trees speaks pine in my ear. The mingled twittering of warblers and the emphatic calls of a yellowthroat come closer, almost to my very shoulder, as my stillness endures. The snake has not moved in seven minutes. The intenseness of his gleaming eye – no tongue flicking now – seems pure listening.

But as wonderful as all this is, Following the Water has a thread of darker material weaving through it: this is not the self-contained idyll Carroll’s previous books are. Almost from the first (those repeated encounters with maimed turtles), there’s a deeper, more systemic sadness worked into this book, as though finally even Carroll’s peaceful, seasonal world has been touched by the overwhelming environmental woes afflicting the rest of the planet. He tries to lighten this tone whenever he finds himself thinking it, but his maneuvers are not always successful, and sometimes the strain shows:

[after encountering another wounded turtle] My turtle discovery of the day is not a happy one. But I think again of how often something is revealed simply by my coming to these places. This is especially true in the complex wetland, riparian, and upland habitats of which this brook is a vital component, a diverse and relatively isolated landscape with which I have a deep bond. Such a bonding can never be long enough or intimate enough, the way it is with any love.

And when he’s not doing this kind of damage control, he’s doing a bit of damage himself – there’s a simmer of frustration here that appears nowhere in his earlier works. Our author is getting older (as are we all – nobody stays 28 forever), and perhaps his frustrations are sitting a little more raw on his soul:

We live on Earth without walking it. What do we touch with our hands? So many human eyes and ears see only the human-constructed landscape, hear only human sounds. Wild hills and swamps are looked at casually, if at all, viewed as little more than a backdrop for human dramas. So many voices, so many languages, beyond human tongues, are never listened to. We are in fact overwhelmingly out of our senses. Our eyes are open for such a brief time, our appearance on Earth between two unfathomable sleeps. Are we to sleepwalk through it?

Most curiously of all these new changes in tone, there’s the persistent note that wherever mankind does its sleepwalking, Carroll would prefer they not do it in his little patch of the wetlands. “One frequently hears that there are not enough places for people to go,” he observes in a surprisingly crotchety tone, “But where do we not go? We are far too many and we tread too heavily.”

a Pickerel Frog

He’s understandably worried that his heavy tread may be coming to his own ponds and streams, but in another surprising note, we learn that the tread that worries him isn’t necessarily condos and highways. Seen in the context of the turtle’s natural world (where I presume Carroll would say intentions are sublimated into instincts), it seems that all human intentions, good or bad, are malevolent:

It is all but universally believed that if development rights are bought up and motorized vehicles excluded, if human presence is limited to foot traffic, dogs on leashes, mountain bikes, kayaks, and the like, a parcel of land is saved and its wildlife habitat protected. But in nearly every case, as will be true here, funding sources and the terms of easements mandate a level of access and recreational use that lays the foundation not for true habitat protection but for a playground for people, a human theme park.

That “as will be true here” bespeaks a resigned bitterness that would have been alien in Swamp-walker’s Journal – and indeed, it strikes me as alien here too. Dogs on leashes, foot paths, kayaks, and even mountain bikes (although I’d control that last item with the ruthlessness of a czar) are low-impact human interventions in any natural landscape. Necessary evils, perhaps, in order to justify the state and federal monies necessary to protect those landscapes – but certainly far less evil than the things that money protects such places from. Carroll’s bitterness at the thought of his own private waterways (where, as he touchingly tells us, he knows every tree and can be fairly certain he’s the only human being who’s ever seen or touched some of them) becoming paternally protected in such a way strikes me as oddly misplaced; condos and highways – the inevitable human response even thirty years ago, far less so now – would completely destroy the fragile eco-systems Carroll has spent his entire life studying. I live near a large, well-maintained golf course that’s surrounded on all sides by woodland and marsh – and the two were municipally planned together, neither one to encroach on the other. I can assure Carroll that the turtles (and the hawks, and the owls, and the lizards, and the chipmunks, and even, if my dogs are to be believed, the foxes) in that woodland are thriving. If they’re outraged at the golf course next door, they haven’t mentioned it to me.

That’s why I find it so hard to agree with Carroll at his gloomiest, like this passage near the end of Following the Water:

The wood turtles have time that I do not have. The brook trout, alders, otters, water … this system, an ecosystem, has time. If it can be left as an extended, untrammeled landscape, this colony of wood turtles will regain its former robustness. If the landscape is put into human service – I could say human servitude – and this is the global imperative of the day, the time of all these things will come to and end.

a Spotted Turtle
And it consoles me that Carroll, too, can’t maintain this pessimism for very long at a stretch. In his final pages he wonders, perhaps a touch melodramatically, if this is it: the final time he’ll go out walking in those chilly early spring mornings looking for all his old familiar signs of resurrection. But he can’t help himself, nor can any nature-walker. We live always by the lure of the next time:

As always, at the close of another season, I look to the thaw beyond the coming winter. I try again to reconcile myself to the fact that the fate of such places is up to the workings of deeper time, natures’ own processes. The turtles, and all that they have come to represent for me, will have to endure. Spring will come again, and I will have to find a way to be there. My goodbye has always been until thaw.

Tucker “Tuc” MacFarland is an avid whale enthusiast and retired tour boat captain in the Florida Keys. He currently lives north of Seattle.

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