I saw the dark shape first in the new green shoots in the meadow, but I had to come within 15 feet or so to understand that I was looking at a large snapping turtle laboriously crawling toward a goal unknown to me. From nose to the tip of the tail, he was 14 inches long, and his shell measured about 9″ across. Black, sulphurous mud covered his shell. Once he knew I was in his range, he retracted his head, hissed, and his formidable legs and claws seemed to hunker out and down. He sat head toward the creek but at least 200 yards away.
These are old boys. The creature in front of me has been with us for 40 million years,* and their predecessors survived the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. They see well. Most omnivores do, but their eyes carry good images “above and under water,” and “they can even see straight above their heads. They also hear … well, and have an extremely good sense of smell or taste.” They are little sensory miracles. They can walk on the creek or pond bed. Imagine Hippos with a shell. Sometimes they bounce along the bottom. Imagine a Looney Tunes cartoon. You have to have musical accompaniment to that vision.
They “migrate to establish home territories,” and will stay in those places forever if undisturbed, if their habitat remains stable. I’ve found the little ones, like miniature Godzillas, along the creek path at a local nature conservancy. As tiny and defenseless as they are, they prepare to fight if someone bothers them. Ahh, and I still have all my fingers.
They eat dead things, they can stalk their prey underwater, and they might go all silent and still and wait for dinner. They are curious and will touch objects, including us, with their noses if we happen to be swimming in their pond or river. They do not snap off toes, and “there is absolutely no truth to the rumor that snapping turtles will drag swimmers under.” Who starts such rumors — delirious swamp people? If allowed to flee from us, they will. By the way, we should not eat them. Their flesh is full of all the toxins we have poured into water. Give up your turtle soup. Look for them to cross roads in June. Do not turn them around. They have a reason to be going where they are going. Trust their compass.
I have a special affection for all turtles, among the most vulnerable of creatures to modernity and all its chemicals and engines and speed. I don’t know that we humans will ever conquer our righteous self-centeredness so if we cannot love them or be humble in the presence of their millions of years as an indomitable survivor, maybe we can think of them as a test for our leaders — ask them, ask Newt or Mitt or Rick, Ron or Barry, what would you do within the bubble of your campaign bus if you noticed a turtle on a road, cars buzzing all around it, a rally waiting for you, and your acolytes speaking of your importance to the capacity of the sun to rise in the east tomorrow? Throw that question at them. They’ll never see it coming, and their answer may give us some glimpse of whatever percentage of sunlight shines in their centers.
*All factual information and quotations are taken from the site as accessed here: Snapping Turtles