Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Geographica: Turtles!

It's so self-evidently the greatest publishing endeavor in the history of periodical literature that it can often get forgotten for the towering achievement it is (like people can sometimes through the very familiarity of Beethoven's symphonies forget what towering masterpieces they are), but for a century, National Geographic has been so consistently thought-provoking, curiosity-appeasing, and awe-inspiring that we'll be adding a new regular feature to the Stevereads rotation: Geographica, dedicated to exploring the vast treasure-trove to be found in that century of issues.

One of the curious ironies of National Geographic is how ubiquitous those issues are - go to any used bookstore, any flea market, almost any musty attic, and there you'll find them: stacks of those distinctive square-bound yellow spines. Their original owners, all subscribers at one time or other (as who of us hasn't been?), often keep them, neat but ignored, when doing the same for any other magazine would never cross their mind. Likewise, those used bookstores choose to sell them, when they'd never dream of devoting precious space to back issues of any other magazine.
The reason, I think, is wonder. Every reader of National Geographic has, at some point or other, experienced sheer, unalloyed wonder at something brought to them by the magazine. Almost no other periodical ever produces that feeling, much less produces it on a monthly basis, and people instinctively accord that a different kind of consideration than they do the merer trifles of the Penny Press. We remember what amazes us long after we remember what only informs us. And when the two happen together ...

So we'll be regularly looking at randomly chosen issues of National Geographic, but my inaugural choice isn't random - it's about turtles! The article is from the January 1986 issue, written by Christopher P. White with illustrations by William Curtsinger (with one wonderful painting by Karel Havilcek), and it's all about freshwater turtles like the ones we discussed last time. White and Curtsinger traveled to the South to examine the various kinds of turtles - and turtle people - inhabiting rivers like Florida's Rainbow Run river.

One veteran Florida turtle-trapper, Uley Bass, relates his first-hand (so to speak) experience with the legendary ferocity of the alligator snapping turtle:

"Late one night 16 years ago, my son and I pulled an old 75-pound alligator snapper out of a swamp. Like a fool I put the snapper right behind me in the boat. After a time we got stuck in some reeds, so I reached back for a paddle and slam! - something hit my hand so fast I didn't know what had happened. Then all of a sudden there was blood everywhere, and my son was shouting, "Dad, two of your fingers just dropped into the bottom of the boat!"

Of course, this being 20 years ago, turtle-hunting crops up often in the course of the article - states were just starting to realize that their turtle populations were being hunted to extinction, sought mostly for food. Long-time Georgia turtle hunter Al Redmond tells White about his own part in that slaughter:

"Six years ago, I realize that almost single-handedly I was trapping the alligator snapper right out of existence in Georgia - in one week of 1978 I caught more than three and a half tons of turtle. Other trappers saw how easy it was and started working the streams too. Snappers were plentiful then, but nothing's that plentiful, so I quit and started raising them instead."

He led us to a holding tank and with a quick move hoisted a 118-pound male alligator snapper.

"This is what it's all about," he said proudly. "Do you know how long it takes to replace a turtle this size? You wouldn't live long enough to see it."

He gazed fondly at the huge, unlovely creature in his arms. "Come on, tell me that's not a dinosaur."

Well, it's actually not a dinosaur, but then, why would you want to be a dinosaur when you can be something better - a survivor? While dinosaurs were living and dying off, turtles were living and staying alive, both land species and aquatic species. And even after the advent of mankind, some of those same turtles have always been exerting their slow, alien magic on humans, who've come to love these, the most lovable of the reptiles.

This turtle article, "Designed for Survival," was the highlight of the January 1986 National Geographic. Look for lots more highlights in the months to come!


Jeffrey.Eaton said...

I like the idea of National Geographic back issues getting to see the light of day again. Those yellow stacks always seem so inert at the used bookstore.

By the by, while not asking for a full-on stevereads request (streng verboten, I know), I was wondering if you could give a thumb up or down to The Education of Henry Adams. I saw a copy over Thanksgiving that brazenly asserted on the cover that it was the best nonfiction book of the 20th century. That kind of hubris demands I ask: Steve, wtf?

steve said...

Your answer awaits!

As you already knew, even my THUMBS are verbose! Hope you enjoy!

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