Monday, December 01, 2008

Two for the Turtle!

Our books today are devoted to that hardiest of humble survivors, the turtle. The two books are both enthusiastic recommendations, and they neatly represent two very different techniques of writing about wild things. The first, Diamonds in the Marsh by Barbara Brennessel, is a careful, methodical, scientific treatise on the diamondback terrapins living in the area of Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The second is likewise careful but hardly methodical at all, David Carroll's gorgeously lyrical account of various kinds of turtles (mostly spotted) in and around Boston, Massachusetts.

Not that you have to go to Massachusetts to find turtles in the wild, far from it: they exist all over the world, as they have for 200 million years (their order, Chelonia, is a good deal older than other reptiles); they were crawling upon the earth and gliding through the water while dinosaurs ruled the planet, and like most other animals that survived the Triassic, Jurassic, etc., their secret is in their winning design.

In turtles, that design is ingenious (Whoever created it deserves major kudos): instead of building defenses against predators, turtles grow their own defenses and walk (or swim) around in them all day long: they have armor-plating to protect their bodies. Turtles who spend most of their time on land can usually pull every inch of their squishy bits entirely inside their shells. The more aquatic species can't do that - their shells still offer a great deal of protection, but their main defense is, contrary to popular belief, speed. If you encounter a box tortoise in the Arizona scrubland, he will pull in his legs and head and become a chelatinous block until you go away. If you encounter one of Carroll's spotted turtles in a freshwater pond, he'll likely dart away into the nearest tall stalks until you go away.

Early modern humans, needless to say, didn't go away: instead, they hunted all the various kinds of turtles in the world, many into extinction. Turtles store fat under their shells, and that fat is tasty to humans - and so, turtle soup has been a more or less constant culinary fad since the first modern human cracked open a turtle shell just for the Hell of it and discovered the good eating inside.

Brennessel's diamondback terrapins were hunted nearly to extinction on Cape Cod a century ago, and many of them are endangered even today (when most people who know about them want to protect them and a restaurant serving turtle soup would be hounded out of business in a week). Brennessel is involved in 'headstarting' many of these species - taking great numbers of tiny hatchlings and protecting them until they're just a bit less vulnerable to weather and predators, to increase their chances for long-term survival. This may fly in the face of the finer points of Darwin, but it's indisputably useful in beefing up a population's numbers.

Diamonds in the Marsh is an engaging academic piece of work, a fine example of the 'observe and collect data' school of natural history. Patient field observation is still the key to everything, and with diamondback terrapins, we're talking about a lot of patience:

A researcher must be in the right place at the right time to observe terrapin nesting. Not only are terrapins elusive in the water; they conduct their nesting activities in a most secretive manner. When a female is on a nesting run, we must remain quiet and hidden if we hope to observe her through the entire spectrum of her nesting activities. If we are lucky and are observing in a sandy area, we may find tracks that lead us from the creek or marsh to a nesting terrapin or a completed nest. In vegetated nesting areas, even Sherlock Holmes would find it difficult to remain on the trail of a nesting terrapin.

And Brennessel is a friendly enough guide into the complexities of the terrapin world - and its setting, the saltwater marshes of the Cape:

The smell of low tide in a salt marsh is so distinctive that those who live near one can often tell the status of the tides by using only olfaction. If it's not too powerful, I actually enjoy this marshy smell, perhaps because I associate it with summers near the beach, but some folks, justifiably, find it offensive. The marshy odor, sometimes very strong and most noticeable at low tide when the flats are exposed, is due to the production of hydrogen sulfide by bacteria that reside in the darkly-colored sediments just below the surface.

I agree with her completely about the smell of a salt marsh: it's one of the principal smells of Heaven (fresh-cut grass and cow manure would also be in that category, and the smell of warm, sleeping dogs, and the tang in the air that precedes a snowstorm, of course most of all, the smell of the surging salt-sea ocean). I have trudged and paddled my way through countless miles of Maine and Cape Cod salt marsh, marveling at the unexpected, beautiful sights such trekking always presents, so the landscape Brennessel describes is achingly familiar to me.

But not the way she describes it, as you can see even from that brief passage (just in case you were wondering, yes, in the original there is indeed a chemical formula designation after that mention of hydrogen sulfide). Her book is sober and precise, not given to flights of fancy or passages of prose poetry.

For that, we turn to David Carroll's 2004 Self-Portrait with Turtles, a deftly heartfelt and gloriously self-illustrated book of an entirely different order than Diamonds in the Marsh. Many of you will recall my urgent recommendation of Carroll's Swampwalker's Journal, as great a work of natural history as you're ever likely to read. Self-Portrait with Turtles is, as its title implies, threaded through with more autobiography than the earlier book, and it's every bit as involving.

Carroll is no less acute in his natural observations than Brennessel and her students, but he swoons a Hell of a lot more often, and because he's a gifted writer, he makes his readers swoon too. In the grand tradition of Thoreau and Muir, he admits a little poetry into his natural history (as mentioned, he also carries on the tradition of beautifully illustrating his own book; Brennessel's book has drawings throughout too, by William E. Davis, but there's no real comparison to be made, trust me):

Snapping turtles persisted, and musk turtles must also be breeding in this sluggish river [the Muddy] teeming with large fish who would feed on just about anything. And the shorelines were rampant with rats even less fastidious about what they chewed up. At least one turtle-chewing predator stalked the muddy embankments as well. One night as I walked the Fens I saw a small snow of feathers swirling to the ground. Looking up into a tree through its leafy cover in the city's nocturnal sky glow, I made out a raccoon plucking a pigeon.

Carroll has been a wanderer in the wild places just beyond our back yards, finding he could "slip through screens and pass unnoticed, if not invisible. In the willows and brushy tangles, in the soggy footing under giant reeds, some flocks of migrant birds and I found seclusion."

It's not all passive observation, however. Sometimes, Carroll is prompted reach out and grab these thick-shelled creatures he's spent so much time studying. At one point in Self-Portrait with Turtles, he grapples with a huge snapping turtle in the shallows of a Boston river, until both of them are tired:

Now I rested my hand on the turtle's muddy shell, wondering at his age and history. I looked into his eyes, with their starburst pattern and the fixed stare that imparted an extreme distance, set in a massive head. What was Boston like when, as a hatchling, he first dug out of his nest and made his way to the Muddy River? I had a feeling there were no cars on the surrounding roadways and that the paint was not yet dry on some of the canvases that were to end up in the heralded Impressionist collection of the Fine Arts Museum.

But such intrusions are rare; he mostly watches in quiet awe while these ancient creatures go about their daily lives. Both he and Brennessel are clearly moved by these animals they love so much and want so badly to preserve in the world. But although their dedication is the same, I'll give the final word to Carroll, because every time I read this, the conclusion to Self-Portrait with Turtles, I like it a little more:

In the lulling light of hatching time, I drifted out of time and season. It was a golden morning in June and I was eight years old. There was nothing before me but the day. There was no end to the watery ditches along the tracks; the Old Swamp and the beckoning marsh went on forever. Cedar Pastures and other, more distant places awaited. I was setting out to walk the shadows fading from the east, through the sun of a long day, to the shadows advancing from the west ... then evening star and one more turtle morning.

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