Around noon, I took a break and headed for the county land north of the cabin. The old logging roads -- they call them tote roads around here -- are grown up in grass and strawberries and bracken ferns, not used by anyone except during hunting season. At least not by anyone human. This time of year, female painted turtles crawl out of the lakes and ponds where they live, sometime traveling a mile or more through the woods, to find open, sandy soil to make their nests.
The nests are pretty basic affairs: the turtle scoops out a shallow pit, points her rear end downward, and deposits a couple dozen leathery-shelled eggs -- each about the size of a silver dollar -- into the hole. She then covers everything with loose sand. A day or two later, I usually find the curled, dry eggshells scattered around the excavated hole where a coon or a skunk or a coyote had himself a midnight snack. With all of the predators around here, only about 5% of the turtle eggs that are laid actually hatch into baby turtles.
Near the outlet of the old swamp -- now dry as a bone from the drought -- I noticed a broken turtle shell in the middle of the road. Under my breath, I cursed our neighbor and his stupid ATV. My dog pawed at the shell, curious but not aggressive. I called her off, then squatted for a better look.
The shell was almost entirely intact: just one fracture on the carapace-- the upper dome of a turtle shell -- where in life one of the turtle's limbs would have protruded. The piece that had been broken off was about a quarter of the entire area of the shell and shaped roughly like a bite. But when I examined the shell, I realized that the damage was not recent: the broken edge was smooth and the scales -- the tough, colored plates of chitin that cover the bony shell -- had grown over the scar in such a way as to simulate a normal growth pattern.
Painted turtles are named for the brilliant colors -- from yellow to orange to scarlet -- that, along with basic black, decorate the underside of the shell. These colors fade after the animal has died so that old shells are decorated in tones of sepia and olive green. As I studied this damaged shell, I realized that the lower lip of the shell, around where the head would protrude on a living creature, was still bright red.
Normally, I do not like to disturb any animals -- living or dead -- but this shell intrigued me, and I picked it up for a better view. Instantly, a bullet-shaped turtle head shot out from the front of the shell. Painted turtles are usually passive creatures, relying on the protection of their shell to ward off aggressors, but this one acted like a snapping turtle, stretching her neck to the straining point while she snapped her toothless jaws at my hand.
I should have put her down at that point, but any time I have a painted turtle in my hand, I can't resist a peak at the design on the belly. This one was spectacular: a vivid scarlet edged with yellow, the mottled black and olive blending into an abstract worthy of a canvas. It was perfect too: not a sign of the damage that had been done -- maybe years before -- to the upper part of this turtle's shell.
Meanwhile, the reptilian eyes were sparking savagely. The turtle even hissed at me, the sound resembling that of a hog-nosed snake. She'd abandoned her attempts to bite me and was now flailing with her legs hoping to connect with her claws.
When I set the turtle back down in the sand, her legs were in stride before they even came in contact with the ground. Without a backward glance, she hustled into the shelter of a clump of interrupted ferns. I deliberately looked away so that I won't see where she headed after that: I don't want to know where this turtle placed her nest. I want to believe that this strong, feisty mother, this survivor, will triumph once again over the odds to produce offspring that in the fall will crawl out from under the sand and make their way, hissing and clawing, through ten or twenty or thirty years of turtle life.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources