Water drips from the bill of my WOJB cap, runs in rivulets down the front of my soft shell jacket, funnels onto my clammy nylon pants to eventually soak into the leather of my swamper boots. If I'd planned to be out longer, I would have dressed differently, more securely, but I know that in an hour these wet clothes will be drying in front of a warm wood stove.
This is our second day of cold rain -- the second out of three, actually because yesterday the sun broke through the clouds for a couple hours and jacked the temperature all the way up to fifty. During that brief afternoon reprieve, I left the fire in the cabin unfed and ventured out into the woods. An inch of rain had fallen the day before but the sand had sucked in almost every drop as soon as it had hit the ground. A few puddles were left standing in the hollows of the old road, the waterline marked with yellow pollen, the surrounding mud pocked with animals tracks: deer, fox, raccoon, bear. The concentration of tracks and species reminded me of a Serengeti waterhole.
Until I saw those tracks, I hadn't thought about how this drought must be affecting animal movement. The terrain around here is rolling -- it's been known to produce "belly-ticklers" when a too fast car becomes airborne at the crest of one of these steep little hills. In the valleys of nestle hundreds of pothole lakes and swamps, creating a patchwork of forest and water. Walk a quarter mile in any direction and you're sure to hit moisture of some sort.
At least that's the way it's been in the past. But the north woods now are suffering their worst drought in memory. Swamps and wells are bone dry. Lakes have shrunk to ponds. Last winter, septic systems throughout the county froze because there was no insulating snow to keep the ice-groaning cold from penetrating the ground. Sparks from chimneys ignite ground fires. Canoes gather dust in neglected barns.
The drought is so bad that the level of Lake Superior -- the largest body of fresh water in the world -- has sunk by ten feet. Ten feet of water across the entire surface of that great lake: that's enough to inundate all of New England, with the Adirondacks thrown in for good measure.
The five year drought has affected species composition: sapling birch and alder now cover what used to be shallow bays. Bitterns and cackling pied-billed grebes have disappeared, replaced by grass-loving snipes with their eerie, winnowing night song.
Our lake has always been shallow -- what realtors would label a "wildlife lake" --but years of drought have reduced it to a shadow of its former size. Wide, grassy flats -- twenty or thirty feet in width -- connect the wooded, former shoreline to the muddy shallows that now define the water's edge. The open stretches are a no-man's land, a haven for predators from both the air and the forest.
But the grass makes for easy -- if tick-infested -- walking. Ahead of me, the dogs, noses to ground, converge on a scrap of bare sand. When I approach, I notice the splotch of bright red that has attracted them. Closer still, I identify the kill: a medium sized painted turtle, the upended shell displaying the vivid coloration that gives the species its name.
It's a recent kill: the empty shell bright as a ripe tomato. I don't know why but the red pigment on the shell of painted turtles always fades to dull yellow after the animal dies. A coat of varnish over the top will prevent the fingernail-like scales from drying and flaking off from the bony shell, but I have found no way to coax the scales into retaining the color they boasted in life.
But in recent death this turtle's shell in spectacular. The upper shell -- what is visible as one looks down on the turtle -- is a uniform dark olive color, the only patterning arising from the grooves where separate scales meet. But the underside of the shell, the hidden belly seen only by the chance leech or dragonfly larva that happens to glance skyward when the turtle is swimming directly overhead: that's where all the color lurks, like the hooded bloom of a orchid or flashy lingerie under a business suit. The flat belly plate, bordered in brilliant orange-red, displays a Rorschach test pattern that calls to mind, in both form and coloration, the stretched pelt of an ocelot. Brown and golden, mottled, the hemispheres similar but not precise mirror images, the marking acts as a fingerprint: no two painted turtles are identical. The ridge where the upper shell joins the belly plate is also decorated, alternately slashed with gold, olive, and an impossibly vivid crimson.
The underside of the dead turtle's shell is as beautiful as any flower but it begs the question: why? If flowers have evolved as a lure for pollinators, what possible purpose would a gaudy underbelly serve to a living turtle?
The beauty of his belly did not protect this turtle from the sharp-nosed predator -- a coon or a raven or maybe even a fisher -- that ambushed him during the slow scramble from water's edge to the relative safety of the forest. I wipe the rain that has soaked through my hat's crown and now drips into my eyes, and squint into the openings of the shell. The spine, the pale pink of fresh bone, is fused to the upper half of the shell. The soft tissue of the legs, tail, and body of the turtle are gone: eaten, I assume. But drawn as deep inside the shell as possible, the head remains: hollow-eyed, the mouth set in a grimace of pugnacious determination. The skin is all gone except for a flap covering the lower jaw. The scrap of remaining skin is etched with thin stripes of olive and yellow, strikingly handsome, unique even in death.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources