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Scenes from the End of a Season

His life entwined with the lives of wood turtles, an eminent naturalist and artist observes the fragile balance of nature.

I. A Drink Along the Way
It is 90, a welcome return of high-summer heat that allows me on this mid-September day to wear a single thin camouflage T-shirt. I head across the blazing sand for the shade of a tall stand of white pines towering on the crest of a ridge that drops abruptly to the wood-turtle stream. In this direction the pines are flanked by low wetland-shrub thickets. In the opposite direction, off to the west, extends the broad, level, open plane of an abandoned sandpit. Here the earth has been stripped to a bare mineral layer that is bordered by slopes steep enough to be walls.

I come to this shade at noon in the time of the wood turtles’ hatching, from mid-August into September. Over the years I have found them here often enough, by turtle-seeking standards, to believe that little ones emerging from nests on the sand flat or slopes orient themselves toward the dark shape of the pines and the great communal shadow they cast. So I look here first, before taking up my criss-crossing of the heated open terrain.

As warm days become numbered, so do the days of the hatchling migrations. The final phase of the turtles’ year, the return to hibernation, will soon begin, signaling for me a return to my indoor season, during which I do most of my writing and artwork. Another year in my long history—over half a century now—of following the seasons of the turtles will draw to a close.

I have kept these rounds of the year since an early June evening, when, as an eight-year-old boy, I had a life-changing encounter in the wild. That first sighting of a spotted turtle in a clear space of water at the edge of a marsh (long since disappeared) opened up a path for me, an entrance into the wild landscape. For my first eight years I was an urban dweller, living in a completely human world that had no connection with the natural world. My family’s move to coastal southeastern Connecticut brought me to a critical threshold, and once I crossed it, with a turtle as my guide, I never turned back. In time I was compelled to shift northward, as turtle places were marginalized out of ecological and spiritual meaning by, and even lost entirely to, human encroachment.

Thirty years ago I came to this brook, set in an extensive system of wetlands and woods in south-central New Hampshire. I believed I had found a place I would not outlive. But those same pressures from which I fled have begun to overtake a turtle place once more and, perhaps more at winter’s approach than at other times, I wonder how long a remnant wildness can hold out here, and how long I can stay.

And here today I have another of those encounters that draw me to the arena of the turtles. After first searching the pine-shaded ground, I step into the blinding sun where, the moment my eyes adjust, I see a hatchling wood turtle facing me. He is not many of his little shell-lengths short of reaching the shadow of the pines. What long, hot, and dusty way has he come? I once found a hatchling very close to this spot. That one was perfect in every regard, but dead. The turtle had died, probably from overheating, in mid-step, literally stopped dead in his tracks, on a nest-to-water journey that could go no farther.

I pick up today’s tiny traveler—his shell barely over an inch long—and move back under the pines. I take my calipers and balances out of my vest to weigh and measure him. Ordinarily I simply set a turtle back in place after I make my notations, as I always try to stay in the role of observer. But it occurs to me to offer this turtle some water.

The hatchling has been in a chamber in the sand for more than 70 days, encased in an eggshell until his recent pipping from the egg and subsequent digging out of the nest. There has been no rain in more than two weeks. I remove my water bottle from my backpack and tilt the plastic cover of the casing that holds my calipers to fill a shallow corner. I set the turtle down, placing the egg-tooth-tipped point of his upper jaw in contact with the water. At the instant of this touch (it seems a magic touch), the hatchling extends his neck full length, immerses his head, closes his eyes, and begins to drink. This turtle has never seen, never tasted, water in this form. But he knows it at once, just as his mother knew at once the sandy terrain she needed when she set out on her first nesting expedition, at somewhere around the age of 20.

The hatchling’s throat takes up the slow, steady pumping of a drinking turtle. Everything but water, that essential liquid mineral, is disregarded: the enormous being that picked him up and carried him off, the suite of whatever instincts and senses that had been guiding his survival, directing that first monumental experience with his natal planet, his nest-to-water journey, even any concept he might have of danger. Nothing but this first full drink of water matters now.

Minutes go by. His head is still immersed, his eyes closed, neck fully extended, throat steadily pumping. I can feel the turtle’s elemental thirst, and wonder to what limits this outwardly untroubled wanderer had been taken. Five minutes go by . . . ten . . . he does not open his eyes, does not come up for air. After twenty-one unchanging drinking minutes, the hatchling lifts his head from the water and opens his eyes.

II. Connections
I am a long time standing in the brook, at its edge, along a banking of royal ferns, my feet deep in a drift of leaves in a deadwater. Low in the water, close to the limits of my waders, I scan shallows and depths. My eyes have become trained to disregard surface glare and read forms in still or streaming water. As though they existed apart from me, my eyes descend to move in and out of shaded and sunlit pockets, root-tangles, submerged lodgings of branches, and drifts of sunken leaves. My searching has, as always, a focus, a target. But beyond the specific objective, nearly always a turtle or some aspect of turtle, there is a broader searching, the object of which is something I have never been able to perceive, nor had any need to know.

I make out a little pickerel just beneath the surface, his green-gold barring used to excellent effect in trailings of bur reed from the downstream tail of a sandbar; a fish more gold than green, with a thin line of pale bronze drawn from snout to tail. Slender vertical bars (like the finest underwater reticulations of burnt-bronze sunlight that glimmer over the sandbar) are spaced along his sides, rather geometrically.

A pair of ebony jewelwings linger nearby, poised on a broad-leaved overhang of fox grape and silky dogwood; she resting her white-tipped dark wings and he his jet-black ones above their burnished-metal bodies.

I set up a watch here, my progress along the stream arrested by the little fish and the jewelwings that caught my eye. Then I see it: an orange flash in the water, the thrust of a wood turtle’s leg. A small turtle struggles to hide in, or perhaps simply pass through, intergrown silky dogwood stems directly beneath my watching place in the heavy cover of overhanging vines and shrubs. I reach down and pick him up. The pickerel darts away at my first movement, but the damselflies keep their places. I hold the turtle up to the sunlight for inspection and note at once that half his tail is missing. But I have him in my hands a full minute before I see that his right front leg is gone; not the slightest stump remains. His left front leg is pale white where orange and black scales have been chewed away. But the leg and foot are intact; not a toenail is missing. There are scorings made by what seem to have been tiny, needle-like teeth on the orange-scaled bases of his hind legs and right heel. There are no tooth marks on his shell—whatever predator it was that took his leg knew that gnawing there would be to no avail. Although they are quite fresh, the wounds, even at the amputated leg, are not bleeding. I suspect that he was attacked on land and has taken to the brook to hide and heal. He is in his seventh growing season.

We have met before: he bears tiny notches I have made in his marginal plates to identify him as wood turtle number 105 in this populous colony that I have been observing for 18 years. Somewhere in my notebooks are records of previous encounters, perhaps from the time the turtle was a hatchling. I return him to his hiding place in the stream. If both of us continue on here, I may find him as a three-legged adult 13 or more years from now, and be able to find this record in my notes, and know to within a few days when he lost his leg.

My turtle find of the day is not a happy one. But I think again of how often it is that if I simply come to these places, something is revealed. Because a small fish and a pair of jewelwings caught my attention I found a wood turtle. They are connected with each other and with everything else out here by the streaming of the brook, and by a shared moment in time, in which I myself can share and so become connected with this isolated landscape. Such a bonding can never be long enough, or intimate enough, the way it is with any love.

III. Brook Trout, Wood Turtle
A brook trout appears. I hardly felt that my entry into the brook had been stealthy enough for me to find myself standing beside one of these elusive fish that are so quick to vanish at the slightest movement. He was not there, or at least I did not see him, when I first looked in from my foothold atop the bank, where my eyes could penetrate the stream more easily. Now, a mere stride away, he holds his place in the flow, with a barely discernible undulation of his body and steadying of fins. He is all but exactly the color and tone of the sand-and-gravel bottom in the deeper midstream channel. To a kingfisher in an overhead perch he would be no more than amber-olive movement in an amber-olive stream. Trout, suspended in, surrounded by, water ever flowing by, as I am suspended in, surrounded by, time that is ever moving on.

I turn my head to watch a small green frog who appears and disappears among floating and sunken leaves at the edge of the brook. When I look back, the trout is gone. A green darner, perhaps the year’s last dragonfly, rattles over the swirling surface on wings beginning to tatter.

I pull myself up out of the water, onto the bank, move upstream a bit, then step back down into the water just above the holdfast of a great royal fern mound. I set my right foot on the cobbled streambed and my left against the firm banking. Thus anchored, and steadied by one hand on my wading staff, I bend low to the surface and once again let my sight adjust and descend, and begin to unravel the forms in the brook.

Almost immediately a pattern appears directly below me: fine ochery striations radiating over the umber plates of a wood turtle’s shell. This time it is not a defining bit of an outline, but the markings on the shallow central dome of a carapace whose margins I cannot see, that reveals a turtle to me. Through a long co-evolutionary history this pattern has been designed by its surroundings to be part of its surroundings. It is a living pattern that has been shaped by its chances of rendering the bearer unseen.

I read just enough order to differentiate it from the randomness in which it is set. The turtle’s camouflage, deceptively simple, has been orchestrated to fit a far more complicated suite of conditions than those of the trout.

The brook trout has been designed by broken surface water, striations of sunlight in clear and tannic streams, and the gold and glitter of sand and gravel. The wood turtle has been designed by all of these and by alder leaves and pine needles; shadows and flecks of sunlight on land and in water; dark, moist riparian earth; tangles of grass, goldenrod, and brambles; and screens of flood-drifted branches. With unfathomable complexity over time too deep to truly comprehend, species have been and are continuing to be shaped by each other and their surroundings, and by the terms of existence imposed by the earth’s nonliving forces. There is a continuity in this shaping and reshaping that extends beyond the extinction of forms, body plans, and ways of being, as though all of life were a single mind, with each species that comes and goes a different idea directed toward persistence in a theater of constant change.

I reach into the brook, soaking the sleeve I cannot roll up far enough, and immersing the lower right half of my vest. My face nearly in the water, I can see nothing. Shoulder-deep I feel for the turtle with my numbing hand. I find the edge of the carapace and pull the turtle to the surface. His sculpted, stream-wet shell is, if earth-toned and subtle overall, rich with color: mahogany and lighter browns flecked with pale gold. Washes of brilliant red-orange on his neck and legs would rival the spectral colors on the fins and sides of the brook trout. His wet black head glistens, and the gold ring of his wild eye gleams as he regards me. I quickly note the marks that identify this long-familiar lord of the waterway and let him slip back into the stream.

As he vanishes in a swirl of streambed colors, I wonder at the gold-ringed eyes of turtle and trout. What interpretations have they made of the world they share but inhabit so differently since glaciers traced rivers and streams in a vast planet and filled them with the silver of ever-flowing water?

IV. Oxbow Meander
The sun is so low at this hour that it is all but impossible to look to the west, and I trail a long shadow as I make my way to the oxbow meander, the sharpest bend in the brook. Wood turtles at times take this last, low, late sun of the year along its west-facing bank before entering the stream for their long overwintering. As I descend to the brook I see that a large red maple has gone down in the floodplain swamp, a casualty of yesterday’s windstorm. The tree’s great tipped-up roothold has left a crater that seems destined to become flooded next spring, and may well be appropriated by wood frogs and spotted salamanders for breeding.

The edge of autumn draws me here, at the fading light of later afternoon into evening; as does the breaking forth of spring, with its dazzling new light in the morning of the year. The moods are so different. As fall comes on and the leaves begin to thin, everything the low shafts of light are allowed to touch is graced to near-miraculous standing. The water is low and completely still, as it generally is at this time of year. The brook rests. The wild surges of March around the oxbow bend have been forgotten. Or remembered only, I see, in swirls of grass and sedge and drifts of flood-rack, interwoven strewing of branches, stems, leaves, and vines that perfectly trace the course and mark the height of the flood that swept through the shrub thickets of the higher bank. It is in this seemingly artful arrangement of spring wreckage that the wood turtles do their final sun-worshipping of the year.

The seeing that was so difficult upon my arrival becomes nearly impossible as I follow a turn in the brook into the sun. Except in the shadows of the trees, I am absolutely blinded. I see better after the sun has set. Then, as light begins to slip away altogether and I make my way from the brook, I gather pale kindling in the pine grove, smooth fallen branches from which all bark has sloughed.

At parting a mood deepens in me as darkness deepens in the riparian landscape, of days growing shorter and the ending of the year. These color me, as they have since my first boyhood wanderings, with a vague melancholy, even as they tinge the leaves of the maples with an exuberant brilliance. I think back to a time long past, when other brooks, now lost, ran wild, and I followed. Night comes on, with its first small scattering of stars, and I forget what it was I was trying not to remember.

V. Boundary Marker
As I turn toward the brook I am stunned by a sign. A small rectangular boundary marker nailed to a tree, it bears the initials of a land trust. I knew this was coming, but there was no way to prepare myself for it. I am surprised by the depth of my reaction to it, physically and mentally. It is almost enough to turn me back, send me home. What the five letters signify will be regarded by nearly everyone as a conservation victory, a cause for celebration. I see only loss, and sorrow. I had tried to steer this in another direction, beyond conservation to preservation.

The landscape here, with its lingering wildness and extraordinary biodiversity, possesses an ecological integrity that is rendered rarer by the hour in the planetwide conversion of natural ecosystems to serve human needs and desires. I thought, for a time, it could go differently here, that this place could be left alone. But at the same time I saw all the familiar signs that point to the contrary. And now I see that this has become a marked place.

It is all but universally believed that if development rights are bought up and motorized vehicles excluded, a parcel of land is saved and its wildlife habitat protected. But as will be the case here, funding sources and terms of easements in nearly every case mandate a level of access and recreational use that lays the foundation not for true habitat protection but for a playground for people, a human theme park.

A constant of my advocacy for preservation is that I support setting aside places, from relatively natural areas to city parks, where people can go. One frequently hears that there are not enough places for people to go. But where do we not go? We are too many, and we tread too heavily, and the planet is too small. What percentage of the earth is irrevocably dedicated to giving the biodiversity we say we respect the space in which to be left alone? A room of its own: biodiversity’s only requirement.

I walk by the metal marker and cross the brook. I had a premonition my last time out here, when I saw a young wood turtle at the edge of a streambank, in what was likely his final basking of the year, that I might have been saying goodbye for more than a winter. I have seen this play out before and have moved to farther landscapes. The world of the turtle species I have known is running out of farther landscapes. I sense another personal history with a wetland—this a long and intimate one—coming to an end.

As I cross the brook I see spans of thin ice here and there on still edgewaters against the bank. Somehow this annual event always catches me by surprise. It is a signal of the year’s passing. The waters of North Fen and Great Marsh are open, but featherings of ice have begun to spread over the sphagnum shallows. It is so silent here today. Is it because there are no more insects to sing? There are occasional stirrings of bitingly chill wind, none the warmer for having passed over the pond and Great Marsh. They make no sound in their passing and seem to render the silence all the deeper. In every sense of the word the year is quieting.

I wade into the wetland hollow I call the Great Swale. The shallows are glazed in perfectly clear windows of ice that I am sorry to shatter in my wading. For a time I shatter the silence as well, with sharp, crystalline sounds, then wade to open water again, and the day continues breathlessly still. The low sun is a white disk in a smoked-glass sky: altostratus translucidus clouds. Poised to march out over the open water in the night, ice rings the royal fern and alder mounds. I do not know if there is to be one more mild spell, but it is possible that this will be the first and final closing-over. The turtles may not move for half a year. If they stir at all, it will be beneath the ice. A couple of wild calls from crows over distant pines, and then a return to the incredible silence.

Brook Trout in a Gravelly Stream

Courtship of the Spotted Turtles

An illustrator, author, and naturalist for more than 40 years, DAVID M. CARROLL, MUSEUM65, has made voluminous, detailed observations of the ecology of the deciduous hardwood forests and wetland habitats around New England. He received a 2006 MacArthur Fellowship, a so-called genius grant, awarded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to honor extraordinary creativity. He has published four books on natural history and wildlife preservation, including Self-Portrait with Turtles (2004), a memoir that describes his lifelong fascination with swamps and the creatures that inhabit them.

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