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CLASSIC: Turtles Studies by David Carroll

On that April day, David made notes on four wood turtles, a painted turtle, and a snapping turtle. One, a young wood turtle, he zipped into his backpack and carried home for further study. But he didn’t see a spotted turtle, the kind that began it all for this 51-year-old artist and naturalist. He marks it back to when he was eight years old, living in Groton, Connecticut. He and his brother lived to explore the patches of woods that connected the housing developments near where they lived.

“It was late afternoon. The light was at that angle. Everything about that afternoon was magical,” he says. He looked down into the grass and saw the shining black shell, as bright as lacquer, and the yellow spots, like drops from his paint box. “I still get that feeling, I hope I never lose it, that jolt, that start, when I find a turtle.”

He says he cannot remember a time when he did not have turtles living with him. He thinks back to when he lived under a pet store, with a blanket for a door and his only heat coming from the big pipes that passed through the space. “Just a little shy of homeless,” he says. Still, he had room for turtles.

David’s house is three miles from the Digs. Dumb luck, he says. “There’s a guy in Michigan who has to go 200 miles to get to his study area.”

The house is old, shutters askew and paint peeling. Inside, sloping plaster ceilings are held together with tape, and the floors sag and creak as David enters and sets his pack on the chair beside the door. “Look here,” he says to Laurette, pulling the wood turtle from the pack. “Isn’t she beautiful?” The turtle’s legs stroke the air. This may be the zillionth turtle David has brought home. Laurette, a tiny, dark-haired woman, touches the shell lightly, saying, “Oh, yes.”

The house smells of wood smoke and asparagus. Laurette is making this cheesy asparagus “thing” that David loves, and in a black skillet, fish spatters and pops.

It was while he was living under the pet store that he met Laurette, also an art student. They have been married 30 years, and together they have raised three children. They have put together a life – selling paintings, writing stories, and studying turtles. But life has been lean, to be tactful.

“I tell Laurette not to worry until we’re out of money. And she says, ‘We are out of money,’ and I say, ‘No, we’re not; I’ve still got three bucks.’ You can’t always laugh about it,” David says. “There are nights when my hair almost falls out.”

Laurette spreads a cloth across one end of the long wooden table for supper. At the other end of the table is a yellow plastic wash basin with four silver-dollar-sized hatchlings that David brought home yesterday. In a cardboard box beside the stove he nestles the new wood turtle into dried grasses and sticks. In the next room, within six aquariums, turtles of various ages and types creep about on small logs, swim in green water, sit completely still. They are here because they have been injured, or because they have been threatened, or because he needs to study them more closely. When they are ready, he returns them to the Digs. Some, such as the Chinese box turtle, David “rescued” from pet shops. One he has had for 22 years.

Laurette lights a tall candle. The plates are steaming. The last shafts of sun angle in flat against the big old house next door: Sibley’s house. “Sibley,” a woman from Washington, D.C., who spent all her summers in Warner, had been their landlady. For 15 years she rented them their house, and every year, as things got tougher for them, she went down a little on the rent. Last year, at the age of 101, Sibley died and left their house and five acres to David and Laurette. Her kindness overwhelmed them. To them, this house is a palace, the most beautiful place in the world. And it is theirs. These gestures, the cars and the house, represent the kind of grace David needs and has somehow received. ”In the absence of success, I’ll take charity and luck anytime,” he says.

Thirteen years ago, David put together a book about the turtles he had studied and painted. His watercolors were bright and infused with soft light. His sketches showed the turtles migrating, the turtles lined up on logs, the turtles sleeping, the turtles mating. An agent in New York was excited about the book. But it languished in her office for 12 years. At last, in the spring of 1991, The Year of the Turtle was published by Camden House, a small Vermont publisher. It was well reviewed, and a film crew from the “Today” show trekked out into the Digs with him. Annie Dillard wrote him a fan letter. This spring his book about trout, for which he made more than 100 illustrations, will be published by St. Martin’s, a New York publisher with nationwide distribution. His hope is renewed.

David considers himself an artist first and a naturalist second. Virtually all of his scientific expertise has been gained in the field. Because of this, he has been instrumental in fighting various developments that threaten turtle habitats. Last year his testimony delayed a small development south of his home in New Hampshire. Spotted turtles, once so common but now on the threatened species list, lived near the proposed site. And with the help of a state grant, he is writing an exhaustive report of his observations in the Digs for the New Hampshire Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program. These reports are valuable. And rare. For reasons unknown, very little turtle data exist.

Perhaps because growing up he watched the places where turtles could live disappear, David is very concerned about the diminishing habitat for turtles all over the world. Nothing he can think of is more depressing. “There have always been wars, personal loss, heartbreak, death, and they are tough. But those things are part of life. What depresses me so deeply that I don’t know a cure for is what is happening to these natural places. It makes me sadder than all the wars on earth.”

The Digs are owned by several generations of the same family. They are farmers, and there doesn’t seem to be any inclination among them toward development. “I have hopes that that will be my own place to roam for the rest of my life,” David says.

By September the sumac is tinted red. The year of the turtle man is almost over. In mid-October, he’ll say good-bye to the Digs and go inside. It’s been a pretty good year. Among other things, he’s encountered Ariadne four times. Today David is looking for hatchlings. Since mid-August, he’s been out here checking the nests that he has covered, probably 20 in all. But for every one he knows about, there are many that he has not discovered.

Updated Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

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One Response to CLASSIC: Turtles Studies by David Carroll

  1. Sheila Burns July 12, 2009 at 3:15 pm #

    This was an absolutely lovely and moving story, one which I shall treasure always.

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