CLASSIC: Turtles Studies by David Carroll
He has been out here in the Digs since morning. Early, he found a turtle concealed under a tangle of fallen pine and wild cherry. The turtle struggled as David gripped its shell and brought it up out of its hiding place. David flipped it and studied the underside, counting the rings.”Sometimes I recognize the turtle right away,” he says, squinting at the
shell through a jeweler’s glass to look for distinguishing marks. This turtle has one little toenail that curls under. “Not much to go on,” David says. But this one he knows, a 23-year-old male wood turtle.
David kneels down on one knee, and from the back pocket of his swamp vest he draws out a spiral notebook and pen and begins to record. A bright bead of blood rises up on his wrist where the turtle’s claw raked him. He talks softly to the old creature and calms him, holding the turtle upright in front of him with one hand, balancing the notebook on his knee and sketching with the other.
When he finishes the sketch, a black, cross-hatched rendition, he pulls calipers from another pocket and measures the length of the top shell and of the bottom shell. Holding the turtle up in his left hand and bracing a small camera against his cheek, he photographs the turtle’s head. With a small thermometer, he takes the temperature of the brook that runs close (58 degrees F) and of the air (50 degrees F). He paces off how far the turtle was from the water’s edge when he found him. When he sets it down, the turtle squirts from his hands, his orange legs flashing beneath the dark water.
David surges back up out of the marsh onto the hard, sure path of the logging road and peels his boots back down. No sign of Ariadne, no sign, in fact, of any of the thousand spotted turtles he has known to take that route. In the failing light he heads back to his car, a faded blue Malibu, one of two cars that have been given him by friends who believe in him. This one came to him from the family of a friend who died. Inside, the seats are torn. “They wanted us to have this for our swamp car,” he explains, “but this turned out to be our best car!” The engine starts without hesitation. David pulls it into gear and heads up out of the sand pit toward home.
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.”