Wood Turtles Hatching
Video: Interview with David Carroll
1993 Yankee Classic: Turtles Studies by David Carroll
Excerpted from Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August 2009; $24)
Blazing sun on sand, midday August heat. I head for the deep shade of a tall stand of white pines that tower on the crest of a ridge dropping to the wood-turtle stream. In this direction the pines are flanked by low wetland shrub thickets. Opposite, off to the west, extends the broad, level, open plain of an abandoned sandpit, where the earth has been stripped to a bare mineral layer bordered by slopes steep enough to be walls.
It is ninety degrees, welcome heat that in a time of year free of plaguing mosquitoes and blackflies allows me to wear a single thin camouflage T-shirt. For so much of the turtle season, I am obliged to wear layers against the chill and/or biting insects. I come to this shade at noon in the time of the wood turtles’ hatching. Over the years I have found them here often enough, by turtle-seeking standards, to believe that the little ones emerging from nests on the sand flat or slopes orient themselves toward the dark shape of the pines and their great communal shadow. So I look here first, before I take up my crisscrossing of the heated open terrain.
In this place the word arena works both literally and figuratively; arena in Latin means sand or sandy place; in Spanish, the word is used for sand, but also for bullring or stadium, a place for spectacle. In this theater of sand the rituals and dramas of wood-turtle nesting (from late May into June) and hatching (from mid-August into September) are played out.
And here today I have another of those encounters that draw me to the arenas of the turtles. After first searching the pine-shaded ground, I cross the sharp demarcation of the shadows’ outer extent and step into the blinding sun where, the moment my eyes adjust, I see a hatchling wood turtle, barely an inch long. He is not many shell lengths short of reaching the shadow of the pines. What long, hot, dusty way has he traveled? I once found a hatchling very close to where this one has settled, having seen me before I saw him, on the sand. That earlier hatchling, though perfect in every regard, was dead. Even his gesture was full of life, but he had died in midstep, literally stopped dead in his tracks, on a nest-to-water journey that could go no farther. I could only conclude that he had succumbed to overheating in his effort to reach the shade.
I pick up today’s tiny traveler and move back under the pines. This one does not appear to be under stress, but I feel I should take him out of the sun to document him. And I would be blinded by the glare reflected from my notebook pages were I to record him out in the open. I take my balances and calipers 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 seventy days, encased in a shell until his recent pipping from the egg and subsequent digging out of the nest. There has been no rain in more than two weeks. His only drinking–if it can be called that–has come from hydration provided by the contents of his mineral-coated eggshell and its absorption of moisture from the sand, replenished at intervals by rain during the protracted incubation period. I take my water bottle out of my backpack and use the plastic cover of the casing that holds my calipers as a shallow dish. I set the turtle down and place the egg-tooth-tipped point of his upper jaw in contact with the water. The instant this seemingly magic touch is made, the hatchling extends his neck full length, immerses his head, closes his eyes, and begins to drink. The 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 when she was about twenty years old.
The hatchling’s throat shows the slow, steady pumping of his drinking. He is oblivious to everything but water, that essential liquid mineral–the enormous being that picked him up and carried him off, the suite of instincts and senses that has 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 rhythmically pumping. I can feel this turtle’s elemental thirst. I come to a deeper understanding of need in the natural world and wonder what limits this outwardly untroubled wanderer had been taken to.
Having decided to time this long, deep draft, I catch up on my notes while keeping an eye on him. Five minutes go by…ten…he does not open his eyes, does not come up for air. After twenty-one unchanging minutes of drinking, the hatchling lifts his head from the water and opens his eyes.