CLASSIC: Turtles Studies by David Carroll
Video: Interview with David Carroll
Yankee Class from June 1993
In the April afternoon, the sun sinks low, coloring the wide oval expanse of the marsh. David Carroll tugs his waders to the tops of his thighs and strides into the place he calls the Route of a Thousand Spotted Turtles. He moves silently through the tea-tinted water. The bog is numbingly cold and grows deeper as he pushes farther into this vast sweep of nature near his home in Warner, New Hampshire.
It is the beginning of his year with the turtles. Carroll is here, as he is every day once the ice is off the marsh, in search of the dozens of different turtles he has acquainted himself with over the past eight years, including “13 April,” “Male Beautiful,” and “Ariadne,” a spotted turtle he favors shamelessly.
He has observed these turtles — painted turtles, box turtles, Blanding’s turtles, snapping turtles, wood turtles, musk turtles — emerging from their winter slumbers; he has measured them and marked them and brought them into his home when they have needed care. He has sketched them and painted them and lain awake at night wondering about them when they have evaded him. He has stood for hours in cold and in heat and in the silvery luminescence of midnight watching them mate. And he has crouched, stock-still, watching the wary females testily plant their eggs in the sand. And then he has done what the mother cannot: He has fastened screening over these nests that no predator can undo. In his walks, throughout the season, he passes by each nest, making sure.
The Route of a Thousand Spotted Turtles is only a part of a whole that Carroll calls “The Digs,” land he does not own. He has no clue how large it might be — perhaps 2,000 acres — but it is land he knows better, has spent more time in, than perhaps any human being since the beginning of time. He has made his own map, dividing it into little paradises: Buttonbush Swamp, Blanding’s Marsh, Moss Flats, Cranberry Hollows, Leatherleaf Islands, the Swale, the Great Swale.
He walks cautiously. In some places, one foot can ooze down 12 inches or more without reaching solid bottom. He has waded through water waist high, chest high, at all times of day and night. To save himself, he carries a walking stick and, at the urging of his wife, Laurette, a whistle, in case he should ever sink down so far he can’t get out.
He’s been out here covered with blackflies while he sketches. He’s been out here in violent thunderstorms. “Sometimes it’s wonderful to get rained on,” he says. “You feel as if you’re part of something great. That’s what I love about this turtle business. When you’re with the turtles, you really enter their world. That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about finding them. I’ve always loved the places where I’ve found them.”
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.