Time And A Turtle

Why did the snapping turtle cross the road? To lay eggs, of course. But you knew that.

I had started the Subaru and was releasing the clutch before I saw a carapace big as my steering wheel in the rear view mirror. The town turtle was resting in the middle of the driveway, blocking me from backing up.

Snapping turtlePlease do not mind if I talk turtle for a little while. It has been three years since I saw her last. It touched me to have a glimpse of her again yesterday. Snapping turtles live thirty five to forty years; so she is likely the same one who passed by in previous Junes. She was on her way home this time, hiking back to the pond where her clan has lived for as long as anyone remembers.

A snapping turtle pair has lived in the town pond since it was dug, many decades ago, to channel the Saw Mill River away from town center. Less a river than a shallow, winding tributary of the Hudson, the Saw Mill meanders through local marshes. But the pond is dammed, making it deep enough to satisfy summering geese, an occasional heron, black crappies, sunfish, and the resident turtles.

The Tortoise and the Hare. Illustration for The Fables of Jean de la Fontaine (1880 edition).
The Tortoise and the Hare. Illustration for The Fables of Jean de la Fontaine (1880 edition).

Every spring the female makes the long, grueling trek uphill and beyond to find a suitable nesting place. No one knows precisely how far she travels. All we know is that the Chelydra serpentina sisterhood has stamina. My neighbor will migrate as much as a mile away from home for her accouchement.

She digs a hole, lays her eggs, scratches a bit of covering over them, and leaves. After so much toil and travel, she has no interest left for the nursery. Eggs are abandoned to the kindness of ravens, raccoons, coyotes and snakes. The sex of her hatchlings—if any eggs make it that far—is determined by the caprices of atmospheric temperature.

Our turtle’s route is limited by the pond’s location at the very edge of town. If she heads east, she lands on concrete by Starbucks or Citibank. Going north, she would be taking too high a chance on a two-lane truck route. To the south, the odds are only slightly less lethal. A sensible turtle would travel west, toward the secluded wetlands that feed the pond. So she does.

Her reptilian GPS points uphill, across my neighbor’s septic field, over rocks, and through dense tangles of hydrangea, pachysandra, barberry and forsythia roots. By the time she reaches the top of my driveway, she has already journeyed several hundred yards up from her ancestral home. It is a placid, deliberate creep that prompted the anthropomorphic generosity of Fontaine’s version of the sturdy Aesop fable:

Let the tortoise go her gait
In solemn, senatorial state.
She starts; she moils on, modestly and lowly.
And with a prudent wisdom hastens slowly.

When we met this time, she faced downhill. She was homeward bound on a trajectory that would take her, if she held a straight line, to a drop over a eight-foot stone wall. But navigating was her problem. Mine was different: How to drive past her to make an appointment?

I thought of putting on work gloves and moving her by hand. It was a very quick thought, hastened along by the nasty look of those claws and the long, flexible neck (retracted when I came close to take a photo). She was quite capable of reaching around to sink a sharp beak into me if I picked her up.

There was nothing to do but let the engine idle until she decided to get up and keep walking. While I sat in the car she did not move.
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So I ducked into the house to busy myself with odds and ends for a few minutes. I came back outside just in time to see her disappearing into the hedges, still on track for a tumble over the wall.

It was getting late. No time to wait to see if she had managed a detour. I backed up, turned the car around and drove off. But I left with vague regret, a shiver of rue. A descendant from the age of dinosaurs had stopped outside my door. Had she waited on the asphalt, in full view, to mock the novelty of my race? Taunt me for the pity of my own brief span?

Her species emerged tens, possibly hundreds, of millions of years ago.
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Her kind is so much older than mine and might well—who knows how?— outlast it. She rose from ponds immemorial.

Her stock will endure down the ages in settings too cruel for my own. Divested of conscience, of maternal scruple, fellow feeling, and all religious presuppositions, she embodies the terrible beauty of creation. The hidden God manifests himself in the genius of chelonian longevity.

The Giver of life is a fearsome Lord.