Of tur­tles and dragon­flies

Rappahannock News - - TURE • MEETINGS • CROSSWORD - PAM OWEN [email protected] © 2014 Pam Owen

Tak­ing a break from star­ing at a com­puter all day, this week I headed into the for­est near my house to see what’s changed as spring pro­gresses. I took an old log­ging road that’s over­grown with bloom­ing cranes­bill and rag­wort, berry canes and spice­bush this time of year.

Near the spring that cuts across the trail I spotted a boldly colored east­ern box tur­tle. Its head and legs were mostly bright yel­low, with con­trast­ing dark patches, and its eyes were a fiendish red. Hav­ing spotted me, the tur­tle went into its shell, so I took the op­por­tu­nity to check its gen­der. While most ma­ture males do have red irises, this is not al­ways the case, but there’s a surer way to check gen­der.

I had lots of box tur­tles as pets when I was a kid, so I got to ob­serve a lot of their be­hav­ior, in­clud­ing mat­ing. One even laid eggs in the large wooden box in which I was keep­ing her be­fore I got a chance to re­lease her back into the wild.

Tur­tles mate much like many mam­mals, such as horses or dogs, with the male mount­ing the fe­male from the rear. The dif­fer­ence for male box tur­tles is that they have a big lo­gis­tics prob­lem — the hard, domed shell of the fe­male. For­tu­nately, males have evolved to have a dent in their bot­tom shell to ac­com­mo­date the curve of the fe­male’s top shell. Mat­ing can still be a chal­lenge, es­pe­cially on a hill, but some­how box tur­tles get the job done.

Turn­ing over the tur­tle, I found the dented bot­tom shell of a male and set him back down care­fully where I had found him. Af­ter en­joy­ing watch­ing the late af­ter­noon light fil­ter­ing through the for­est for a while, I felt my dead­lines beck­on­ing, so reluc­tantly headed home to my com­puter.

The next day, I went back to see if the tur­tle was still there, this time tak­ing my cam­era with me. Box tur­tles are slow, but they do keep mov­ing around their small ter­ri­tory to find food and mates, so I was ac­tu­ally sur­prised to find the same tur­tle only a few inches from where I’d seen him the af­ter­noon be­fore.

I tried to get down get low enough to pho­to­graph his hand­some mark­ings, but in mov­ing some veg­e­ta­tion out of the way, I star­tled the tur­tle and he re­treated into his shell. It was an­other beau­ti­ful spring day, and I didn’t need much of an ex­cuse to play hooky, so I sat on the ground among the lush green for­est un­der­story and waited for him to reemerge. While I waited, I tried to slow down my thoughts and my breath­ing, al­low­ing my senses to take over. I’d learned over many years that this was the only way to re­ally ex­pe­ri­ence na­ture to its fullest.

A fat-bod­ied, brown drag­on­fly flew by, dart­ing back and forth above the veg­e­ta­tion grow­ing in the spring a few feet away, look­ing for prey. I thought of how dif­fer­ently the drag­on­fly, tur­tle and I must per­ceive the world the world around us, es­pe­cially time.

For the drag­on­fly, life is brief and sur­vival de­pends on mov­ing fast and of­ten to catch prey and avoid preda­tors. For the tur­tle, the world moves by much more slowly, stretch­ing over many years as he pa­tiently ex­plores his world, look­ing for food that moves slowly or not at all, and well-pro­tected from most preda­tors by his shell.

Be­ing ADD (AD/HD as a child), I tend to ap­proach the world more like the drag­on­fly, but in­creas­ingly yearn to be more of a tur­tle, slow­ing down enough to sa­vor all the sights, sounds and smells around me. Age has helped with that.

As I waited, the work dead­lines re­ceded and I be­came more aware of the for­est around me. I no­ticed the move­ment of in­sects among the fo­liage on the for­est floor. A large, dark bee­tle moved quickly through the un­der­growth on the other side of the tur­tle, too fast for me to see it clearly. A smaller, iri­des­cent one scut­tled around near my feet, and a fly landed on a plant next to me, also iri­des­cent in the sun­light fil­ter­ing through the for­est canopy.

I could smell the wet earth, spice­bush and other fo­liage and fi­nally an earthy, musky scent rem­i­nis­cent of mush­rooms, al­though I didn’t see any nearby. Save for a few birds and the dis­tant sound of the river at the bot­tom of the hol­low, it was quiet and peace­ful.

Sud­denly, I heard some­thing large mov­ing my way not far above me on the moun­tain. Many a time, I’ve sat in the wilds of North Amer­ica watch­ing some an­i­mal, only to turn around and find some an­i­mal watch­ing me. I slowly scanned the for­est up the moun­tain, to no avail. I thought about the bear I’d seen fre­quently on the property in the last few weeks, but that was a small year­ling, and what was mov­ing through the for­est sounded big­ger. I turned back to the tur­tle, de­cid­ing to let the story un­fold on its own.

The sounds got louder, closer, but now I heard a very fa­mil­iar sound — the snort­ing of a star­tled deer. I still couldn’t see it, and I doubt it could see or smell me, since I was down­wind. Likely some­thing else had dis­turbed it. The sounds fi­nally re­ceded up the moun­tain, and the for­est grew quiet again.

Af­ter a few more min­utes, the tur­tle slowly opened its shell, and even­tu­ally stuck out its head and then its front feet. He stared at me but didn’t move as I care­fully leaned closer to get bet­ter shots with my cam­era. As al­ways when I look into this an­cient species’ eyes, I felt like I was look­ing back mil­lions of years.

Then, I moved a bit too quickly, and the tur­tle abruptly pulled back into his shell. I fig­ured that was enough pho­tog­ra­phy for both of us that day, so left the tur­tle on his own and reluc­tantly headed back home.


A boldly colored male box tur­tle ex­plores the for­est floor.


An uniden­ti­fied denizen of the for­est floor.

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