A Search for Turtles
The other day at the Essex Country Ornithological Society Club Meeting,
I met two people named Will and Marilyn, both of them librarians, Will at Harvard, Marilyn at a public branch, and they asked me if I wanted to go with them in search of turtles.
It was an easy yes.
Coincidentally the week before a child had told me, “a snapping turtle could bite my finger off if it wanted to.” I was curious under what circumstances a turtle would “want” to bite a finger off. Bad manners? A bad Ninja Turtle joke?
Will emailed me directions to their house in Newburyport along the North Shore above Boston and Salem. I met them there just after lunch. We drove together to Maudslay State Park, a 480 acre former estate that sits along the Merrimack River, which flows 117 miles through Massachusetts and empties near here into the Atlantic Ocean. The day was sunny and warming up, with a few clouds along the horizon, windblown by the sea.
Will, Marilyn and I ambled through the park stopping to look at mushrooms and name the plants we saw on our way to a few select ponds in the woods. We talked about birds they’d seen here, and on Plum island - just to our southeast. The elevation changed by varying degree, but never by much though and we walked over small ridges and hills, past white oaks, beech trees, and shaggy barked hickory. The scent of loamy earth, late September wildflowers, salt from the nearby sea.
They showed me artwork along the trail placed by local artists, and took me to a place where eagles are often seen. They took me to an old mill house along a calm, lily covered lake that once turned the wheels of industry as it drained into the Merrimack. Flipped upside down along the lake’s shore was a sky blue canoe, half covered in ivy.
Snapping turtles are freshwater amphibians, so they spend most of their lives in lakes, ponds, marshes and rivers. Aside from sunning themselves on the occasional log, or coming out to bite off someone’s finger, they spend most of their time in the water on the muddy bottom, gathering food. But at the end of summer and early fall each year, female snapping turtles will climb up out of the water and crawl through the grass in search of a place to dig into the ground to lay their eggs. They typically lay between 20-40 soft shelled eggs, roughly the size of a marshmallow. It can take anywhere from 55 to 125 days after the female lays the eggs for the inch long hatchlings to emerge. At which point, the little turtles quickly wiggle their way back to the water, hoping to not get eaten. (Can a turtle”hope” for something? Does a baby turtle have thoughts? Do baby humans have thoughts, the way we adults think of thoughts? Do baby turtles and baby humans share some primal “hope” or thought to get to safety?)
On this day Will, Marilyn and I hoped to see some of these mama turtles in their nesting rituals. We looked in all of the spots they had seen them the day before. And as is often the case when on a search for something specific, we came up empty handed, or empty binocular'd rather, seeing no turtles as we peered over foot bridges, into thickets, and along the pond’s edge where the water meets the marsh grass.
Not until the very last pond did Will spot something that technically counted towards our goal. A small turtle the size of a chocolate chip cookie, sitting still on a log 30 yards out in a beautiful, algae covered pond the color of a kaffir lime. It didn’t move, or give us anything to gasp or gawk over. We couldn’t see it moving, or laying any eggs. It paid us no mind, as it had no obligations towards us. We all thought it a little funny that this little turtle was the climax of our venture. A silver lining of not seeing any big snapping turtles turtles, was that not a single one of our fingers were bitten off. Not even one.
As we drove away from these well-loved woods, this quote from Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse came into my mind as the thing we had sought, had eluded us:
“When someone seeks, then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means having a goal. But finding means being free, being open, having no goal. […] Striving for your goal, there are many things you don’t see, which are directly in front of your eyes.”
Searching can get in the way of seeing. A thought I keep coming back to…
I had told Will upon his invitation to search for turtles, that even if we didn’t see any, I was sure there would be plenty of other interesting sights to take in and I would have a great time. I said this to him truthfully, but I also anticipated that we would come across several turtles, as they had just recently seen them in the places they would be taking me. So, truly the Gods of Wonder wanted to see our true selves as we walked paths through the lush woods, on this green yet turtle-less day.
Turtles or not, it was a beautiful outing and I was very happy to meet these two librarians and to be shown one of their favorite spots.
It was the jewel of the day -
That these two people whom I had never met would invite and share with me something that they loved. Thank you Will and Marilyn.
And so, in the spirit of Siddhartha, and in the spirit of finding, instead of offering a collection of turtle photos that never came to be, I offer you a collection of mushroom photos, which the woods was more than willing to offer. (Also, here’s a poem about searching and seeing in a post I wrote about Sandhill Cranes that explores this idea in a different way)
If you’d like to share a place you love with me via email, or would want to go on a walk to show me your favorite place in person, please send me a message — firstname.lastname@example.org
And as a bonus, here are some turtle photos from the one my friend Ryan and I found in Northern Michigan trying to cross a busy road (see the full post of that day here). We helped it across the road so it wouldn’t get run over, and naturally we found it when we weren’t searching for it.
Do you have a story of searching for something that you couldn’t find? Or thoughts about searching getting in the way of seeing? Do you set out with a goal and find something unexpected along the way? Share your story in the comment section below, or send me a message with your story and a photo or two at email@example.com Thanks!