In nature nothing exists alone. – Rachel Carson
Several months ago, on an early June morning, I was driving to Arcadia to visit my site when I saw what could easily be taken for a small dinosaur trudging along the sidewalk on Pleasant street, near the Manhan River bridge. It was in fact a rather enormous mother snapping turtle on her annual pilgrimage to her nesting ground. I pulled over to watch, ready to redirect traffic if she started into the street (see the bottom of this article for info about how to help turtles crossing streets. Unless you are a Certified Snapping Turtle Wrangler or have no particular fondness for your digits, please do not attempt to handle them!!). The efficient and noisy indifference of the passing cars was in utter contrast to the turtle’s silent, deliberate progress. I watched in amazement as she lumbered alongside the traffic, lifting and placing each craggy-armored foot with achingly slow precision. I wondered how many years she’d been making this trip and how the landscape of her home-ground had changed in that time. I wondered how many road crossings she had survived and how many hatchlings she had brought into the world. I wondered how many of the passing commuters even noticed her.
Through this daily practice of sitting in the woods, I have started to develop a new understanding of how I am connected to the mother snapping turtle; the deer I see on a near-daily basis; the hemlock tree I lean against as I take in the forest sounds. This understanding is very different from what I could imagine at the outset of this project, when my ecologist-self hoped I’d acquire new insights into the facts of these creatures’ lives and their intersection with my own. What I’ve found has been qualitatively different, and to me, more profound. It involves no additional knowledge, no accumulation of data, but rather a bone-and-sinew understanding of my fundamental kinship with both the turtle and everything else in this forest. The act of routinely stepping outside the sphere of human concerns and opening to the unhurried complexity of the forest has made me keenly aware: we are made of the same stuff, governed by the same natural laws. Like the largely-ignored forested matrix that surrounds and interpenetrates our human communities, we are endlessly unfolding processes that respond to an infinite array of inputs, conditions, and relationships. As long as we experience ourselves as separate from nature, we imagine the damage we do as something apart from ourselves. But beyond destroying our planetary life-support systems, I now more deeply understand a subtle but critical way we harm ourselves: the essence within us which is like the turtle – slow, cyclical, obeying natural laws, mysterious, unprofitable – is also marginalized, is also threading its way through an unyielding landscape that is foreign to its nature and needs.
*In a few months it will be turtle egg-laying season again, and mother turtles will be crossing roads to reach their customary nesting sites. Whenever you encounter a turtle on the road, there are safety issues involved: obviously the turtle is at risk from the traffic, but please remember that you are too! The ideal situation is to allow the turtle to cross on its own with as little interference as possible. If it’s safe to do so, this may involve being a crossing guard and alerting other drivers to the turtle’s presence. Use your common sense! The turtles know where they are going, so please do not redirect them, or move them from the path they’re taking. If the turtle is *not* a snapping turtle, and the situation requires you to move the turtle in order to keep it (and you) safe, you can pick the turtle up by grasping it firmly on either side of its shell, midway between the front and back legs, and moving it off the road in the direction it was heading. While snapping turtles can be lifted safely (and are more gentle than most people realize), it takes some know-how to do it without putting yourself or the turtle at risk, and I don’t recommend trying it if you haven’t been shown by someone experienced. Finally, NEVER pick up a turtle by its tail!