CLASSIC: Turtles Studies by David Carroll

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Video: Interview with David Carroll

Excerpt: David Carroll’s new book, Following the Water

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.

On that April day, David made notes on four wood turtles, a painted turtle, and a snapping turtle. One, a young wood turtle, he zipped into his backpack and carried home for further study. But he didn’t see a spotted turtle, the kind that began it all for this 51-year-old artist and naturalist. He marks it back to when he was eight years old, living in Groton, Connecticut. He and his brother lived to explore the patches of woods that connected the housing developments near where they lived.

“It was late afternoon. The light was at that angle. Everything about that afternoon was magical,” he says. He looked down into the grass and saw the shining black shell, as bright as lacquer, and the yellow spots, like drops from his paint box. “I still get that feeling, I hope I never lose it, that jolt, that start, when I find a turtle.”

He says he cannot remember a time when he did not have turtles living with him. He thinks back to when he lived under a pet store, with a blanket for a door and his only heat coming from the big pipes that passed through the space. “Just a little shy of homeless,” he says. Still, he had room for turtles.

David’s house is three miles from the Digs. Dumb luck, he says. “There’s a guy in Michigan who has to go 200 miles to get to his study area.”

The house is old, shutters askew and paint peeling. Inside, sloping plaster ceilings are held together with tape, and the floors sag and creak as David enters and sets his pack on the chair beside the door. “Look here,” he says to Laurette, pulling the wood turtle from the pack. “Isn’t she beautiful?” The turtle’s legs stroke the air. This may be the zillionth turtle David has brought home. Laurette, a tiny, dark-haired woman, touches the shell lightly, saying, “Oh, yes.”

The house smells of wood smoke and asparagus. Laurette is making this cheesy asparagus “thing” that David loves, and in a black skillet, fish spatters and pops.

It was while he was living under the pet store that he met Laurette, also an art student. They have been married 30 years, and together they have raised three children. They have put together a life – selling paintings, writing stories, and studying turtles. But life has been lean, to be tactful.

“I tell Laurette not to worry until we’re out of money. And she says, ‘We are out of money,’ and I say, ‘No, we’re not; I’ve still got three bucks.’ You can’t always laugh about it,” David says. “There are nights when my hair almost falls out.”

Laurette spreads a cloth across one end of the long wooden table for supper. At the other end of the table is a yellow plastic wash basin with four silver-dollar-sized hatchlings that David brought home yesterday. In a cardboard box beside the stove he nestles the new wood turtle into dried grasses and sticks. In the next room, within six aquariums, turtles of various ages and types creep about on small logs, swim in green water, sit completely still. They are here because they have been injured, or because they have been threatened, or because he needs to study them more closely. When they are ready, he returns them to the Digs. Some, such as the Chinese box turtle, David “rescued” from pet shops. One he has had for 22 years.

Laurette lights a tall candle. The plates are steaming. The last shafts of sun angle in flat against the big old house next door: Sibley’s house. “Sibley,” a woman from Washington, D.C., who spent all her summers in Warner, had been their landlady. For 15 years she rented them their house, and every year, as things got tougher for them, she went down a little on the rent. Last year, at the age of 101, Sibley died and left their house and five acres to David and Laurette. Her kindness overwhelmed them. To them, this house is a palace, the most beautiful place in the world. And it is theirs. These gestures, the cars and the house, represent the kind of grace David needs and has somehow received. ”In the absence of success, I’ll take charity and luck anytime,” he says.

Thirteen years ago, David put together a book about the turtles he had studied and painted. His watercolors were bright and infused with soft light. His sketches showed the turtles migrating, the turtles lined up on logs, the turtles sleeping, the turtles mating. An agent in New York was excited about the book. But it languished in her office for 12 years. At last, in the spring of 1991, The Year of the Turtle was published by Camden House, a small Vermont publisher. It was well reviewed, and a film crew from the “Today” show trekked out into the Digs with him. Annie Dillard wrote him a fan letter. This spring his book about trout, for which he made more than 100 illustrations, will be published by St. Martin’s, a New York publisher with nationwide distribution. His hope is renewed.

David considers himself an artist first and a naturalist second. Virtually all of his scientific expertise has been gained in the field. Because of this, he has been instrumental in fighting various developments that threaten turtle habitats. Last year his testimony delayed a small development south of his home in New Hampshire. Spotted turtles, once so common but now on the threatened species list, lived near the proposed site. And with the help of a state grant, he is writing an exhaustive report of his observations in the Digs for the New Hampshire Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program. These reports are valuable. And rare. For reasons unknown, very little turtle data exist.

Perhaps because growing up he watched the places where turtles could live disappear, David is very concerned about the diminishing habitat for turtles all over the world. Nothing he can think of is more depressing. “There have always been wars, personal loss, heartbreak, death, and they are tough. But those things are part of life. What depresses me so deeply that I don’t know a cure for is what is happening to these natural places. It makes me sadder than all the wars on earth.”

The Digs are owned by several generations of the same family. They are farmers, and there doesn’t seem to be any inclination among them toward development. “I have hopes that that will be my own place to roam for the rest of my life,” David says.

By September the sumac is tinted red. The year of the turtle man is almost over. In mid-October, he’ll say good-bye to the Digs and go inside. It’s been a pretty good year. Among other things, he’s encountered Ariadne four times. Today David is looking for hatchlings. Since mid-August, he’s been out here checking the nests that he has covered, probably 20 in all. But for every one he knows about, there are many that he has not discovered.

In a clearing, he moves toward a screened nest above a small sand pit. “That’s just as she left it, at 2:07 A.M., June 29,” he says, kneeling and lifting the protective covering of dried ferns. “This is the first-ever Blanding’s turtle nest in this area,” he explains.

Blanding’s turtles, whose shells are marked with delicate yellow flecks, are increasingly rare. That June evening, David spotted one around 6:30. “She stuck her long neck out and threw a great arc of sand over her shell. I knew she was about to lay her eggs.” David moved behind a screen of pine trees and stood still to watch. “There was something bothering her. I couldn’t tell what it was.”

Dusk spreads. There was still enough light, however, for him to recognize the gray fox stalking the birthing mother. In the shadows he watched their delicate dance. After it was completely dark, he couldn’t see, but he could hear her digging. He stood for hours. When he was satisfied she’d successfully laid her eggs, he moved out from behind the pines and marked the nest. It was two o’clock in the morning. “My back has never been quite the same,” he says now, studying the nest for signs of life. There are none.

David moves on slowly, taking two steps and then stopping to look around him. He is looking for what he calls “tail drag,” light, whispery lines in the sand. There are tracks everywhere — rabbit, coon, deer, black bear — but not that. What else is there, everywhere in the Digs, is the whorly pattern of the soles of David’s sneakers. He points to a hole in the sand. Eggshells, dried and curled like thin white rubber, spill out. “Snapper,” he says.

Farther on there are deep, wide circles in the sand. Kids have been there with their dirt bikes. David sighs. “This is just within the past two days,” he says. There is pain on his face. “I get so tense out here sometimes.” Over the summer he encountered his first evidence of a spotted turtle killed by humans in the Digs.

“Early one morning, I found an adult female who had been killed by haying equipment. There is no way, of course, anyone could have seen the turtle in the deep, dense grass.” He didn’t say anything. “I would hate to make such a discovery of Ariadne or of 13 April, turtles I’ve had a long association with.”

It’s a long day, and it is hot for September. He comes to the last nest, covered and flagged in the hayfield. There is no sign of life. It doesn’t discourage him. There will be tomorrow. “One of the things I like about turtles is their sense of time. They’re not all hopped up about things. They live a long time if things work out for them. They’re the longest-lived species. They seem to have a sense of patience about them. Maybe that’s just something I read into them. But they are just so at home in the world. We’re always rushing around. We need food, we need water, we need air. Turtles can go six months without food, six months without air. It’s OK with them.”

The next day, just beyond the Route of a Thousand Spotted Turtles, he came across a hatchling spotted turtle, only the third hatchling spotted he’s found. “It was in about a quarter of an inch of water, jet black, tiny yellow spots, a little living jewel,” he reports with obvious relish. It could be — it just could be — Ariadne’s daughter. A little farther along, he found one of his covered nests full of half a dozen hatchlings. Wood turtles. He brought them home and measured them and recorded them and then took them back out and released them. “They’re out there somewhere,” he says.

In the spring, with the kind of charity and luck that follows David Carroll, he may encounter them in Buttonbush Swamp or Cranberry Hollows or Leatherleaf Islands, somewhere within the enduring grip of life in the Digs.

  • Sheila

    This was an absolutely lovely and moving story, one which I shall treasure always.


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