Turtleidae (Turtle-day)

Originally posted June 8, 2014

 The reptile that rests between the rotting planks and metal rails of the train tracks that border the Hudson River is like a living fossil. Its hard shell is smooth and ground down. Heavy wrinkles sag in and around its neck, and it is as if stones are inset into the elephantine skin of its limbs. But what are most seductive about the snapping turtle are its eyes: cold yellow eyes that gleam with the intensity of a fierce monster. They are as alien as they are dinosaurian. And as they watch me approaching with a giant snapping turtle-sized net, I cannot imagine that they are pleased.

             Although it may seem like an odd activity to partake in on an early Sunday morning, Susan, Kate, and I are in the Tivoli Bays with the enormous net on an important mission. Once a year, female snapping turtles will lumber across land to lay their eggs in loamy soil. The egg laying takes place within a span of a few days, and last year, Susan and I had been lucky enough to go birding on a morning when no less than a dozen turtles were hard at work. It was incredible to watch the relentless turtles digging furiously in the dark earth with their hind legs. It was even more awing to watch the white eggs drop from beneath them into the dirt. The next generation of snapping turtles was being spawned before our eyes.

            Yet the harsh reality of what we were experiencing also lay before us. Even as new nests were being dug and filled, we could see many that had already been raided, the eggs ripped apart and the small pieces tossed everywhere. And a dismembered turtle in the middle of the tracks was a painful reminder of how even the snapping turtle-a creature with no predators besides humans once it becomes an adult- even its impenetrable armor is helpless against the trains.

            Last year, Susan and I had set about saving the turtles on the train tracks by prying them upwards with planks. Although we did not lose any fingers, needless to say, it was obvious that we needed more refined equipment. So this year, with the enormous orange net in hand, I was ready to again face the turtles in an attempt to help save them.

            I do not know why I am not afraid to approach the dinosaur. Its jaws could easily wreck me. We eye each other warily as I angle the net behind it. Somewhere in the distance of the rest of reality, willow flycatchers and red-winged blackbirds and yellow warbler are singing. But there is only cold, silent focus between the turtle and I. In the space between this reptilian, primordial creature and my soft, human body, I feel adrenaline and confidence. I know that I am safe because I know that I am trying to help it. As the net scoops up the turtle, it writhes and snaps, its fleshy pink mouth darting forward so fast I jump. It is so heavy that I can barely heft it within the net.

            I feel like a warrior as I walk with a dinosaur at the mercy of my human power. I cross the tracks with the turtle and deposit it on the other side. Its thick claws are entangled in the holes in the net, and I cannot shake it out without carefully pulling the rim of the net back and under its shell. Finally, I can roll it out with a push. It is frozen-with fear, with fury, or with gratitude, I will never know- but I am relieved to know that the gleaming eyes will continue to hold light in them instead of darkening beneath the scream of a thundering train.