Thursday, October 2, 2008

Swampbikers Journal

You’d think chocolate croissants would be incentive enough, but recently my children balked at our Sunday ritual of walking to the farmers’ market. Luckily, it turned out they were irked not by the destination but the pace. Family harmony was restored the next week by disentangling bikes from the jumbled garage and setting out as usual.

Laden with melons, apples, and sweet corn, we parents lagged behind on the return trip, only able to watch from afar as my daughter swerved off the path and crashed to the ground. Sarah laughingly explained, “I swerved to avoid a rock—with a tail!” Her swift self-sacrifice preserved the young life of a quarter-sized snapping turtle. A second hatchling was soon spotted crawling down the hill toward a stream, and we sat on the grass to watch their progress—and make sure no other bikers ground them into the tarmac.

I was thinking: the only thing that could make the discovery more fun would be more kids to share it with. Then down the path came a mom and two small girls. “Did you find a baby turtle?” the mom called. One child cradled a cardboard box, temporary quarters for another fiesty reptile. The mom turned out to be a talented nature photographer, Sharon Shomette, who had found the snapper snippet while out walking her dog and returned home for her camera (and pj-clad daughters). This shot catches the youngster's attitude perfectly.

Sharon’s confidence & enthusiasm instantly convinced us that she should lead our expedition. As she scrambled down a muddy bank to photograph the captive's release, I turned to my forte—-thinking of books that could enrich our experience. Quick as a shutter release, I thought of David M. Carroll, author of three wetlands natural history books known affectionately as the “wet sneaker trilogy.” If you never considered snappers as beautiful creatures, you’ll rethink your position after reading Carroll’s passionate ode to all things chelonian, Swampwalker's Journal. Carroll’s paintings and sketches of turtles and their boggy abodes also grace the books, further reflecting the intimacy of his connection to the New Hampshire marsh where he has studied snapping, spotted, and painted turtles for decades.

As I watched my kids delighting in sunshine, mud, and baby snappers with smiling neighbors, I wished they could experience a friendship like Carroll describes in his memoir, Self-Portrait with Turtles. Two pre-teens roaming free in a red-maple swamp, David & friend learned enough about cattails and carapace patterns in summer to sustain them through the dark classroom days of fall. Even when exploring on his own, young David remained connected to the girl who shared his outdoor adventures. Finding a yellow spotted turtle, he questions his impulse to capture it for his friend. I did not collect turtles or give them away, remembers Carroll, “But as I held this exquisite little one, I saw it as a living jewel she could keep for a time.” I trust that our morning with the snappers will be remembered as that same kind of gift, made less fleeting by Sharon’s fine photos, and more nourishing to the soul than the flakiest croissant.