Thursday, June 14, 2007

A two turtle trip

Richard and I just returned from a 3,300-mile road trip across the Southern Great Plains. Our odyssey took us across Colorado and New Mexico, the length of Oklahoma - panhandle and all, and into Arkansas, where we spent a day atop the state’s tallest peak, 2,753-foot-high Mount Magazine. We drove south to the Texas Hill Country with its limestone caves, bat flights, and spreading live oaks.

In Austin, I interviewed Mark Simmons, a plant ecologist passionate about the need to re-wild urban open spaces at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center for an article I'm researching on living roofs for Audubon magazine. From there we headed south to the border at Eagle Pass and then back to San Marcos in the Hill Country, where I spoke and taught a workshop at the Land Full of Stories Conference. From San Marcos, we headed home via Marfa in West Texas, where Richard immersed himself in minimalist art at the Chinati and Judd Foundations' collections, and I finished up the sidebars for an article for National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts' youngARTS magazine. Then we crossed the Chihuahuan Desert and followed the Rio Grande north through New Mexico to home.

But it’s the turtles that stick in my mind from the trip. We spotted them everywhere: in roadside ditches, bayous, springs, in the blue flow of Hill-Country rivers. And on the roads too. Sometimes moving slowly on leathery legs, sometimes dead, shells cracked and innards gaping.

We stopped to move the first one off the road in Arkansas. It was a big painted turtle, its shell a calligraphy of markings that turtles apparently read to identify each other. In far south Texas, we stopped for a slider whose shell grew a mossy garden of algae, perched on the centerline of a highway nowhere near a stream. After Richard toted it to safety, we sped on, hoping the turtle knew where it was going.

One morning in San Marcos, we passed a huge red-eared slider struggling to climb a curb at the edge of a four-lane street. I hopped out, darted over and picked it up, my hands slipping on the turtle’s dinner-plate-sized shell.

It kicked, twisting hard. I dropped it, and my heart thudded as carapace hit concrete.

I picked the big turtle up again, gripping the slick shell firmly, and lifted it carefully over the highway fence. Then I waited, heart in hand, until its head emerged.

The last turtle we met on the trip was in an inner courtyard of a famous sculptor’s home in Marfa. The tour guide opened a wood door to let us look into a spare space enclosed by nine-foot-high adobe walls. A small, three-sided green “room” delineated by living bamboo walls punctuated an empty expanse of gravel and brick.

“There’s a tortoise with a cracked shell in here,” she said. “It’s been here for years,” she added, “probably rescued from the highway.”

A high-domed desert box turtle with a split creasing its shell hunkered in a patch of shade, watching us with unblinking eyes.

As we drove away, I thought about that box turtle: it had all the bamboo it could eat, water from a sunken pool in the courtyard floor, sunny spots to bask in and shade for rest. But it could not get out, and no other turtle could get in. So it would live out its life alone, sentenced by its injury to a courtyard prison instead of free to roam the desert grasslands.

And I wondered - I still do - if the person who hit that turtle even noticed the thump. Or if they drove on, unaware.

A Native American origin story tells how the world began as a watery place, with no land at all until toad dove deep beneath the surface and emerged with a bit of mud in his mouth. After the other animals plastered that mouthful of mud to turtle’s shell, the earth grew and grew until it became enough land for everyone.

Turtle, says the tale, still carries the world with room for us all on her shell.
(revised 6/19/07)

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