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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Brave Young Turtles

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Sy Montgomery tells of her admiration for the courage and wisdom of newborn snapping turtles.


NUNLEY: One aquatic creature that's been around nearly forever is the snapping turtle. Snapping turtles first appeared on the earth some 200 million years ago when ferns grew tall as trees and dragonflies were the size of crows. In all that time, commentator Sy Montgomery says the snapping turtle has learned some important lessons.

MONTGOMERY: Every fall I go out with my friend David Carroll, the turtle man, to look for baby snappers. David goes to study and draw and write about them. I go for a dose of courage to help me face the coming winter. Everyone knows adult snappers are tough, fearless creatures. You would be, too, if you had jaws that could snap a broomstick and a shell tough as a shield. Even the back end of an adult snapper can teach you a lesson if you try to mess with it. With its back feet the turtle will grab your hand and drag it across the serrated edge of the shell beneath the tail like a crosscut saw.

But baby snappers are even more inspiring. At only one inch long and only days or hours old, they're incredibly strong and brave and determined. They make great role models when you're feeling puny and helpless. Just by the simple act of hatching, these babies have overcome enormous odds. Some turtle experts estimate that 90% of snapper nests are dug up and eaten by predators like skunks. Newly hatched, the turtle faces a gauntlet of other predators: birds, dogs, snakes, cats, raccoons, weasels will all try to eat them. Cars can run them over. Children will harass them. And that's just on the way to the water. Once there, other dangers lurk. Bullfrogs, pickerel, other snappers. The trip ahead is so perilous that Henry David Thoreau compared their journeys to those of Ulysses in the Iliad.

Yet, if you watch one of those babies heading toward the water, there's nothing fearful about it. It's not running. It's crawling quickly but resolutely, as if absolutely sure of what it's doing. As we watch a baby snapper heading determinedly toward some destination we cannot see, I ask David how the babies know where to do. He says to me, "I think they're soil scientists, botanists, hydrologists. They know all about these things. They've lived so long on the earth."

Some folks would have us believe that baby snappers only seem brave because they don't have sense enough to fear their own doom. But David looks at it another way. These turtles are brave because they are wise. Because their wisdom stretches back millions of years. And I think that is where bravery and wisdom originated. Not in some creed some human made up. For true bravery and wisdom, we need to go back to turtle knowing. The ancient wellspring we, too, can draw upon, as we struggle to live bravely on the earth.

NUNLEY: Sy Montgomery is author of The Spell of the Tiger. She comes to us from New Hampshire Public Radio.



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