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Turtle Time

Posted by: Editor on 4/13/2011
We have been reading David M. Carroll’s Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook, a 2009 National Book Award Finalist, to learn more about snakes’ four-legged cousins, the turtles.

Since Carroll received a MacArthur “genius” award in 2006 for a lifetime of turtle observation, translated into artwork and writing, his work has been receiving greater attention. He was featured on the Today show reaching into murky waters for a turtle and a youtube clip shows him in his studio, with characteristic black headband wrapped around flowing white hair, amid a towering pile of his artwork and books. In the clip he talks about turtle time, something he has learned to understand and be part of, as distinct from mammalian time.

David M. Carroll has written a number of books, but this latest one fills you in on how to become someone who actually sees turtles in their natural habitat. Turtle carapaces, with their swirly, etched scutes, have been shaped through time for crypsis—protective camouflage. Many of us may have seen a turtle but usually it’s crossing a road, not in their habitat. Carroll has spent 50 years wading, often up to his thighs, in what he calls the wetlandscape—streams, bogs, carrs, swamps, fens, and the like. You have to stay still long enough to allow the pattern of the turtle’s carapace or the wrinkled surface of a clawed foot to be seen amidst the numerous intersecting, distracting lines of the wild landscape.

In one passage in the book he describes taking his artist wife on “a wade” and notes that she exclaims over the beautiful blues of the water, which are the color tones of the sky reflected in the surface of the water. He is astonished. Blues? He doesn’t see any blues because his eyes are focused on the tea-water colors beneath the surface where the turtles lurk. He and his wife pause at a place where he sees a pair of spotted turtles mating. He is excited because they are right beneath their feet, such a clear view, and she, having failed to notice them, replies, “I would never see turtles.” Though an artist, her eyes have not been trained to see turtles because that requires inhabiting their landscape as if one is a turtle oneself.

Reading this book is like taking a walk with a turtle. There is a lot of water, and there are lot of branches in the way--alder, silky dogwood, willow—it’s sometimes murky, sometimes sparkling, and then suddenly a turtle or a procession of mating turtle couples appear. But it’s not always a pretty sight. In fact, it’s often pretty gruesome. Warriors in the wild, Carroll's turtles have battled with otters and other predators. Many are missing limbs, both front legs or both back legs, even a combination perhaps, but they keep moving. Carroll writes that wood turtles are remarkably resistant to bleeding to death. But evolution has not prepared them for high-speed cars and trucks. For millions of years turtles have been unpretentious inhabitants of the Earth, sleeping half the year underwater (e.g., wood turtles, spotted turtles, Blanding’s turtles) and coming out in the warmer months for their mating rituals, but now even that is a dangerous act as they are forced to cross so many roads to find mates.

Carroll’s lifetime of training in close observation has given him remarkable insight, or more accurately, literally, remarkable sight. He can be in his studio on an early spring day, look at the light and the clouds outside, and know that the first turtle of the season is coming up for air. He meets a turtle that he has not seen in six years and recognizes her by two small pits on her carapace. Carroll’s first book, The Year of the Turtle, offers more actual turtle natural history, but Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Journal is valuable for being a lesson in the art of observation, a lesson from which we all, no matter what we do or where we live, can benefit immensely!

Perhaps the problem with our human relationship with turtles is that we don’t learn to see them, and we forget they are there. So it’s easy to fill in/pave over/ and/or obliterate a wetlandscape, simply because we think nothing is there. A lion or a tiger—now that is something we might get excited over—but not a turtle. Carroll’s work helps us see turtles for what they are, and learn a little bit about ourselves in the process.

Additional Carroll books that we have put on our reading list are: Trout Reflections, Swampwalker’s Journal, and Self-Portrait with Turtles.


Listen to an excerpt from Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Journal

In order to get his latest observations visit

To order books and artwork visit

For a 4/3/2011 reading from The Year of the Turtle visit here

Categories: Conservation |
Tags: Turtles |
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