Friday, March 30, 2012

Ancient Alien Friend

Here's another adaptation from Diode's Experiment: A Box Turtle Investigates the Human World, a work in progress. Enjoy!
Milwaukee River, detail.
C. Douglas Babcock; my collection

On the river--hard on the river--I could see the painted turtle's beak pushing so hard on the glass I was glad we'd had the watercolor framed. His pointer beak pressed on the far shore of the riverscape my father-in-law had painted from the bridge down the street. Curious, I thought, but then this wild turtle pushed a foot against my hand, pivoting, and I followed his canoeing to the porch window, which looked over the bluff toward the water, still visible through the leafless trees of the year's early spring. He looked down at the real river, then angled upstream a bit, and banged his beak on the window. Now I knew exactly what he meant.
     The night before, in the midst of a wretched week of tornadoes and worry and exhausting hours of searching, Michael and I, on the way home for sustenance, had seen our screen door angled out. Trudging steps began to fly, and we ran the last leg home. As we approached we saw a boot box, and it seemed to be scratching. We tore off the string and the box top, then, seeing what was not there, broke off in silence.
     The full-grown midland painted turtle, Chrysemys picta marginata, filled the space. We knew why he was there. We had posted fliers high and low picturing a flat tortoise: lost, heartwrenchingly lost. On a supervised walk in the wilds of an unkempt park between a railroad track and the raging Milwaukee River, she had, as John Updike put it, melted into grass: Willow, a rare African pancake tortoise, part of the family and part of our mutual explorations into symbolic communication. We were desperate to find her.
     I suppose it wasn't surprising that some of the turtles purporting to be the pancake-slender Willow were water turtles. Their aquatic lifestyle has made them flatter than the typical arch of terrestrial species. True, "flat" was the defining characteristic we sought, but not a hydrodynamically sleek--but only rather flat--swimmer.
     A note in the turtle's box expressed the hope that the turtle was Willow and asked that, if it was not, we return it to the given location. I didn't recognize the west-side address, and we decided to return him to his neighborhood the next day.
     When I lifted him from the shoebox, he pulled inside his shield of a shell, ornately decorated with the red marks around the edges that give the species its name; but I held him patiently, and, as usual with turtles, curiosity won. He poked his head out surreptitiously, looking at the unfamiliar surroundings of a house. Gaining more confidence, he extended his limbs and started to struggle for freedom, but I responded by turning in the direction of his struggling and walking that way. Within seconds he relaxed and simply pushed on my hands in the way the other turtles of the study group steered us to show their needs and interests.
     Michael stood in a doorway holding two of our turtles, who, seeing the uninvited stranger in my hands looking at them, stared back with no hint of a friendly overture. The painted turtle turned away, rubbernecking like any tourist to examine details all over the house, marking the human strangeness of the way we lived: the enclosing squareness of it, the calm aerial turtles, the oddity of television.
     It was the next morning when the turtle discovered the painting and tapped the window facing the river. This time I looked more carefully at the address on the note and looked it up on a map. It was where the turtle had pointed.
     We drove over the bridge to the address, a block or so from the river, and parked on the quiet lane. I was holding the turtle, and he steered down the lane under the Gothic arches of the elms in the direction of the river, his back legs alternating strokes against my hands, so he swayed back and forth as I walked.
     Michael, still exhausted, lagged behind, and from time to time the turtle would pivot me around and stop, looking at Michael for a moment before resuming his journey toward the river.

A midland painted turtle. James H. Harding in
 CalPhotos; under Creative Commons license
      At the flat bank by the edge of the water I stopped while the turtle, now motionless, surveyed the river and Michael caught up. I leaned down and set the turtle gently on the mud. He waited there a moment before swimming off in slow, relaxed strokes, his carapace and head still visible. From time to time he hesitated and pulled his head around to look back at us. Finally, he dipped under and disappeared.
     It seemed as if we had met and befriended another member of an alien order just arrived on Earth, just as he had learned to trust us members of our soft and gangly species. But, of course, we were the new kids on the planet, not the turtles.
     Different as we were, we were learning to understand each other. But we couldn't interpret his slow return to the river and his ambiguous hesitations precisely enough to know what he was thinking. Was he thanking us for an adventurous vacation with our species, alien to him--and returning him to his home? Was he amazed that his gestures had told us his place on the river? Or did he want to stay in our world? I'll never know.

If you enjoy this blog, please sign up for e-mail notices so you'll know when a new issue appears; it doesn't happen often.


  1. hi Rosemary! So interesting, to meet the turtle again - it immediately made me remember your "Haunted Garden" in BluePrintReview where the turtle smiled and taps his poem.

    Good to see him return to his home. But yes, what do the other species think of us? I often wished there was a basic shared language.

  2. Hi, Dorothee, Thanks for visiting! Most of the work in our turtle cognition lab (play, from the turtles' perspective) concerns communication, including the interspecies varieties. The blog doesn't cover the more advanced types, which I'm saving for the book. However, I'll put you on the list for an early-look review copy if you like (naturally, with the hope that you'll review it). But don't hold your breath; I still have some chapters to complete and probably the kind of revision that will cut it down to size. Rosemary