By Richard Gambino
On a summer morning this last month, my wife and I noticed a box turtle under a large tree about only seven feet from a corner of our house. We’d seen turtles on our property before. But this one had dug a hole through some mulch and the ground below it, under the tree. I suspected it was a female preparing to lay eggs. The tree is surrounded on three sides by our driveway, and on the fourth by a walkway to our front door. A very exposed, potentially dangerous area for baby turtles. So I picked up the would-be mother, who did not at all withdraw into her shell, and gently carried her to a wooded area quite a distance away which affords great cover. So be it.
Or so I thought.
A few days later, on a Sunday morning, she was back where I had first found her. This time, not only had she dug a hole, but she was laying an egg in it. In my fancy, I imagined she knew my hobby is nature photography, and that she came back generously to provide me with a “photo op.” I got my camera bag and took some good shots of what seemed to me her deliberately leisurely egg production — maybe, like a good model, she was giving me all the time I needed to get pictures. This continued until she finally stopped, carefully filled the hole with the soil and mulch she had dug up, and idled from the scene into an area of dense greenery.
I stood there for a while feeling a sense of awe. Not just because I’d never before seen a turtle dropping eggs, but because I was witness to something both as old as life and as new as that particular morning. I was seeing the start of new life from life. I am not now, and I hope I never will become, too old, too jaded, too self-centered, too dull, or too dumbed-down not to be awe-struck by new life, by life succeeding life. Behind all the science and philosophies and religious thoughts we’ve trained on this, it is still a wonder of wonders. As Goethe wrote in Faust, “Dear friend, all theory is gray; only life’s eternal tree is green.”
When I finally became self-conscious again — there were everyday things that I had to do that morning — I had the feeling that the eggs below ground were now my responsibility. I wanted to do the right thing to help new life come into being, healthy and safe. And I immediately realized I had no knowledge of what might be done toward that goal. In a flash, I thought, naturally, as it were, of where I could find this knowledge, and from kindred souls. So I called the South Fork (SoFo) Natural History Museum and Nature Center on Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike. It was a smart move. My friend since before the museum opened four-an- a-half years ago, the museum’s director, Jim Ash, gave me a good education, and much of what he taught me was astonishing. For example, if a box turtle survives to adulthood, and then is not hit by a car or suffers another bad mishap (two big “ifs”), his or her life expectancy is from eighty to one hundred years. In other words, one or more of the hatchlings to come out from under the tree near my house might live into the twenty-second century. Past the year 2100. (Just writing this number seems to me like writing science fiction.)
Box turtles, Mr. Ash told me, usually lay three to five eggs, and these have an incubation period before hatching of fifty to ninety days. So the eggs near my house will not give forth young until sometime in September or later. Or, if it is too late in the warm season, the eggs sometimes lay dormant over the cold months until the sun becomes warm again. The desire for warm sunlight is probably one reason that the female laid eggs under my tree — the spot gets a good deal of sunlight in summer. Another reason, Mr. Ash said, probably is that the females look for soil that is easy to dig into. (But in my imagination, I still prefer the hypothesis that she came to my home to offer me a photo opportunity. I mean how many pictures of turtle egg-laying do you see in the Sag Harbor Express?) Moreover, I learned from Mr. Ash that box turtles have a strong sense of territory, and if moved by us, will attempt to get back to their turf, even traveling miles to do so, and dangerously crossing roads. Regarding my female friend, she either walked around a fence or dug under it — again, I think, not because of a sense of territory, but to model for my camera. (Why should stubborn irrationalities like mine be limited to things like politics?)
Whatever the case, the experience has made me eager to visit again the SoFo Museum. My grandson, and other kids, love the interactive exhibits there, the live animals and the museum’s field trips. If you have kids or grandkids, give them a treat and take them there. While you’re at it, let yourself too enjoy the experience. Go ahead — no one is looking.
And at your next dinner party, should the conversation get slow, ask your friends if the next time they encounter a box turtle, if they know how instantly to tell its sex. Then wow them by informing them that females have brown eyes, like Julia Roberts, while males have red eyes, like …, well, I won’t get into that. And males have concave undersides, better to mount females when mating. I won’t get into that either.
RICHARD GAMBINO suggests you Google the South Fork (SoFo) Museum’s wonder-filled website, with its spellbinding sounds of nature. Or dial 537-9735. You’ll get a live person, not a robotic “menu.” Naturally.