On Friday night, a Painted Turtle showed up in the backyard and began digging holes. I assumed she would promptly lay eggs. I forgot that turtles do nothing promptly. By bedtime, she had listlessly wandered off, leaving several half dug funnels in the dirt. Saturday morning, she was back again, and this time deposited a passel of small white eggs and then tamped the dirt over them with her hind legs. She stalked slowly off to our little pond, her shell making a soft clack against the rocks as she scaled them.
That same morning, Malcolm and I were on our way to the grocery store when we came upon another Painted Turtle partway across the road. I stopped in the street, put on my hazards, and climbed out to move her. A car came up behind us as I stepped out and I help up my hand and mouthed, “Wait, please.” Picking up the turtle and stepping out to walk the rest of the way across the road, the car swerved out in front of me, grazing my knuckles with its sideview mirror. Though this was disconcerting, the closeness of our encounter afforded me an opportunity to look both passenger and driver directly in the eye and clearly mouth, “You are an asshole.” The turtle began urinating on me.
After the turtle was safely across, and Malcolm and I were walking the grocery store aisles, I thought of the turtle again, and the driver. Turtle urine squelched in my flip-flop as we considered microwaveable pouches of rice “ready in 90 seconds!” Two minutes is too long to wait for rice, and 30 seconds is too long to wait for a turtle to be carried across the road.
We are only one of evolution’s recent innovations, and turtles are its time-tested and ancient success. When our mammal ancestor was some terrified tree shrew fleeing the steps of enormous dinosaurs, there were already turtles. When it’s time to nest, they plod out of their ponds and seek high ground, crossing our roads with none of the manic indecision of squirrels, but with a constant, measured pace.
Yesterday, a snapping turtle showed up in the yard too. She raised herself up on surprisingly long legs and stalked around the yard, now and then lowering her snout to sniff the ground. Finding a gravelly spot by the garden beds, she spent four hours plowing up the ground. She didn’t lay any eggs, and eventually walked off again. She may come back, or she may not. She was my companion as I worked by the window all morning, and I looked up at her constantly. One of my chickens came by and approached the turtle as if to peck at it. The turtle froze and raised her broad head. The chicken froze, feathers pressed close to her body, head cocked. Each eyed the other, and I watched them expectantly. Then the chicken withdrew and walked away pecking at grass seeds. The turtle went back to rearranging the dirt. Nothing happened all morning. No nature special scenes of white, ping-pong ball eggs dropping from beneath a turtle’s tail, no violent tangle between reptile and bird. The turtle came to the yard, dug in the dirt a while, and left. The chicken walked around, eating. By the pond, a snake looked out at the rain from under his accustomed rock. Most of the time, nothing happens for hours. A turtle teaches patience, if we can sit long enough to notice.