A few years back ... well, 29 years back ... the New York Times printed my last bylined article, allowing me to make the accurate if somewhat misleading claim that my career at the paper spanned three decades (first 1968, last 1982). It was about how I hatched 13 snapping turtle eggs in a galvanized iron bucket in my New York apartment. It was my intention to reintroduce snapping turtles to the brook from which the boy me helped extinguish them years earlier, thereby fucking up the food chain. Go to my blog post “OMG, There’s Life Down There!” to get a sense of how it turned out.
The Voices of the Turtles are Heard -- at Home
by Michael Jahn
The New York Times Op Ed Page
September 11, 1982
For the last few days, 15 snapping turtles have been hatching in a bucket in the living room of my Manhattan apartment. This may require some explanation.
I grew up in a small town on the south shore of eastern Long Island. Our house was adjacent to a small brook in which could be found what is called, in current lingo, a balanced "ecosystem," which included a number of ducks and snapping turtles. The turtles ate enough ducks to prevent the fowls from fouling up the water with their excrement, as ducks are inclined to do if left unchecked.
Then about 30 years ago, a local zealot with a shotgun, with the connivance of neighborhood youngsters (including, I must admit, myself), systematically wiped out the population of snapping turtles. He liked to feed the ducks on the banks of the stream.
Though they pale in comparison with their cousins, the alligator snapping turtles that inhabit Southern waters, the creatures that once swam behind my childhood home were formidable enough. Given the chance, they grew to be the size of bushel baskets, had ridged shells with sawtoothed edges that made them resemble dinosaurs and were rumored to be capable of biting through a broom handle.
Without snapping-turtle predation, the ducks overpopulated and polluted the stream. There has not been significant housing construction along the stream during the past three decades. so leaching of pollutants from cesspools probably was not much of a factor. We are, in 1982, stuck with a largely stagnant stream choked by plants, pollutant-fed algae and a whole lot of hungry ducks. It has become virtually impossible to approach the brook without being surrounded by dozens of ducks, all begging for bits of stale bread dispensed by a new generation of children who have no idea of the crime committed before they (and, in some cases. their parents) were born.
On the other side of town is another stream, a rather larger one, in the fork of which sits on old estate managed by my aunt and an elderly cousin.
That stream has a balanced ecosystem, including a thriving population of snapping turtles. It is a closed estate, and zealots with shotguns are frowned upon.
Every year, on the ﬁrst rainy dawn following Memorial Day, the female
snapping turtles come out to lay their eggs. The turtles are great, hulking, gray-black creatures, some two or three feet across. not counting appendages. The sight or them lumbering out of the salt marsh, itself shrouded in ground fog, is enough to make the latest Hollywood horror epic seem less frightening than “Annie.” They move slowly across the grounds until they find a soft, sandy spot. There, they dig a hole and deposit in it several dozen eggs. The eggs are round, about an inch in diameter, and their mothers carefully bury them before lumbering back to the water to resume keeping the wildfowl population (and, with it, the ecosystem) in balance.
Last Memorial Day weekend, one especially big old turtle, her biological clock perhaps thrown oft by senility, came out rather late, after the crows were awake. She laid her eggs and left. The crows were about to dig up the nest and eat the eggs when my elderly cousin, who arises even before the crows, chased off the birds, dug up the nest and left it in the bucket that now sits midway between the radiator and my stereo components.
Snapping-turtle eggs typically hatch on a rainy dawn following Labor Day. This summer, 1 faithfully tended the bucket according to the schedule of the rainfall outside the windows. My intention is to reintroduce a dozen or so snapping turtles into the stream from which they were so long ago eliminated, in the hope that one day things will be as they were. I have consulted with several specialists in fresh-water ecology and the general consensus is that I will probably be doing some good, but at least I will be doing no harm.
Upon hearing this tale, a friend commented, “Ha, so you're playing God!" Perhaps so, but I'm also paying the price. The critters, who have for millions of years hatched on schedule, began to hatch early. I imagine the warmer and less-variable temperatures between my radiator and stereo components had something to with it. I was planning to leave for a week's vacation. during which was scheduled the final seaside party of the season. I couldn't just leave the bucket behind, could I? Not with the hungry little things hatching at the rate of one or two a day (11 so far). The bucket had to be brought with me, so I could nursemaid the newborn while listening to the roar of the surf.
A conversation I imagined: “What will you have with your pina colada, sir?"
“Unh ... duck a l’orange for my snapping turtles?"
In my case at least, that is the price of being able to play God.
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