Wild Ideas: Of turtles and dragonflies

Taking a break from staring at a computer all day, this week I headed into the forest near my house to see what’s changed as spring progresses. I took an old logging road that’s overgrown with blooming cranesbill and ragwort, berry canes and spicebush this time of year.

A boldly colored male box turtle explores the forest floor.
A boldly colored male box turtle explores the forest floor. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Near the spring that cuts across the trail I spotted a boldly colored eastern box turtle. Its head and legs were mostly bright yellow, with contrasting dark patches, and its eyes were a fiendish red. Having spotted me, the turtle went into its shell, so I took the opportunity to check its gender. While most mature males do have red irises, this is not always the case, but there’s a surer way to check gender.

I had lots of box turtles as pets when I was a kid, so I got to observe a lot of their behavior, including mating. One even laid eggs in the large wooden box in which I was keeping her before I got a chance to release her back into the wild.

Turtles mate much like many mammals, such as horses or dogs, with the male mounting the female from the rear. The difference for male box turtles is that they have a big logistics problem — the hard, domed shell of the female. Fortunately, males have evolved to have a dent in their bottom shell to accommodate the curve of the female’s top shell. Mating can still be a challenge, especially on a hill, but somehow box turtles get the job done.

Turning over the turtle, I found the dented bottom shell of a male and set him back down carefully where I had found him. After enjoying watching the late afternoon light filtering through the forest for a while, I felt my deadlines beckoning, so reluctantly headed home to my computer.

An unidentified denizen of the forest floor.
An unidentified denizen of the forest floor. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

The next day, I went back to see if the turtle was still there, this time taking my camera with me. Box turtles are slow, but they do keep moving around their small territory to find food and mates, so I was actually surprised to find the same turtle only a few inches from where I’d seen him the afternoon before.

I tried to get down get low enough to photograph his handsome markings, but in moving some vegetation out of the way, I startled the turtle and he retreated into his shell. It was another beautiful spring day, and I didn’t need much of an excuse to play hooky, so I sat on the ground among the lush green forest understory and waited for him to reemerge. While I waited, I tried to slow down my thoughts and my breathing, allowing my senses to take over. I’d learned over many years that this was the only way to really experience nature to its fullest.

A fat-bodied, brown dragonfly flew by, darting back and forth above the vegetation growing in the spring a few feet away, looking for prey. I thought of how differently the dragonfly, turtle and I must perceive the world the world around us, especially time.

For the dragonfly, life is brief and survival depends on moving fast and often to catch prey and avoid predators. For the turtle, the world moves by much more slowly, stretching over many years as he patiently explores his world, looking for food that moves slowly or not at all, and well-protected from most predators by his shell.

Being ADD (AD/HD as a child), I tend to approach the world more like the dragonfly, but increasingly yearn to be more of a turtle, slowing down enough to savor all the sights, sounds and smells around me. Age has helped with that.

As I waited, the work deadlines receded and I became more aware of the forest around me. I noticed the movement of insects among the foliage on the forest floor. A large, dark beetle moved quickly through the undergrowth on the other side of the turtle, too fast for me to see it clearly. A smaller, iridescent one scuttled around near my feet, and a fly landed on a plant next to me, also iridescent in the sunlight filtering through the forest canopy.

Cranesbill is now blooming in Rappahannock’s forests.
Cranesbill is now blooming in Rappahannock’s forests. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

I could smell the wet earth, spicebush and other foliage and finally an earthy, musky scent reminiscent of mushrooms, although I didn’t see any nearby. Save for a few birds and the distant sound of the river at the bottom of the hollow, it was quiet and peaceful.

Suddenly, I heard something large moving my way not far above me on the mountain. Many a time, I’ve sat in the wilds of North America watching some animal, only to turn around and find some animal watching me. I slowly scanned the forest up the mountain, to no avail. I thought about the bear I’d seen frequently on the property in the last few weeks, but that was a small yearling, and what was moving through the forest sounded bigger. I turned back to the turtle, deciding to let the story unfold on its own.

The sounds got louder, closer, but now I heard a very familiar sound — the snorting of a startled deer. I still couldn’t see it, and I doubt it could see or smell me, since I was downwind. Likely something else had disturbed it. The sounds finally receded up the mountain, and the forest grew quiet again.

After a few more minutes, the turtle slowly opened its shell, and eventually stuck out its head and then its front feet. He stared at me but didn’t move as I carefully leaned closer to get better shots with my camera. As always when I look into this ancient species’ eyes, I felt like I was looking back millions of years.

Then, I moved a bit too quickly, and the turtle abruptly pulled back into his shell. I figured that was enough photography for both of us that day, so left the turtle on his own and reluctantly headed back home.

© 2014 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 338 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”