“The world too has something of a soul.” Vaclev Havel
And sometimes, when it thinks we are not looking, it shows itself, all soul.
That late July morning I woke in my tent at 5am, sleeping a man’s length from the edge of the pond. The stars had winked out, a blush suffused the sky. Something heavy was rippling the water right in front of me. I made my way slowly to the front of the tent, where the screened door let out onto the pond, a body of water our parents had dug, lined with clay and stocked with fish fifty years ago.
The morning mist skated over the pond. Right in front of my tent, something large was playing in the water. Muskrat?–hadn’t seen them in years. Beaver? No we were always staving off their certain knowledge that our pond should be deeper…which it should be. Silt from the highway, which took the upper third of the property had slowly made our pond shallower, perhaps only 8-10 feet at the center.
Having had a wide romantic streak, our parents had planted water lilies, which an aerial view a half century later showed as a choker necklace thick around the edge, a necklace that had grown so slowly from those first half dozen plants that the center of the pond had also been taken over by several different types of weeds. We tried everything: hand harvesting, scything, extractive digging of the roots. Our parents had used Diquat in the Mad Men era where mother had thoroughly sprayed our picnic table and patio with Raid before we sat down to eat.
Would you be surprised to hear that they both went to an early death?–our father, a neurosurgeon with a two pack a day habit, our mother with her diet pills, club sandwiches and eclaires, and the 50’s habit of putting meat, potatoes and a frozen vegetable on the table for every dinner. Each died an early death, victimized by the 50’s lifestyle.
With a license from the State based on a complex formula, we bought two dozen sterile grass carp from an authorized hatchery. “They won’t eat your water lilies,” they warned.
We were fine with that; just so we could swim the middle. Two years later, we had a perfectly weedless pond.
Now barracuda-sized shadows patrol the pond along with large mouth bass and sunnies.
We keep the fringe wild–cattails, arrowroot and iris thrive–as opposed to some of our neighbors. This year hummocks of wild iris grace the rim while sumac, feral apple, silver brich, milkweed, willow, Joe Pye weed and willow remind us of a time when they were all necessary to life.
The roiling mass in front of my tent window reminds me of an otter at play, twisting and self-checking, agile. A river otter in our pond en route to somewhere? Is it one body or two, sometimes with two humps, long arching necks, webbed paws, and long emphatic tails punctuating the water when all else has gone under. Cautiously inching my way closer to my screened window, careful not to make an nylon-on-nylon noises, I looked, first with my glasses, then without, and again. Nothing improved my perception of what the creature rolling and playing in the water might be.
Then “it” was still, resting. The sight of two mud-colored lumps floating side by side in the water gave me my first strong hypothesis: could I be watching a pair of snapping turtles in their mating play?
The bullfrogs and their cows seemed to be warning the couple that a human was observing them but nothing was going to stop this coupling.
Have you ever imagined a turtle without its shell? (I know, Disney has.) An improbably amount of turtle flesh was visible as the two grappled, only the pesky evidence of two shells reassuring me that these were indeed two turtles engaged in foreplay and not two caimans, say. A head rose up above the surface of the water, reptilian and diamond shaped, at the end of muscular golden necks that slowed them to arch forward out of the water, over their bodies, where large paws grappled the other, and rat shaped tails, but erect and pointed, punctuated the rolling action, sending out gentle ripples across the pond.
Everyone–from the green heron nesting on the other side of the pond, to the blue heron hunting peacefully on the far side (motionless-to-slow-motion being the extent of that great bird’s presence), the bird population gathered in the trees, crows calling–everyone in and around the pond was aware of this great mating event.
I watched from 6 to 7. I slipped out, went around to the front of the house, quietly unpacked and repacked my cooler, and returned to watch them continue to roll around the edge of the pond in a counter clockwise direction. They’re heading for the shallows, I felt, to consummate their act.
At 8:30, I went to check their progress, moving silently across the dewy grass on my river sandals, anxious not to interrupt but only to observe. They were under a light screen of willows in the shallow. Her webbed hind legs gripped a branch while he mounted her from behind. Then she flipped over to expose her base creamy belly and he mounted her again. I hoped I was semi invisible, a short skipping stone’s length away.
The creamy intimacy of her surrender, their embrace, after the long hours of foreplay (and who knew when that had begun, their circumnavigation of the pond?) was so labile, so tactile that I felt the ecstasy. After, they lay like two dead bodies, absolutely inert. He floated on the lower part of her body, completely at rest. Her great pale belly and limp spreadeagled underpaws, her stretched neck, all a uniform pale creamy gold, provided a sight of satiation a turtle never shows a human: our common humanity. If I say our common “animality” will you understand it differently? They were a couple who had earned their post coital languor, an event that occurs perhaps only once a year. I crept away having witnessed a private act, along with the birds and bullfrogs, the flowers and dragonflies, for whom it was too early to rise and dart around.
(Don’t get me started on dragonfly and hummingbird foreplay.)
When I crept back ten minutes later, they were gone, the morning advanced, his seeds planted in her eggs.
Once, about a decade ago, when my oldest grandchildren now in their teens were preschoolers, we dug in the sand at the edge of the pond and uncovered a clutch of wrinkly turtle eggs. At the next full moon, coming up in a week or so, would this female turtle crawl out from the pond and deposit her clutch of eggs in a sandy nest, cover them over with those webbed feet I now know more particularly?
When I tell my grandchildren we have the occasional snapping turtle in the pond, one or two will vow not to risk mutilation by swimming in the same pond as this turtle. Boys especially seem to think of their dangly bits. How can I assure them of what I know: These turtles would not interrupt human procreation. Not unless the animal kingdom becomes something closer to the human species would they begin to take their revenge.
Perhaps it will be wiser if we were to become closer to our animal natures to see the prize we share, the glory of life.