Meadow Mayhem

I suppose it would have represented unavoidable carnage to most observers. Yes, just another pathetic victim of the modern, mechanized world. But to me, the mangled painted turtle said much more, some of it unprintable in old-fashioned news.

It’s spooky in a sense. I had been on the lookout recently for turtles I annually pass down by the river, the shelled creatures seeking sandy plateaus on which to bury their spring eggs. I discover the critters by watching the dogs, recognizing their cautious demeanor upon detecting a turtle in their rambunctious rambles. It seems to me that, for the most part over the past three or four springs, we’ve been dealing with the same four turtles — a medium-sized snapper down by the beaver pond on the south end, two painted turtles, one on the north end, the other along the east-side woods, and a big box turtle with its distinctive humped shell. I have over the years seen far fewer of the latter than its two aforementioned cousins. Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps that other creature is just an oversized painted turtle. But I don’t think so.

Something interesting about the place where I annually intercept the spring turtle pilgrimage is the fertility of the floodplain. I have only once in 15 years witnessed the maybe 10-acre field underwater, the tips of only the tallest Christmas trees exposed in what appeared to be a small lake during Tropical Storm Irene a few years back. Afterwards, you would have thought from looking at the fine sandy silt left behind that it was barren but, believe me, it was anything but. The hayfield above, sitting on a plain some 15 feet higher and out of harm’s way during floods, is manured a couple of times a year yet always behind the fertile riverside meadow in clover and rye growth, proving once again that there is no substitute for natural fertilizer deposited by Mother Nature.

Because of the height and density of the grasses on that bottomland plain I walk, wet after rain and sticky humidity, I was reluctant to walk the dogs Monday morning and get my fresh jeans sopped to the knee. But I knew the dogs were rarin’ to go after breakfast, so I rolled up my pant legs to the knees, threw on a pair of Keen Keeks (my grandsons call theirs “water shoes”), and decided to pick my may through the seedy tangles. Then, to my delight, friend Mark Blanchard was down there mowing behind a smallish John Deere tractor that in some 30 years has been swamped only twice by Sunken Meadow floods. So it’s not like the place is often underwater, just enough to keep it more fertile than the plain above, which natives claim is composed of deep, rich “Hadley Loam.” At least I think Greenfield Meadows is blessed with Hadley Loam. Yes, I’m almost certain I’ve heard it referred to as such. But I’m not from Greenfield, just a temporary transplant from nearby South Deerfield, where I know Hadley Loam exists on both sides of the Connecticut. I also know there is no soil in god’s kingdom that grows better asparagus, which I go out of my way to purchase when the time is right. Ah, yes, then the native strawberries, no comparison in my mind to those sad Driscolls we’re forced to eat in the offseason. I wouldn’t be surprised if Isaac and Penny prefer those store-bought berries. That’s OK. To each their own. They can have them.

But, back to Sunken Meadow on Monday, my pal mowing as I kept the dogs distant, we took a quick buzz all the way around the piece, plowing through mostly high, wet, unmowed fields, flushing a pair of ducks back by the beaver pond before circling back, ascending the short ramp to the hayfields above, and heading for the waiting truck.

It was on the next morning, Tuesday, when I came across the mangled painted turtle, broken eggs strewn about, scavenging flies swarming and buzzing. I had walked mowed grass all the way around that first leg of my daily route and stopped at the back to talk with Mark about the fertility difference between the upper and lower levels. He was in agreement, said he wouldn’t have to mow the upper tree-farm rows for many weeks, and could actually let the job go till fall because the grass grows that much slower there. It didn’t surprise me. I see it with my own eyes, and happen to pay attention to that kind of stuff.

I wouldn’t have noticed the dead turtle had I walked my customary route but, instead, I cut the daily walk short, staying on mowed ground and circling back rather than swinging wide toward the beaver pond, through high, wet, uncut cover. Just before I reached a tall, handsome smooth-bark or pignut hickory, I noticed Lily sniffing at something, then saw the crushed turtle. When I yelled back to Mark that he’d killed it, he yelled back, “Yeah, I know. That was yesterday,” and my wheels started spinning, my mind jumping from one place to another, mimicking the flight of that green hummingbird I recently watched feeding on the red front-yard quince blossoms.

I thought about that turtle’s demise under the aggressive tire of a John Deere and thought that perhaps it was a better world when farmers cut hay with a scythe, maybe even later by horse-drawn contraptions. It got me thinking about “progress” and its many victims. When I got home and went to the mailbox, my newest Orion magazine awaited, in it a short, insightful Wendell Berry essay on his kind of simple farming, a literary gem accompanied by old-style sepia-toned photos showing stewards of small organic Hudson Valley farms who reject mechanized farming and pesticides and mass-production.

I read on and found an essay by a 20-year-veteran journalist who became an activist, bravely fled conventional routine and went off on his own to start a nonprofit focused on saving the earth from global warming. He wrote about camping in a parched Southwestern desert with his teenage son and lamenting what will soon become of this once viable arid land lived on by proud, respectful Indian tribes. From there, I found in a section of essays titled “Voyages” a gripping piece about ancient western-Kentucky Mound Builders, written by a descendant of that prehistoric Mississippian Culture that eventually became the displaced Chickasaw Tribe, driven west during “Old Hickory’s” vengeful reign to Oklahoma wastelands and tumbleweed.

Inspired by my reading, I grabbed the phone, dialed a young lady photographer I work with and asked if she was in the mood to take a ride and get a quick shot of my mangled turtle. The timing was right. She was just getting started, and thinking about potential photo opportunities. “Do me a favor,” I promised, “and I’ll take you for a little ride through the hills behind my house.” She came. We went.

The impetus was that pathetic smashed turtle, an image I just couldn’t shake. I wish that painted pregnant lady could have escaped the tractor wheel. Who knows? Had it done so, it may well have outlived me. I’m not sure how long turtles like that live but suspect they can survive for decades.

Yeah, yeah, I know what Isaac and Penny would probably say. They’d tell me to get over it. Sunken Meadow will do just fine without that turtle. Others will soon appear to replace her. Maybe so. But I still think that peaceful meadow was a better place with her presence.

I must be a little weird, I guess.


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