by Susan Baur
The water had finally climbed above 70 degrees in June and turtles, still hungry from hibernation, were out eating everything they could cram in their mouths. I swam slowly to a rocky point, and in fifteen minutes saw all three kinds of turtles—stinkpots licking mosquito larvae off the pond weed, painted turtles cutting through the water like disks, and a snapper lying motionless under a massive pine branch.
As I hung in the gray water, watching from a respectful distance, the turtle looked like a mound of debris except for the crenelated tale that snaked out from under the branch at one end and two bumps like pebbles at the other end which were its eyes. Suddenly, something poked me sharply in the neck. A cloud of gurgling bubbles blew from my snorkel as I screamed. A painted turtle darted away only to bank sharply and come in high, just under the surface of the water. It tried again to poke me in the neck. I propelled myself backwards. “What do you want?” I asked. “Am I in your territory? Am I supposed to pay attention to you and not the snapper?” As the turtle dive bombed my hands, I wagged it away with a finger. “Not edible!” I said through my snorkel. “Not the enemy!” But the turtle didn’t give up, and as hard as I tried, I could not understand what it wanted.
Eventually, I shook off the turtle and swam toward the beach thinking of another painted turtle who could not make itself understood. According to the story, it happened long, long ago when all turtles were gray. One of these drab creatures climbed out of his home and up a steep hill every day in hopes of catching the eye of the local chief and his daughter. The turtle crawled back and forth in front of the lovely girl and her father, but neither noticed him. No matter what he did, the people camped on the river bank and never gave him a second look.
Back in the river, the turtle finally decided to “paint up.” Taking his war paints, he covered himself in shiny black then added yellow stripes across his back and orange and pink ones running from either side of his nose, down his neck and along the inside and outside of each arm and leg. Again he left his home and in full war paint, climbed the hill. The chief’s daughter now saw before her a tall man dressed in black decorated with blazing colors. She immediately agreed to marry him. But their troubles communicating weren’t over. After the ceremony, the handsome turtle led his bride to the river. “I can’t go with you,” she said. “I can’t live your life.” Again, it was the turtle who came up with a solution. “Step into the water,” he said, and when she did, she was changed into a turtle.
“Step into the water,” I repeated silently as I stroked into the shallows and put my hands down on the warm sand. Step into the water, learn the language of turtles, and change how you see the world.
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Pond Stories are a collection of writings from Cape Codders and visitors who love the 1000 local ponds that dot the Cape. We hope this collection of stories, that are as much endearing as they are environmentally aware, will awaken your inner environmentalist to think deeper about our human impacts to these unique bodies of water. Check out these valuable resources to learn more about the current challenges Cape Cod ponds are facing and how you can be a better pond steward in your town.