|Engraving by Karl Bodmer, 1865|
The pond is on bottomland adjacent to the Des Plaines River, and every time there’s a flood, which is to say every spring, and most falls, too, it is connected to the river. All kinds of fish live in that pond, and frequently people catch dinner there. Today, however, despite the warm sun and balmy air, despite the traffic on the nearby road, despite the fact that plenty of folks were visiting Trailside, and despite the fact that Thatcher Woods is across the street from a densely populated area—the area around the pond was as still and unpeopled as a lake in the Boundary Waters.
On the bank of the pond is a fallen oak that stretches into the water, and at the end of that oak are some smooth branches sticking up out of the water that turtles favor as a sunning spot. Sure enough they were there, several small ones of undetermined species on one branch and two good-sized, completely common, red-eared sliders resting on a branch perpendicular to the oak’s trunk. They lounged, perfectly still, legs out, heads arched up in the air, red head patches shining in the sun, as though displaying their profiles. I eased myself down and over the water, and got comfortable, sitting with legs splayed across the two-and-a-half-foot diameter trunk, a little like riding a horse. It was a very old tree when it fell, and it fell a number of years ago: between age, floods and people sitting there, the bark is mostly gone and the wood is smooth and comfortable. I looked straight at the turtles and they at me, and nobody moved for a while.
A resident mallard duck family swam by, from left to right, making for a muddy, grassy bank. The streaky brown hen and three little ducklings swam straight, and the drake, with his distinctive dark green head, circled around them. As the hen and ducklings clambered up on the bank to rest, toddle about, and graze, the drake swam back toward the middle of the pond in most dignified fashion. Further inland from that bank, past another fallen log and among the trees, a doe and two spotted fawns materialized, as deer do—not there, then there, as you get your animal eyes on. I watched them as they moved about, languidly munching on greenery, and then looked back at the turtles. They hadn’t moved.
The sun shone. A light breeze created slight ripples, which released a waft of rich pond fragrance, and created shimmering water lights on the leaves of the bushes to my left and right. Some leaves were coated with mud five feet up from the level of the bank—how high the most recent flood had been. Wedge-shaped duck tracks and hand-like raccoon tracks patterned the muddy water’s edge like natural cuneiform, and tiny maple and elm leaves glimmered on seedlings that had this year sprouted in some of the cracks in the trunk where the wood was soft and compost-y. Contemplation went on for a bit. I looked at the turtles. They hadn’t moved.
Then I noticed the dragonflies. Two species were mating, in that odd, deadly maneuver they employ that looks like in-air refueling. One dragonfly went skipping across the water’s surface. A couple of biggish fish surfaced and submerged—not quite jumps but little plops. You don’t see them, but you know fish have been there as the little water rings expand. I looked at the turtles. They had lowered their heads slightly. As I watched, one moved its right rear leg backwards, slowly.
Little, big-eyed fish snapped at water striders in the shallow water just below my left foot. A dragonfly pair landed on the log in front of me, still locked together. The ducks waddled about on the bank, and the deer shifted in and out of sight as they lay down or stood up. The water-striders looked black on the green-gray-brown water. A small, unsplashy splash—one turtle gone while I wasn’t looking.
A robin, calling, hopped up on the log by the ducks, who ignored it. A tree frog sounded. The sun shone on the drake’s glossy head as he swam. The light in the deer glade turned that translucent golden green that people of temperate regions first notice as children, and that stays with us all our lives as a talisman of early summer, a symbol of all that is good. I thought my small prayer, my daily prayer, “oh let us learn to live lightly on this earth, oh help us learn to live lightly on this earth.” The sun shone down, the small breeze blew, the light reached the marrow of my bones. Eventually, I got up to leave, walking carefully along the trunk to the higher bank, and jumped down to the path. The remaining turtle still hadn’t moved.
Note: After writing this post, I was amused to discover that biologists Michael Dreslik and Andrew Kuhns have studied basking behavior of red-eared sliders. You can read their paper, "Early Season Basking in the Red-eared Slider, Trachemys scripta" here.
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Gardening in Thatcher Woods, with Help
Behold the Inglorious Garlic Mustard
A Burning Question