The last box turtle I saw was making its way across Russell Street in Littleton, no more than a hundred yards west of Route 495, and not far from a wet field and strip of brushwood and a small pond. The turtle was in the middle of the road, headed west, and eyeing my oncoming car with suspicion, as if wondering: What’s this coming at me?, or What’s next?, or, more likely, Is this the end?
Naturally I pulled over.
Stopping to rescue turtles is a habit I have had for years now. I’ve swung onto the rough narrow verges of innumerable back roads and highways to wave off cars from painted turtles, box turtles, baby turtles of all common species, as well as those huge tanks of female snappers that appear on suburban roads near ponds and the sandy banks where they go to lay their eggs in the month of June. It’s probably an unsafe habit— standing there by the side of a road while the indifferent commuters wheel by at illegal rates of speed. But what choice is there? In some ways I look at turtle rescue as an existential statement. By saving one, you will be salvation for many.
This particular turtle was in a quandary. To the east lay Interstate Route 495. To the north there was a busy numbered highway, thick with traffic. West had a barrier of mini-mansions with driveways and manicured lawns, backed by a wooded hill. South was a fenced bridge over the highway. The turtle was, with no pun intended, boxed in, a condition much of our contemporary wildlife finds itself in.
Box turtles used to be common in the dry uplands around these parts. They favor light open woods and wet meadows, and can often be found, near, although not necessarily in, streams and ponds. They’ll eat almost anything, even carrion, but appear to love strawberries and blackberries, flowers, roots and other vegetation, and also slugs, worms, frogs, salamanders, and almost any other edible living or dead thing they can manage to swallow. They appear to be homebodies, never traveling very far in the circumscribed lives of their home territories, which may be no larger than two or three hundred yards.
They hibernate in winter and are abroad in summer, mate in spring and summer, and the females lay several clutches of eggs in a sandy bank or loose soil. The young hatch out in about three months, depending on the ambient temperature. Their most famous trick is that they can shut themselves up entirely inside their hinged shell if they think they’re in danger. They’ll wait in this position until they perceive, by whatever means turtles perceive, that their enemies have moved on. Because of this survival technique they actually do not have very many enemies, save for one, a major one—the bulldozer.
Development pressure, highway construction, shopping malls and housing, and to some extent the pet trade, as well as the mere presence of roads have driven the box turtle to the edge of extirpation in Massachusetts, and it is under siege throughout its range, which includes most of eastern North America.
Standing by the road, I held the turtle, now safely closed up in her shell. I wondered what to do with her. (I could tell she was a female by her long slender hind claws and yellowish eyes.) Westward, where she had been headed, lay the manicured yards of the houses, with the wooded hill beyond—a bit of a hike across the notorious private properties of suburban America. To the north and east were highways; and so, in the end, I carried the turtle south, where an old unused road made obsolete by the construction of Route 495 descended into a wooded hollow, and where, in its wisdom, the local land trust had managed to preserve a tract of land complete with a stream and an old stone bridge and an enticing tangle of vegetation. I calculated that this area was close enough to be within the turtle’s range.
Only a few passengers in the passing cars eyed me suspiciously as I transported my turtle along the road. I carried her down into the hollow, placed her carefully among some delicious wild strawberries, and wished her Godspeed. She remained closed up in her sanctum for a few minutes and then slowly emerged and, without surveying her new territory, lumbered off into the brush as if she knew exactly where she was headed in life.