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a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society

Section 4: I am (not) nature

Carrie Laben

Carrie Laben
How to Handle a Snapping Turtle
Do not lift a snapping turtle by the tail. You could damage the spine and paralyze the animal.
Do not move it by encouraging it to bite on a stick and dragging it. You may scrape its legs and underbelly against a rough surface. The resulting wounds can become infected when the turtle returns to the murky waters it prefers to call home.
The common snapping turtle can reach as far back as its own hind legs to bite. It can cut you with its claws. What it cannot do is retreat into its own shell, like lesser turtles, for safety; its neck is too long for that. It does not bite because it is angry. It bites because it is vulnerable, here on land where you have found it. In the water it would just slip away.
The first snapping turtle I ever saw was upside-down. Our neighbors, the Hungers, had spotted it crossing their lawn and they flipped it to immobilize it.
I was small then, and to me the turtle looked gigantic. We stood over the slow-kicking reptile and the adults talked while I stared, my mother’s restraining hand holding me beyond the reach of the thick, ropy neck.
I never paid attention to conversations between adults in those days, so I was surprised when the turtle reappeared as a Tupperware container of soup that we received from the Hungers a few days later. My mother seemed surprised too. I don’t think she believed they’d actually go through with it, even though we made the obvious jokes about the Hungers and the fact they, even more than the other Great Depression survivors in the neighborhood, ate everything (Ma Hunger was a major enforcer of clean plates at all meals, a disciplinary practice my own mother believed would make children fat.)
Eating a snapping turtle, in my mother’s eyes, was an act of greed and irreverence. There was more than enough food in our world; why consume something that belonged to the foundations of the earth? The common snapping turtle Chelydra serpentina might be widespread across the continent, it might be incredibly fecund, it might have a lifespan that topped out at thirty years or so. But my mother had steeped herself in the lore of the Iroquois who’d once inhabited the land we now farmed1 . As far as she was concerned, snapping turtles were ancient and precious.
On top of which, when she popped the lid off the Tupperware the soup stank as though it had been left out in the sun. Mom put it on the back steps for the feral cats who lived in the barn. They wouldn’t touch it either.
Not quite a decade later, my father ran over a snapping turtle with a tractor while raking hay. The shell snapped, but when dad climbed down from the driver’s seat the turtle was still alive. He picked it up and moved it to the stream that bordered the field in the forlorn hope that the shell could knit, that the spine wasn’t severed.
It took the turtle days to die. I kept watching it, not sure whether it was getting better or worse, then not sure if it was really dead or if the heart was still beating inside. The heart, my mother said, would beat for a long time.
My mother told me that Iroquois women, during a difficult labor, would eat the heart of a freshly killed snapping turtle, so raw it was still beating as they swallowed. It loaned the woman the turtle’s endurance.
Giving birth was strictly my mother’s bailiwick, but I was fascinated by death, and had designs of my own on the turtle. I kept watch over the pungent corpse as the summer faded into fall, but snow fell and the stream iced up before it had rotted clean enough to bring up to the house. By spring something hungrier and more desperate than me had carried it away, or maybe the meltwater had taken it downstream over our property line, to the next pond or swamp it had been headed for in life.
I was peevish with my mother for several years starting when I was around twelve. She kept having more babies, even without the benefit of turtle hearts. Besides the material difficulties this caused — less time, less space, less everything to go around — I felt that I had been a satisfactory child and it wasn’t fair that she kept bringing on understudies. It wasn’t fair that my family was a running gag to my classmates, that every first day of school I faced the question “Is your mom pregnant again?” And it wasn’t fair that she was still so earnest when I’d discovered cynicism right on schedule.
There was no space where I could retreat with confidence that I wouldn’t be subjected to a roving sibling. But at least I could avoid any unnecessary togetherness. So I declined to ride to Batavia with Mom and my siblings to attend a Peace in the Middle East rally2 , even though I did still believe in peace in the Middle East, somehow.
On the way back, my mother spotted a snapping turtle along a sandy edge of the road, digging out a pit to lay her eggs. She stopped the van and they watched as the turtle deposited her eggs, then buried them.
Snapping turtles lay anywhere from twenty to eighty eggs in a clutch, which combined with their long reptilian lifespan would result in a world paved with turtles were it not for their phenomenal infant mortality rate. Roughly ninety percent of all nests never produce a hatchling, cleaned out by raccoons, crows, and other omnivores in the three months it takes the eggs to incubate in the sun. The inch-long newborns must then make it to a body of water and survive the attentions of skunks, herons, fish, foxes, snakes, and other snapping turtles until their shells harden and their beaks gain the strength to serve as their defensive birthright. Once that happens, their only predator worth speaking of is humankind.
Producing many young and letting them fend for themselves is known to biologists as r-selection strategy. Producing a few young and lavishing care on them so that they are more likely to grow up is known as k-selection strategy. Typically, k-selection strategy is associated with a long life and r-selection with a fleeting one, but turtles and tortoises are among the exceptions.
My mother did manage to offer me better odds than a baby turtle. But when she got home and reproached me for missing such a once-in-a-lifetime sight just to sit alone and read, I pretended I didn’t care. In a few more years I would start painting my nails black. A few years after, I would stop. Columbine happened in the meantime, but that wasn’t what put me off; I just grew too lazy to keep up with an elaborate aesthetic once I didn’t need it any more, once I was among people who didn’t need to be distracted from asking whether my mom was pregnant again.
I retained enough of my mother’s earnestness and my own goth sensibility fifteen years down the road to go see West of Memphis when it came out. It was a film about a miscarriage of justice — three disaffected teens who had tried to hide in shells of faux-Satanism and metalhead malaise were pulled out and blamed for the deaths of three younger boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The case caught the attention of many notable people — musicians, writers, filmmakers, artists. Henry Rollins, an early champion of the West Memphis Three, spoke of how he himself might have been caught up in such a net had he only been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Looking hard and lashing out provided safety, until it didn’t.
By the time I sat down in the theater, the three were released but, thanks to an Alford plea3 , unlikely to ever be fully exonerated. Suspicion had fastened on first one and then another of the victims’ stepfathers.
The film was full of rage and pain and, at last, the sort of half-hope that hurts most of all for the earnest. But I was most fascinated during the sequence where a herpetologist works through the forensics of the case. He fishes a large snapping turtle4 — by the plastron, not the tail — out of a tank and thrusts his arm sideways into its face. It takes time to provoke the giant into biting, but when it does chomp down it leaves a mark. Not a divot out of the flesh, not a severed arm, just a mark. Then the researcher turns the same animal loose on the floating corpse of a hog, and then, faced with food, it tears and gashes. The results are similar to the bite marks on the murdered boys after they’d floated in a stream for a day post-mortem, bite marks described by an expert witness at the original trial as Satanic ritual mutilation inflicted while the victims were still alive. Nothing more than dinnertime for a creature that does not have to worry about dead children, its own or anyone else’s.
My youngest brother, Gavin, picked up a scavenger’s daring and opportunism early on, willing to risk much for a solid meal of attention or even for a thrill to relieve the boredom of a small town full of stupid people. So it was fitting that he caught an inch-long snapper hatchling on its way to the pond one summer and brought it home.
I’d long since moved away, and the first I knew of this was at Christmas, when I found it living in a Rubbermaid container in his bedroom. It had grown secure in its size by then, and though I teased Gavin about ending up nine-fingered, it seemed to understand that he did no harm and brought food. He only picked it up to move it when its tub needed to be cleaned, and it handled that with a few slow kicks and resignation. He never grabbed it by the tail, but firmly under the plastron in the recommended fashion.
During the turtle’s second Christmas, I had to share the spare room with it. I counted myself lucky — on previous Christmases I’d slept on air mattresses, recliners, blankets on the floor, but this particular year some of the siblings were absent and there were enough beds to go around. The Rubbermaid tank sat next to the bed, with a sun lamp perched on one corner and a basking rock available on the off chance the the turtle cared to dry out.
It mostly moved around at night, scraping its shell against the sides of the tub as it searched for floating crickets and tadpoles that had hidden under the edge of the rock. That didn’t bother me since I often sat awake, playing endless games of Peggle or surfing the Internet to decompress from the warm, welcome, but not entirely comfortable sensation of being back in close proximity with my boisterous crowd of a family. I wondered whether I should turn the sun lamp off now and then, since it didn’t seem to be on a timer. I wondered, if I tried to pet the turtle, would it ignore my fingers like it ignored Gavin’s? But I didn’t risk it.
It seemed happy, and it was prospering in the way most obvious to snapping turtles — it had gotten much bigger. When Brian, who had been sleeping downstairs, reported that a meth head had knocked on the door at three in the morning, I joked about using the turtle as a home defense system if it happened again — a melee weapon that could also bite!
“Oh, don’t do that,” Mom said. “You’d hurt him.” She was referring to the turtle.
[1] After they conquered and assimilated the Wenrohronon, who were here before that.
[2] Specifically, a rally pleading for the release of journalist Terry Anderson, a Batavia native who was captured in Beirut in 1985 and held as a hostage until late 1991. My mother was drawn to his plight because he had a small daughter around my brother Brian’s age, because he was a local boy, and because he looked strikingly like her brother, my Uncle Skipper.
[3] The Alford plea is an oddball outcome in the American justice system, similar to the Scottish not proven. To sum up, the defendants asserted innocence but admitted that the system likely had enough evidence against them to convince a jury. The plea got them out of jail but barred the door to restitution for the years they lost.
[4] This appears to be not a common snapping turtle but its even bigger and tougher cousin the alligator snapping turtle.
Carrie Laben grew up on a farm in Western New York and obtained her MFA among the mountains and rivers of western Montana. She now lives in Astoria, New York, where she spends much of her time searching for unexpected birds and exploring small, out-of-the-way public parks. Her work has previously appeared in such venues as Montana Naturalist, Clarkesworld, Apex Digest, Camas, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and has been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. She is blogging her current project at


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