Blanding’s Turtle

 

And I wondered if you were still with us,

Blanding’s turtle, when for two spring and summers

You weren’t to be found in your dwindling haunts

Of the woodland pools and marsh; never common

In my boyhood havens, you’d seemed to grow rarer

Through the years, and I feared you were at last

Too few for too long, feared you’d left us for—

I feared you’d left us more lonely on Earth,

Without a will to be written out of,

Without a goodbye to withhold in reproach.

 

So in the high sun of an April day

I hiked a round of the backwoods waters,

While the oaks were still nude, and the maples

Had bud a rich red haze in the cloudless sky.

Hepatica up-gazed myopically

From the understory, where spring’s first green

Was teething on last year’s leaves. I stirred a wake

Of mourning cloaks imbibing at a puddle,

Heard the rusty clangor of a sandhill crane,

A skeleton crew of chorus frogs playing their bones;

But where I reached waters where turtles sunned,

I saw only painted turtles, nothing but

Those handsome generalists, filed on logs,

Piled on boulders, a uniform sprawl

Of their one swarthy castle, as they lazed

Like victorious natives in war paints.

 

A theme—turtle—without variation.

That false perfection of depleted biomes,

As though Nature, in second childhood,

Word by lost word, is forgetting how to speak.

The attrition corrupts what is beautiful,

Robs us of wakefulness, and paupers our dreams.

Without living contrasts, even the rainbow

Of the painted turtle will dim to ash gray.

 

But—there: in a dark spring pool spoked by treefalls,

Whose tannic waters mirrored the vault of oaks,

I spied you basking on a half-drowned log:

An elder, and even more hopefully,

Perched alongside, a smaller relation.

And I felt so grateful, finding you again:

A mild turtle, serene, ancient-eyed,

Your shell and scaling blueblack in the light,

And that rich hue setting off so tastefully

Your yolk-yellow throat, that splendid banner

Of these northwood waters where you once had reigned.

 

I thought of Achilles in Zeno’s Paradox

And his sprint to overtake the tortoise—

Or, an obscure turtle of our northeast woodlands.

The turtle’s lead was tens of millions of years;

But now, at last, in two swift strides, Achilles

Can sweep by and leave it behind forever.

But he is slowed, not by the conundrum

Of infinitely divisible space,

But by an even greater perplexity

On this indifferent Earth: human conscience.

He recalls the others he has forsaken.

He knows how one betrayal can lead to many.

He’s learned he is fallible, and should defer

What is irrevocable to the gods.

He asks if there is any race to be won,

Any victory but the most Pyrrhic,

If his progress, much as Zeno proposed,

Was but a cruel and fatal illusion.

And I thought of a world poised on the Blanding’s shell,

That seemed no more than a threatened turtle’s,

But was, secretly, nothing less than our own.

 

¨