I think writers and artists have a special affinity for storing imagery, sounds, smells and atmosphere for their future use. Sometimes a notebook comes in handy but you won’t see a flash mob of poets and artists around you, pulling out a notebook and pen to record impressions at every opportunity; it’s just not convenient. So we hoard in our minds those moments that have happened to us and they become a resource bank. I make it sound cold and analytical but it’s not, except to the extent that we are not always “present in the moment” when we are around people – we are thinking of them and the circumstances as a resource too.
In my last blog I mentioned snapping turtles as being one of the reasons I don’t go into ponds anymore. Since I live in the Sonoran Desert I have practically guaranteed that won’t happen. We do have horned toads here though, as well as Gila monsters, lizards and desert tortoises. Animals that still look prehistoric fascinate me. They have evolved to a certain point and then stop because there seems to be no need for further improvement. They are a connection to a history when we didn’t exist, a living relic of the age of dinosaurs.
About 25 years ago I stopped by the side of the road to watch a snapping turtle cross to the woods and pond on the other side. I got quite close, crouching down beside it to take it all in – the enormous claws, heavy, dun-colored shell, the algae on its back and its musky odor. This was not one of those polished-looking painted turtles sunning itself with a group on a log but a turtle so primitive and armored it looked like a tank. They are not to be interfered with by amateurs since their neck can stretch back to their hind feet to snap with powerful jaws. It is still a vulnerable creature because it does not have a retracting neck but if all goes well it can live for many decades, possibly for a hundred years.
At that time I always carried a camera with me since I was studying photography as part of my college art curriculum. This turtle took its place in my mental filing system with the help of the camera but without a photograph I can still recall every sense of the moment. I later did a watercolor of the turtle and many years later – 25 years later – I took the experience to the next step by writing a poem about it which refers to the mortality of the turtle and of me.
On an old road roughly paved,
corridored with dark woods
hiding black pools filled with the ghosts
of all the leaves that have ever fallen,
I stopped for the great turtle
hauling his heaviness again
to those sunken sediment waters.
He would lay low until spring
unless spring did not come again
to warm his bones, his heart, his blood
enough to lift his armor out.
Slathered with algae where flies gathered
he smelled of a womb of mud.
I could not help with that inch by inch crawl –
he was a snapper with bone-crushing jaws.
That and the age of his shell
gave him the right to his own pace;
his life already longer
than the one I had yet to face.