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Monday, March 25, 2013

Don't make me beg

Please, spring, hurry back. We're nearly frozen solid, and we miss you terribly.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Life in the Slow Lane (part 4)

As spring abdicated and summer took the throne, there were turtle races in the garden (Chili always won; Somethingorother was content to enjoy the scenery from a stationary viewpoint) and lawn sprinkler parties. Bigger and better water guns were tested, with the alltime favorite the Super Soaker - water artillery equivalent of a bazooka.  The house rule has always been 'Never shoot at anyone who is unarmed' so the turtles were safe, as they refused to bear arms. Armor didn't count.  As promised, they weren't interested in food served a la Tera firma. The garden vegetables were safe from turtle molestation.  The abandoned fledgling Bluejay the next door neighbors were raising was quite a different story. He developed a taste for fresh peas and enjoyed hanging out in the garden with the kids, who taught him haw to dig for earthworms, and where to find the peas... But that's, well, as I said, another story.

On an early morning walk one day, I was fascinated with the hordes of grasshoppers scattering in small clicking explosions in every direction with each step I took through the grass. One startled me by dropping into the big, baggy pocket of my sweater. I was trying to shake it out of my pocket when it occurred to me to wonder if the turtles would eat it. So I left it in the pocket and added a few more and kept them live in my pocket as I walked home. There were dead grasshoppers along the edge of the road as well... Victims, I supposed, of the windshields, radiators and tires of passing vehicles. I picked up a few of these too.

Back home, I rounded up the turtles and poured them a bath. Once they were paddling elegantly in the water, I dropped a live grasshopper in with them. It took a few minutes for them to notice it. In fact, the grasshopper had rowed itself across the water's surface to cling to the side of the tub several times, where I retrieved and returned it to the water, before a turtle deigned to take an interest. Somethingorother paddled lazily over and prodded it. This got the grasshopper pretty excited, which, in turn, made things more interesting to the turtle, who tried a nibble, liked what he tasted, and finished the hapless insect off. The second grasshopper didn't make it to the edge of the tub. The third  was nearly snapped out of my hand. I dropped a dead one in, with no response. Chili, oblivious to the feast at the next table, munched broccoli. He eventually caught on, after a few grasshopper feedings, when I didn't put the broccoli in until after the grasshoppers were gone.   "No veggies till you finish your bugs," I told him.    

From then on, there was always a small lidded container in the baggy pocket during my morning walks. In no time I was a grasshopper catching wizard, an extremely popular skill with small children. I was good at frogs too, though I never tried to feed them to the turtles. I like frogs, and we weren't overrun with them. Feeding grasshoppers to turtles was my small contribution to sustainable agriculture in my little corner of the world. Organic, even. They were a pestilence that year, and farmers were fearing for their crops.  

On my return home one morning, with a poor catch, I noticed a lot of very big ants on the sidewalk outside the house.  Not wanting to return empty handed, I tucked a few of these into my jar.  Some variety in their diet might be welcomed by the turtles.   The ants rowed across the surface of the water most satisfactorily, and the turtles were ready for them.  After a couple of weeks of fresh grasshoppers, they were skilled hunters.  Chili was the first to bag an ant.  And spit it out immediately and urgently with a look of pained disgust.  Somethingorother did the same.  Not only would they not eat the ants, they wouldn't eat the broccoli I gave them later that day.  Nothing.  They weren't touching a thing, thank you very much.  The next feeding day we were back to grasshoppers, after a cautious few nibbles. When I mentioned this to a scientist friend, he said, "of course they wouldn't eat ants.  They're full of oxalic acid.  They must taste terrible." I guess they'd never heard of sour candy.  

There was a lovely shallow, slow moving finger of the nearby river, behind an island, with a bit of tree-bordered meadow where there was a modest provincial campsite. We often took the canoe there on hot summer days to paddle, swim, and roast wieners round the campfire. This particular year, we happened to be there when the minnows had recently hatched out. They, like the grasshoppers, were everywhere. My boys were certain the turtles would enjoy a meal of fresh fish, so they devoured the contents of the pickle jar, rinsed it in the river, and scooped up a few minnows. I suspect the attraction of eating far too may dill pickles was as strong as that of a fresh fish dinner for pets. Uncharacteristically, they were eager to go home early that night.

The tub was duly filled, turtles deposited, and minnows released. To no effect at all. The minnows swum hither and yon unmolested. If it didn't sit on the surface of the water it was a neighbor, apparently - certainly not food. We left them together overnight with the bathroom light on, just in case it took a while for the minnows to get the turtles' attention, and went to bed. In the morning all but one of the minnows was dead, bright red inflammation around their gills evidence of a painful death by chlorine burn. Human logic is a strange thing. We were ok with giving them a violent death at the hands of a predator, but painful asphyxiation by chlorine poisoning felt like brutal murder. And, as with the dead grasshoppers, the turtles had no interest in dead meat. We gave the deceased minnows a respectful burial in the garden, then dumped the buttons out of an old fishbowl and ensconced the lonely minnow in it. His gills were burned too, but he was a survivor. We were, of course, careful after this to always dechlorinate his water. On our next trip to the river his gills had lost their painful, inflamed look and he  was released into the wild.

By this time we were not only accustomed to our personable amphibian guests, but quite fond of them. They, in turn were comfortable with us, ranging freely over the main floor of the house. Though they could be found in some odd places at times, especially if clothes were left on the floor, the toy storage under the stairs remained their premiere hideaway.  Gone were fears of turtle attack; the kids rummaged about under there freely now, but with consideration, always aware someone lived there now.

Friend Paula's new (to her) home was now nearly ready for habitation, and she would be moving in soon.  I mentioned to the mother of a violin student that we were going to miss the turtles when they went home.  She beamed and asked if I wanted some of my own.  It seems a friend of hers had two turtles her son had raised from babies. The lad was now finished university and getting married, so the turtles were nearly 20 years old. The new wife had made it clear that turtles the size of dinner plates - even if they were kept in a tank - were not part of the deal, so Mum was afraid she'd be stuck with the things.  After a phone call we were formally introduced, and only a few days later we had 4 free range turtles.  I thought my boys would die of excitement.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Life in the Slow Lane (part 3)

As the days grew longer and the sun stronger, in quiet moments Chili and Somethingorother could be found basking in the spill of sunshine on the wood floor  of the living room.  There was a large, south facing window there.  The spring sunshine was warm and glorious. The first time I encountered this, I thought they were having some desperately horrible fit.  There they were, side by side in the centre of a pool of sunlight, with necks stretched out longer than seemed possible, front legs stretched equally impossibly long, with claws pointing towards their tails, and hind legs dangling straight behind.  





I'd never seen so much turtle outside of a shell. Those long, limp, skinny limbs looked unnatural, and their eyes were shut. They looked like they were unconscious. How, I wondered in mortal anguish, do you resuscitate a turtle? But they spared me that - they heard me coming, in my panicked rush to save them from whatever horrors they were suffering, peeled sleepy eyelids back and lazily lifted their heads off the floor to turn stupified gazes on me.  By  now I had some experience with turtle body language. The closest description of the expressions on their faces is 'drunken stupor'. They looked totally stoned, man.  And that's how they spent sunny afternoons, if the house was quiet and there were no human obstacles to avoid. Stoned on sunlight. 

On one afternoon, after a sleepless night, I lay down on the couch in the living room, which faced the sunny south window and had free access from all sides.  I dozed off comfortably in the warm sunshine. Some time later I was awakened by a strange shuffling and thumping.  As I looked about me, gathering my wits, Chili came into view around the foot of the couch, at a brisk turtle trot.  He hurried along the length of it, and took the corner by my head, around to the back of the couch, where the sounds continued until he came around the corner at my feet again.  He was doing laps around the couch!  Meanwhile Somethingorother lay with his chin on the floor marinating in the heat of the sunbeam, grinning stupidly, ignoring the action.  I didn't count the laps, but this went on for 15 or 20 minutes before Chili joined his partner in the sun.  Chili did this periodically, when he thought no one was watching, but his buddy had no interest in marathon training. Who'da thunk a turtle would be into fitness?

They both had a fondness for books and magazines.  As I shared their biblio love, there were a good many bookshelves holding a good many books about the place.  When the mood took one of them, he would amble over to a shelf of choice, and proceed to check a few books out of the library.  He'd do this by wedging himself between one edge of the shelf and the book nearest it, sometimes sideways, almost as if he were inserting himself in there like a book.  Then he'd work himself between the book and the shelf until he had his head between the back of the bookshelf and the open-able end of the book. He'd turn a corner in there somehow, working his head behind all of the books all along the bottom shelf, moving sideways with one set of legs down, and the other up, until he'd checked them all out and had them displayed for his reading convenience on the floor.  When there was no longer resistance from any books, he'd wobble down onto his belly and sit on the bottom shelf of the book case, surveying the literary selection spread out before him.  It was pretty amazing how much the two of them could read in an afternoon. 






Monday, March 4, 2013

LIfe in the Slow Lane (part 2)

Our first turtles were foster children.  Their names were Chili and ...... somethingorother.  When Paula brought them to the house, I was more than a bit repulsed by their reptilian looking faces and skin. I thought they looked unfriendly.... just waiting for an opportunity to do something nasty. They didn't think much better of me, and, upon release onto the main floor of the house, promptly galomped into the space beneath the upstairs landing, burrowing under the kids' toys that were stored there.  Paula informed me that they would only eat and defecate in water, so I'd need to put them in the bathtub every other day for a few hours to feed and take a dump. They liked broccoli and other veggies, and an occasional bit of lean beef. Absolutely no hamburger.  Unlike the boys, I wasn't disappointed that they didn't leave the toy storage for the next 24 hours.  Every now and then we'd hear something moving in there, so we knew where they were.  If things were quiet for too long, I'd feel a guilty mix of fear that they were dead - crushed beneath the heaps of toys and dress-up paraphernalia - and relief that that they might be dead. The boys, then about 6 and 9, were sternly warned that they could NOT, under any circumstances, go in there. Only toys that were in plain sight, and fully accessible from the doorway were allowed.  This might be a good time to mention that this 'room' was about 3 feet high - only accessible in the upright position by a child of less than that height.  All others must stoop or crawl within.  

The turtles didn't, contrary to my shamefaced hopes,  die in there overnight. They were just fine the next afternoon, if the rustling, rattling and thumping of trains and fireman's hats and building blocks was an indicator.  With a knot in my stomach I crawled in to dig them out, for their first swim in our bathtub.  Fearful of losing a finger to the dangerous looking beaks on the front end, I picked them up as close to the other end as possible, and carried them up the stairs to a tub of tepid water, where they were unceremoniously dumped, along with a handful of chopped broccoli and lettuce.  They were no more comfortable with me, and kept heads and appendages - even tails! neatly tucked inside their shells until they hit the water. Then a miracle happened. The clumsy, awkward creatures transformed into graceful beings, fluid of movement and regal of bearing. They stretched their necks, with heads uplifted, to the surface, paddling confidently with outstretched legs and feet. For the first time since we'd met, they seemed something other than malevolent.  

The lettuce was a bust, but they nibbled away at the broccoli with what might have been satisfaction. Or it might have been disgust....  I was just learning to read turtle body language.  I'd been concerned about a place for them to get out of the water.... to breathe or something..... but Paula's instructions assured me that these were marine, and not land turtles. They were quite happy and able to float for long periods at the water's surface if they needed to catch their breath.  They didn't need to make landfall.  When evening came, and one of the boys needed a bath, we drained and disinfected the tub, rinsed the turtles and returned them downstairs.  The whole thing was not nearly as disgusting as I'd expected. The mess was minimal.  The worst part of it was keeping the last of the broccoli bits and the rejected lettuce from going down the drain. It's astonishing how quickly a determined turtle can disappear.  As soon as they were set back on the main floor, they went strait for the deepest, darkest corner of the under-landing toy heap. They seemed to like to be together.    

As the days went on, we became so accustomed to the occasional odd sounds of turtles moving beneath the toy stash that we no longer heard it.  This became a secret family joke - a source of private entertainment. A visiting friend might freeze suddenly in mid-sentence, listen intently to stealthy sounds coming from the corner, then whisper, "what was that?" We'd reply, by now quite nonchalantly, "Turtle."  It was crucial, for best results, to keep a straight face, and play this completely deadpan.  There are no indigenous turtles in northern Alberta.       ....to be continued

The photo is of another, unrelated turtle, adopted by my granddaughter, in memory of the turtles Grandma had when she was smaller.



Sunday, March 3, 2013

Life in the slow lane (part 1)

It was accidental. Amphibians are too much like reptiles to be attractive. They're not cuddly, and how do you take them for a walk?

So it was only friendship speaking when I agreed to care for those turtles. Mississippi Red-eared sliders. You know, the cute little things not much bigger than a dollar coin. You could find them in any Woolworth's pet department a few decades ago. And those little plastic 'ponds' with the green plastic palm tree they lived in. I bought a pair of them with my allowance when I was 8 or 10. Sadly, I had no idea how to care for them, and got no parental guidance, so their lives were short and miserable.

But this tale is about some other turtles. These  particular turtles- the ones friendship compelled me to foster - were no tiny scrabbling hatchlings. These were 10 or 15.... Maybe even 20 years old. They'd been the fortunate infants to go to a home with some knowledge and expertise. They were about the size of a soup bowl, and, I was told, house trained. That's right. Not only that, they were free range turtles.