Saturday, September 24, 2011
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
It was one of those sweltering summer days we have been getting used to in South Carolina this year. On the first Friday evening after school started I was tired but energized. Because this is my second year with this class, our first week together this August was just like picking up where we left off. It was more like a family reunion that what one considers a typical beginning of the school year.
So, Friday evening, the humidity was high, the cicadas and katydids were buzzing loudly in the trees. The sky had that hazy, late South Carolina summer look. There were a few high cumulus clouds off in the distance. We really needed the rain but the chances were slim. I was watering the plants behind our house.
I had on my shorts and t-shirt and was swatting the mosquitos and gnats away from my legs and face. I was about two thirds of the way around the garden with the hose when I spotted a smallish eastern box turtle on the ground just on the other side of our fence. She was about as large as a medium sized apple. Her shell had bright yellow markings and when I squatted down to examine her I could see golden brown eyes. Considering how dry and dusty it was, her colors were beautiful, her skin clean and her eyes shining.
I have always loved turtles and this encounter reminded me of my old box turtle friend Angelo. I have written about him before. Angelo was in my classroom for well over twenty years as I taught little ones from preschool to grade four. He was such a regular part of our classroom lives that children came by after many years and inquired about him.
A little over two years ago, after setting up a nice environment in my woods for his summer break, Angelo “escaped” into our woods. But when I thought back on it, he just re-entered the life he was destined for, the life I kept from him when I took him in all those years ago and kept him captive. He didn’t so much escape as he was reborn into the wild.
At the time I posted my first piece on Angelo I received a response from Libby Schleichert, an editor from Ranger Rick Magazine. It made me feel better about him being where he needed to be. It made my decision to release him when we found him again a little easier.
June 10, '09
Sad as it may be, it sounds as though the story ended the way it was supposed to. As you say, always return wildlife to the wild. And Angelo maybe knew that's where he belonged.
We appreciate your mention of our magazine, as well as your blog and the wonderful unfolding of this story. Because of inspiring teachers like you, doing the toughest job in the world day after day, there are lots of young nature-lovers out there who are looking out for wildlife and growing up caring about what happens to our planet.
What an invaluable lesson you have taught!
With warmest wishes,
Libby Schleichert, Senior Editor
Ranger Rick Magazine
National Wildlife Federation
It had been to years since I had seen Angelo, but I thought of him often whenever I saw wild box turtles. We have a peach tree in our yard and every year turtles come out of the woods to feast on the fermenting, fallen fruit. I have seen many box turtles in the road near our home and every time I stop and carry them over the road to their intended destinations. Each time I pick up a turtle I look into its eyes and wonder about my old friend Angelo. Did he survive? Did his instincts kick in enough to keep him safe from predators? Did he successfully avoid roads? Is he still nearby?
On this recent August evening, when I stooped down and reached through the fence to observe the new little visitor I thought about Angelo again. I wondered if I would ever set see him. After two years I thought our paths would never cross again. When I raised the little turtle to eye level, she hissed and closed up tight in her shell, the lower part of her shell, the plastron, raised in the front effectively sealing her soft body parts off to the world. She was safe and snug and tight in her nearly indestructible shell. I could see why these creatures live to be so old in the wild.
As I was setting her down to resume my watering, I saw movement at the bottom of our hill. There was a crinkling of leaves and twigs just at the edge of the forest. It was only a few feet away from where Angelo was set free about 29 months earlier. A large eastern box turtle, easily three times the size of the little one I had just set down, was trundling along the edge of the clearing on the hill.
I jumped over the fence, never taking my eyes off the turtle. Walking down the hill I thought I recognized my old reptile friend, but surely if he had stayed so close I would have seen him much earlier than this. From a distance it sure looked like Angelo. It was about the same size, maybe a little bigger, and had the same slightly flattened shell as the turtle I knew so well. As I bent down to pick up the turtle I expected it to hiss and close up as tightly as the other one I had just set down.
“How you doing, big fella?” I brought him up to eye level to see if it was a male or female. This one had the bright red eyes of a male and by its size it was quite old. Its plastron was slightly concave on the bottom, confirming that it was an old male. “It couldn’t be…” I murmured. His markings were similar to my old friend Angelo, but where Angelo was faded yellow, this guy had bright orange marks. “Unbelievable,” I said as I checked him out. It was Angelo. Bigger to be sure, but clean and bright, active and stronger than ever. As I held him up, he extended his four legs really far, his head and neck completely outstretched.
I never imagined that I would see this turtle again, my classroom companion for over twenty years who I had such misgivings about releasing. I had often wondered if he had survived, if he had become acclimated to wild living, to getting his own food, to defending himself from natural perils by closing up in his tight rigid shell. But here he was, in my hands, staring into my eyes, just like he did in the old days. His claws were long and sharp, his shell clean and bright. His leathery skin was supple looking and his bright red eyes were clearer than I remember them.
Of course I had to bring him back to school. But this time it was for a very different reason. No longer would he be a roommate. This time he would only stay for a few days. This time he was there to educate and for my students to reconnect. Then he would go back into the wild – where I knew he needed to be, where he truly belonged.
At school he stayed in the same 30 gallon aquarium he stayed in for the last 15 years prior to his release. He trundled into his old water bowl (the bottom cut off of a 5 gallon bucket). He burrowed into the leaves and buried himself in the dirt. He ate night crawlers and bananas and delighted my class. For five days he was the guest of honor in our “live tank”. We took his picture, gazed into his leathery face and felt his sharp claws.We studied his shell and examined the scales on his strong legs. Mostly he stayed partially hidden among the dirt and leaves – just like he would if he was in the forest.
I even look at my forest a little differently. When I walk out there I feel as though I am being watched. That old turtle and this old teacher will run into each other again one day perhaps. And we’ll share some space in a classroom. And he’ll trundle around for a few days eating our bait store worms and eating our canned corn in a brightly lit aquarium.
But he’ll always go back to the wild.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
Here is part 2 of a story I wrote a couple years ago. To read part one click here. An epilogue will be forthcoming.
Angelo's Story - Afterward
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Father Mychal Judge was a Franciscan friar and a chaplain to the New York City Fire Department. He was also a true New York character. Born in Brooklyn, Mychal Judge seemed to know everyone in the city, from the homeless to the mayor.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Father Mychal arrived at the World Trade Center shortly after the first plane hit. And as firefighters and other rescue personnel ran into the North Tower, he went with them.
Bill Cosgrove, a police lieutenant, was also there. When the South Tower collapsed, it sent debris flying into the neighboring building. When the dust cleared, Mychal Judge was dead. Soon after, Cosgrove found him. Then, Cosgrove and a group of firefighters emerged from the rubble, carrying Father Mychal's body.
Here's how Cosgrove, who's now retired, recalls that day:
I went a couple of steps, and I hit something. And I told the fire chief that somebody was on the floor. And he put the light on him — and I remember him saying, 'Oh my god, it's Father Mike.'
He checked his vital signs, and he said, 'He's dead.' So, we all picked him up. We went up the steps. And I remember looking up, because one of the firemen was yelling at a photographer. He was telling him, in no uncertain terms, 'Get out of the way.'
I didn't even think about that picture being taken. I was just doing my job. It's just... so many other heroic acts were being done all around me. It's just that no one took a picture of it.
The next day, when I came back into the precinct, somebody showed me the picture. And I got a lot of calls from people that knew Mychal Judge — firemen. They assumed I knew him, you know, but I didn't, until that day.
He's always been on my mind ever since then, because it's my firm belief that the only reason I'm here today is because of him. I know that sounds weird, but everybody you see in that picture was saved. And I'm sure had he not been there, I would have been trying to look for other people. And when that North Tower fell, I would have been right in the middle of it, just like the rest of the firemen were, and some of my cops. But nothing was going to happen that day. At least, not to me.
In the priesthood, Judge had been a mentor to another priest, Father Michael Duffy. The two served at the same parish in New Jersey during the 1970s. And at Judge's funeral service on Sept. 15, 2001, Duffy delivered the homily.
"We Franciscans are a little odd, and one of our oddities is, there's a form we fill out — it's called 'On My Death.' It says where you want your funeral mass to be, who you want to do the homily, and et cetera, like that," Duffy says.
As he recalls, Duffy didn't expect to be asked to speak about his late friend, especially on the occasion of a national tragedy.
But the day after the attacks, his provincial minister called him.
"And he said, 'Mychal wanted you to do the homily,'" Duffy says. "And I said, 'Well yes, but this is different. It should be someone with a little more import. So, I think you should do it.' And there was a long pause. And he said, 'But Mychal wanted you.'
"So I mean, what are you going to say to that? I said to myself, 'When I see Mychal, I'm going to kill him,'" Duffy says with a laugh.
In his speech, Duffy made a joking comparison between Father Mychal and Sister Theresa. After all, the popular priest had touched many lives.
"Everyone thought Mychal Judge was their best friend," Duffy says. "He'd remember significant things in their life, and he would write a little note — just one or two lines. Of course, they'd write him back. So, he had a big black satchel, filled with letters to answer."
And many of those people came to pay their respects to Judge — far too many to fit in Manhattan's St. Francis of Assisi Church.
"There were 3,000 people at his funeral," Duffy says. "The church wasn't big enough to hold them. They were outside; Bill Clinton was there; Hillary Clinton; all New York."
The proceedings were also televised. And finally, it was Duffy's turn to speak.
"I stood up, and I reached in to get my glasses — and I couldn't get to the pocket, because my vestment was covering them. Thank goodness I'd practiced it, because I couldn't read it."
The full text of Duffy's homily is posted online. Following are excerpts of what Duffy told Judge's friends and family that day:
He loved to bless people — and I mean physically — even if they didn't ask. A little old lady would come up to him, and he would put his big thick Irish hands and press the head 'til I think the poor woman would be crushed.
He would say to me once and a while, 'Michael Duffy' — he always called me by my full name — 'Michael Duffy, you know what I need?'
And I would get excited, because it was hard to buy him a present or anything. I said, 'No, what?'
'You know what I really need?'
'No. What, Mike?'
'Absolutely nothing. I don't need a thing in the world. I am the happiest man on the face of the earth. Why am I so blessed? I don't deserve it.'
Mychal Judge's body was the first one released from Ground Zero. His death certificate has the number '1' on the top. Of the thousands of people who perished in that terrible holocaust, why was Mychal Judge number one? And I think I know the reason. Mychal's goal and purpose in life was to bring the firemen to the point of death so they would be ready to meet their maker. Mychal Judge could not have ministered to them all. It was physically impossible — in this life.
In the next few weeks, we're going to have name after name of people who are being brought out of that rubble. And Mychal Judge is going to be on the other side of death — to greet them, instead of send them there.
And so, this morning we come to bury Myke Judge's body, but not his spirit. We come to bury his voice, but not his message. We come to bury his hands, but not his good works. We come to bury his heart, but not his love. Never his love.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo with Eve Claxton.
Friday, September 9, 2011
TUESDAY, JUNE 9, 2009
He came to me in my old dog’s jaws. He was just a hatchling, and Tawny, a big buff colored cocker spaniel, came to the back door of our house in southern Indiana with this tiny little box turtle in his mouth. The turtle’s shell was a little crushed in from the chewing he got from Tawny. I was sad. The little hatchling was surely a goner.
I called the vet at the bottom of the hill in Bean Blossom, Indiana, where we lived at the time. He was a farm vet and admittedly knew next to nothing about turtles. If I’d wait on the line, he’d look up what he could in one of his old textbooks. It turned out that a lot of people had them as pets but he knew very little about what they ate. He knew only that they were omnivores. He dusted his broken shell with some kind of antibiotic and said that was all he could think to do. It turns out that was all it took. The vet didn’t even charge me.
I didn’t want to let the little turtle loose in the condition he was in. He was so tiny that he couldn’t even tuck himself into his shell all the way. So I kept him in a bowl in our sunroom. And when it got cold, in our office. I fed him canned corn and bait worms. The worms were much bigger than he was so I had to cut them into tiny pieces. After a couple days he began eating hungrily. It was pretty neat. I thought I had done a good deed and I became really fond of the little guy.
The next fall he had a place in my second grade classroom at Lynwood Elementary in Decatur Township Schools. While he was only a little bigger than a 50 cent piece, he was eating, enjoying sunshine in our large window and growing like crazy. For two years he was part of the class.
Once he was kidnapped from our room. Truly. We came back from lunch one day and he was gone. The class was so upset that we put up wanted posters around the school and offered a dollar reward for his safe return. A child came to my room before school one morning and said that his brother, a second grader from another classroom, had taken the turtle; had in fact, put him in his pocket and had him at home in a jar of water. I thanked him, gave him the dollar, and went straight to that boy’s class. I told him that if he brought the turtle back to school the next day, and that if he was safe and sound, I wouldn’t call the sheriff and report him for larceny. That’s just what he did. Angelo came back looking very stuffed and bloated from having spent so much time immersed in water. Again, I called my farm vet friend and he said to just leave him out of the water for a while and, more than likely, he would be okay. He was.
As Angelo grew, the size of his enclosure needed to grow as well. When I moved to South Carolina in 1986, he was with me in a 3 gallon fish bowl. His water bowl was the size of a shallow tea cup. My first graders wrote about him and drew pictures of him in our first class science journal. They would say things like, “Angelo is looking right at me,” or “Angelo turned the worm over before he ate it.” They were really fond of him. They would come to the classroom years later as they grew up to see Angelo and remark about how big he was getting.
I was at that school for 5 years and every year Angelo would come to school with me in the fall and return with me in the summer. He was as much a part of my classroom as the tables and chairs. As I grew and changed as a teacher, Angelo was quietly sitting in my room, munching on celery, eating worms, marching around his aquarium.
I switched districts in 1991. I went back to teaching second grade at Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary. During the five years I spent at Nelson, Angelo helped me to teach science. Of course I had other classroom pets during this time. Various short-lived fish came and went. We had a pair of mice for a short while. When I bought them, I told the pet store guy that I wanted two males or two females but that I definitely did not want any baby mice! It didn’t take long to figure out that they were male and female. Back to the pet store they went. We had various gerbils, hamsters, even a ball python for a year or so that belonged to one of the kids. Angelo was a constant. We switched him to a 10 gallon tank with a multispectrum reptile light. Bought him Reptomin turtle food and night crawlers. Every once in a while I would find a wild box turtle and bring it in for a day and then take it home and release it where I found it. We would compare Angelo with its wild relative. Angelo never went in his shell. He was so completely adapted to his life in the classroom, his life with humans.
Angelo taught kids to love turtles and, I think, wildlife in general. We discussed what you should do if you ever see a turtle in the road. We called them “Turtle Rescues” and many children over the years saved countless turtles from being roadkill because they knew and cared for a special turtle, Angelo.
In 1996 we opened The Center For Inquiry where Angelo was upgraded to a 30 gallon tank, with a huge light and a water container that was the cut off bottom of a large bucket. I had a heated area for him to rest when he was chilled. My second and third graders wrote funny songs about him. “Angelo’s Reptile Rock” was a favorite of my class for a few years. This year when several children did their expert projects on turtles (thanks in no small part to being in love with Angelo) we wrote a really good informational song called “We Love Turtles”.
Still, I felt guilty over the years about keeping him. I ALWAYS counseled children to release wild animals, that if they were safe it was okay to examine them, learn from them and then to release them. When preying mantis or lady bugs or even wood roaches or rolly pollies would come in I would demand their release at the end of the day.
I rationalized about Angelo by saying that he was so imprinted, so unnaturalized that if I let him loose into the wild he would be easy prey for any predator that came his way. I kept him in the first place because he was wounded and wouldn’t release him because of his helplessness because of my keeping him. There was this mobious strip of logic that I used year after year, justifying my keeping him in captivity. Yet, every summer when it was time to close up the classroom I felt guilty. Sometimes I would let him go home with well meaning students and parents who tried to feed him up, keep his aquarium clean and change his water daily. Often I would get him back in the fall all dusty, colorless and light in weight. Healthy turtles are never light.
So this year I decided to bring him home and to build him an outdoor enclosure. A big one. We stopped at the hardware store yesterday and considered lots of alternatives. We settled on large masonry bricks, 12 inches on their sides. I raked out a large area in our woods, lay down chicken wire around the edges, tapped in the bricks, placed rocks on the wire, filled in with dirt and leaves, dug out a spot in the middle for his watering hole and considered us all very lucky. This was going to be the summer of his life, as near to natural as we could get for him. I had collected several beetles, centipedes and earthworms just from raking up the leaves for his area. Yum. He seemed curious and active when I put him in last evening. Mosquitoes hovering, the light dimming, Heidi and I headed out for our evening walk.
When I checked on him this morning, he was gone. The dirt in one corner was a little high, the brick there tapped in a little too far. I suspect he simply kept trying and trying to climb over until he got out. You know, it made me sad to realize that I won’t ever see those bright, inquisitive, red eyes again. It made me sad to know that he won’t ever be a part of a young kid’s natural education. You can read about box turtles in books or inRanger Rick magazine but until you’ve held one and it looks you in the eye, you never really know a box turtle. He’s been a part of my classroom for 26 years. 26 years of kids growing to love turtles. 26 years I have fed him, nurtured him, changed his water, changed his soil, cleaned out his poop. 26 years of watching that beautiful animal grow from a little broken-shelled squirt to a beautiful, healthy, full grown eastern box. How can one miss a reptile? I will.
There was a part of me that went, “Good for you, old guy. You made it." It might be that he will be easy pickings for the next fox or raccoon. It could be that he wanders out into the road and gets hit by a car, although we live pretty far out in the country so that’s not all that likely. But maybe he’ll live through the rest of the season. Maybe he’ll come across a female and they’ll have a clutch of eggs. Maybe, before his time comes, even if it’s short, he’ll experience the kind of freedom that will have made all of these years in captivity worthwhile. So, good for you, old guy.
Monday, September 5, 2011
It is not convenient to think about global climate change. Facing up to the facts about our changing planet can be uncomfortable. And who wants to really consider what would need to be done in order to slow or reverse the effects humans have had on the environment? It’s hard. It’s unpleasant. It would be much easier to pass this problem on to future generations.
It is apparently much more politically expedient to deny that humans have had anything to do with climate change, to say that it is part of a naturally occurring cycle, that all we have to do is wait it out. It would be simple to agree with the talking heads on conservative talk shows that every time there is a snowstorm it is proof that scientists are cooking up this whole climate change thing for attention or to milk the government for money so they can get more funding for research. Sure, it would be easier to pretend that global climate change doesn’t exist.
But it would be terribly, sinfully, unpatriotically stupid.
Yet there are a whole bunch of politicians who are getting attention for doing just that. I don’t believe for a minute that Rick Perry, for example, doesn’t understand what is happening to our planet. I couldn’t imagine a scenario where someone with his resources wouldn’t ever look at the graphs (NASA.gov) or try to get a grasp on the data that prove the facts. I don’t think there are any scientist who don’t believe that the temperature of the globe is increasing, those facts are easily and 100% verifiable. Perry's book, Fed Up! takes a look a climate science and finds it to be "all one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight."
A quick look at NASA's website outlines the evidence of global climate change. It is overwhelming.
*Sea level rise
*Global temperature rise
*Shrinking ice sheets
*Declining Arctic sea ice
The overwhelming majority of scientist who collect data and study the information about climate change (somewhere between 97 and 98% - one could hardly expect to ever get similar numbers about anything scientific) believe that global climate change is caused by humans. And yet Perry and others keep pushing a political agenda that invites us to take our eye off of the ball, to ignore scientifically proven facts, to disregard our responsibility to take action about the eventual consequences if we sit idly by and keep talking about global climate change as if it is a random theory.
There are a lot of folks who simply believe someone who says something often enough, loud enough and with enough vitriol. There are a lot of folks who think that some short-term, nebulous gain is worth putting off looking for a solution to a long-term problem.
And, frankly, there are a lot of people who think since we can’t see the curve of the earth from where we are standing, that the world is flat.