Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Angelo's Story - An Epilogue

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.

Libby Schleichert said...

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
Reston, Virginia

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.

When Friday rolled around, it was time for him to his real home in the woods. After school, I got him out of the bucket I used to carry him. Heidi was with me as I walked him down into the woods. She was chatting about school and her work. But honestly, I can’t remember a thing she said. I had the familiar sad feeling that I would never see this beautiful creature again. I have no illusions that Angelo was sad or having any kind of human thoughts. I doubt that he recognized me or felt somehow at home in his large tank with its multi-spectrum light and plants and water supply. I am not anthropomorphizing here. He couldn’t have cared less. If he had desires at all, I’m sure it was to get back into nature. So I took a cheesy picture of the two of us and headed down the hill to where I released him a couple years earlier. I sat him down in the same clay wash as before.

He didn’t look back. Instead of heading straight into a pile of leaves as he had earlier, he walked on top of them. It’s been dry and the only leaves on the ground are from last fall. He walked straight away from me and into the forest. I watched him for as long as I could see him in the dying evening light. Eventually he blended into the color of the dried fallen leaves and all I could make out was a rustling about a hundred feet away. I know I must have been a little lost in thought as Heidi and I took our evening walk that night.

It’s funny how knowing an animal for as long as I knew that one changed how I look at all animals. Now I never pass a turtle in the road without stopping and helping it to the other side safely. Now when I see a turtle in the road that has been hit by a car I feel sad. Now when kids bring turtles into class I always appreciate them and we stop everything and look at them so we can learn – so everyone can appreciate their wonder and beauty. But then I always tell them to please let the creature go right where they found it. And they get it.

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.


1 comment:

MLucas said...

Wow! What an amazing story. Sadly, I rarely see box turtles in our woods these days, though I often see other species. Thanks Tim.