GROTON — The prize-winning naturalist and illustrator David Carroll, who learned to love turtles in a now-vanished swamp of Groton, showed GOSA members around still-rich New Hampshire habitats in a photo-illustrated lecture at the GOSA annual meeting Oct. 15, 2009.
Mr. Carroll was introduced by GOSA Director Edith Fairgrieve, who said his “presence this evening deeply honors Priscilla Pratt’s legacy of dedication to habitat preservation.” The speaker is author and illustrator of five books and winner of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award.” His latest book, Following the Water: a Hydromancer’s Notebook, is a finalist for the National Book Award.
Mr. Carroll, who grew up in Groton, characterized his trip back as a “return of the native” by a refugee from Connecticut and Massachusetts, where swamp habitats have shrunk dramatically. He said he had great respect for GOSA and for Priscilla Pratt. Though he did not mention the fact, he supplied a letter on wood turtles for GOSA’s 2002 state grant application for the Merritt property. He said Haley Farm was a “highlight of my adolescence.” But it was in a swamp behind his house when he moved to the Eastern Point section of Groton 60 years ago that he first became fascinated with turtles, he said in an interview with The Day published Oct. 10, 2009. The swamp was buried by development long ago.
He told the GOSA audience that he understands the “difficulties you face,” noting that conservationists in this area must go after “ever smaller pieces of land that come at ever greater prices.”
The naturalist’s talk was illustrated with photos, though his books feature his own highly detailed drawings. The lecture centered on his study of turtles in New Hampshire, where he has walked during all seasons for decades, observing turtles, frogs, salamanders and other creatures of the wetlands. For robust turtle populations, he said, “you need extent and complexity of environment.” Extent is needed because turtles can travel a mile a day, and complexity provides sanctuaries. People tend to “simplify to the point of ecological non-sustainability,” he said. As an example of such destructive simplification, he showed a photo of a stream in New Hampshire, one bank of which was a riot of vegetation. The other bank was a manicured lawn.
Unlike birds and flowers that begin life in the spring, turtles start living when their eggs hatch in the fall. He said one baby turtle may be picked off by a predator within 10 minutes of crawling out of his nest while another may live for 120 years. It takes two decades for a turtle to become a propagating adult.
One picture showed a protective net that Mr. Carroll had placed over a nest of turtle eggs. He said that when this temporarily blocked the exit of the babies, “they did what turtles do–dig in, wait, think about it. Things will get better.”
Mr. Carroll spoke of what he called the need to “move beyond conservation to preservation.” That means, he said, that biodiversity can stand only so much human intrusion. In New Hampshire, he said, snow mobilers place big pressures on the environment. He illustrated this with a picture of a wooden bridge built over a stream at a point once occupied by a beaver dam. He said, “We need some places where people don’t go.” He said that this idea some day will be accepted by the public, though it is not the prevailing view now. Meanwhile, he said, “if you don’t pave the way for people to come in, the crowd thins out.”
He said that for turtles, “the worst thing you can do is stock a brook and put paths next to the brook because people pick [turtles] up. Wood turtles are collected for the pet trade.”
Mr. Carroll said that the vernal pools on Haley farm are important to spotted turtles, which are vernal pool predators. It is important to protect the migration routes by which the turtles travel to the pools.
Turtle watchers need more patience than bird watchers, he said. While birds fly quickly into view, turtles may take days to appear. Mr. Carroll joked that while birdwatchers have been modified by evolution to look upward, he habitually looks down at the water. When he spots a bird, it’s likely because the bird’s reflection has appeared in the water. Nonetheless, he does look up sometimes and sees tree frogs. He showed a photo of one that looked like “lichen with eyes.”
Showing a picture of one hard-to-locate spotted turtle, Mr. Carroll said, “When you find it, what’s not to love?”