Often when I come home from work my retired husband, Bruce, reports on his daily news from Lake Hallie. Today he tells me about a teen fisherman who called out to him from a paddle boat as Bruce sat inside at our kitchen counter: “There’s a chipmunk caught in your net.”
Bruce walks down to the dock and sees a chipmunk struggling to untangle itself from a long-handled scoop net we keep for the big fish we never catch, more prop than function. Another chipmunk stands on the dock near his trapped pal. This is the influence of “Chip an’ Dale.” Can any of us look at chipmunks and not think of them as naughty cartoons? Bruce, king of “dad jokes,” tells the fisherman: “I wasn’t even fishing for chipmunks.”
Bruce holds out the net, and the teen pokes the snarl just enough for Chip to hop out and scurry under the dock with his buddy.
Animals on Lake Hallie thrill a city kid like Bruce. When we first moved here nine years ago, he’d email me at work, “Otters playing on the lake” or “Great blue heron arrived this morning,” like headlines or invitations to come home right now. Each day we may watch woodchuck, eagles, muskrat and fox. I was once chased by a leaping mink and intimidated by a teeth-baring fisher, a weasel-like animal that kills porcupine by slashing the face. Bruce is jealous that I’ve seen two coyote and a lone timber wolf. After my second falcon sighting, he teased, “Today I saw a dinosaur and you didn’t.”
One Saturday last June, just past dawn, I open my curtains and notice what looks like a large hunk of black plastic in my yard. I do a double take. The plastic has a long neck. A snapping turtle. Her back legs are buried in the dirt. I know at once: she’s laying eggs. I grab my camera. Bruce will want to see this, though not enough to wake up at 5:30 a.m.
I watch as ping pong-sized eggs drop from the back of this big girl into the shallow hole she’s dug. Her shell is three feet tip to tip, I’ll confirm later when I measure the spot. She strains her body forward, one egg drops, and her large claws (the X-Men’s Wolverine comes to mind) cover it with dirt. She produces another and another. I lose count after 15. Most snappers lay 20 to 60 eggs in one nest chamber. Each laying is exactly the same, yet I take photo after photo. I’ll send some to my son, living in the desert and missing green Wisconsin. He’s at officer’s training, and we’ve had no contact for weeks. My mantra as a military parent: No news is good news.
When I was a brand-new mother, I read that the first lesson of parenthood is letting go. Holding my infant, how could I believe it? Little by little we all have to. A recent phenomenon, “helicopter parenting,” means moms and dads are so hyper-focused on their kids that they hover over every move and decision, often tethered by a cellphone so that kids can’t function on their own.
Turtles may be among the least “helicopter” of all parents. This snapper lays eggs and leaves, then lets her babies’ homing device lead them to water.
Each June anywhere near Lake Hallie (or any water in Wisconsin), we slow our cars for small painted turtles and enormous snappers crossing the road. We watch from afar as they dig nests in flower beds or gravel driveways. Bruce jokes that this is “e-reptile dysfunction,” but who is to doubt 250 million years of turtle evolution. Somehow the species survives, even though 90% of snapper eggs are eaten by predators (skunks, chipmunks, raccoons, and great blue heron, to name a few). This turtle is the closest I’ll come to seeing a dinosaur: spiky carapace top shell, pre-historic-looking legs and neck.
Snappers have the terrible rep of hunting swimmers like some redneck “Jaws,” but they never attack while swimming and mostly want to be left alone. On land, snappers act more aggressively than other species because unlike turtles with smaller bodies, they can’t retreat inside their shell for safety. No option for flight means more fight.
Our snapper’s nest chamber is close to the lake, so when these tiny turtles hatch they have an easy six foot downhill tumble to water. Still, it’s a terrible spot. Not so near my fire ring that the eggs will boil, but enough that a bonfire is out of the question.
Bruce gets up around 8 a.m. and I show him a few photos as he drinks his coffee, then walk him to the upturned earth. He immediately goes to Facebook (where else!?) to ask advice on how to protect our eggs. Within minutes come responses from sardonic writer types (“are turtle eggs tasty in an omelet?”), no-nonsense environmental types (“leave them alone and let nature take its course”) and helpful friends who advise to cover the area with a laundry basket, one with holes large enough for hatchlings to escape but no predators to get in.
Bruce retrieves an old basket from the garage. For the rest of the summer we work around the laundry basket, hoping the eggs are safe. Visitors joke about “Bruce’s babies.” I worry my lawn mower vibrations might damage them.
Parenting is so much more than egg laying and walking away. Still, we can learn from reptiles how to let go and trust: a little instinct for water, a little faith that the universe may take care of us all. As an educator I know how important it is to let children experience not just skinned knees but setbacks and failures, loss and heartbreak to build their personal grit long before they graduate high school. As a parent I know that urge to swoop in like a Blackhawk helicopter and save the day.
Sometimes even “overparenting” cannot protect from outside forces. Come late September — over 120 days later — Bruce and I face the fact that none of this snapper brood survived, part of the cruel world of nature. I lift off the basket and gingerly dig into the spot where I know mama laid her eggs. Nothing is there. Not a partial shell nor an unhatched egg. Nothing.
Next Saturday: Nickolas Butler on the beauty and bounty of maintaining a garden.