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A meditation on death and turtles (Part 1)


On the trip home from the State Fair several years ago, I saw a turtle laboring across the interstate. Traffic was light that early on the Sunday before Labor Day, but the turtle’s chances for success seemed slim, so I pulled to the shoulder and walked back to lend a hand. Since there was, indeed, some marshland on the other side of the highway, I drove to the next exit, reversed direction and ferried my leathery friend to its destination. Back on the road, I recalled Howard Tabor’s column from The Plantagenet on September 22nd 2007.


“A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor


There will not be a pop quiz at the end of this article.

Turtles are of the Order Testudines, and all living turtles belong to the crown group Chelonia. Wikipedia tells me that they are among the oldest reptiles—older than lizards and snakes—which may account for their central role in Hindu and Native American creation myths. Coincidentally, those same and other creation myths also credit the industrious muskrat with laying the foundations of the earth. There are no constellations named for either the turtle or the muskrat, which seems an oversight worth correcting.

Frankly, I’ve seen more turtles than muskrats along our riverbanks and Crispin Creek. (Though my unrefined observational skills may be a consequence of persistent daydreaming in Mrs. Lawton’s tenth-grade science class.) We have several turtle species here in the Muskrat Valley, though fewer every year, along with frogs and fireflies, thanks to the presence of our own ungrateful species. Muskrats and turtles also constitute an incidental part of each other’s diet. Seems fair. Here is a story passed on to me by Hal Holt about his granddad, a story centered upon the turtle, a particular turtle, and also upon the virtue of patience and upon revelation in the fullness of time.

Malcolm Holt’s journals—an almost daily meditation on seventy years of local history—include this entry for May 12th, 1898: “Went with Libby to the Grove. She wanted to show me a Tortoise found along the Creek. Someone has graved the number 88 into its shell.” Libby was his daughter Elizabeth Merrifield Holt; the Grove was and still is Gnostic Grove; and the Creek is our own Crispin Creek long defining the south edge of town. Libby had found a turtle with what appeared to be an adolescent bit of 19th century graffiti etched into its back: the date 1888. Malcolm’s journal entry might have remained a tender moment in the bonding of parent and child had it not been for another family event almost a hundred years later.

Please forgive the biblical begetting, for Libby Holt married Lester Prentice in 1913. Her daughter Margaret Prentice married Philip Kuehn in 1940. Her daughter Elizabeth (Libby) Kuehn married, in turn, Jack Fahnstock and then Mitchell Stokes in 1970. And her daughter Diane Stokes has just married Daniel Sanchez (now both hyphenated as Stokes-Sanchez) and returned to teach science at Fennimore County High School. As a high-school biology student in the mid-90s, Diane sat in the same classroom I had, where Mrs. Virginia Lawton still presided. Presumably, Diane daydreamed less than I, because she is about to complete her Ph.D. in biology at Iowa City. The subject of her dissertation? “Chelonia of the Muskrat River Watershed in Northwestern Iowa.” I wish I’d paid more attention to Mrs. Lawton.

As a student in Mrs. Lawton’s ‘Environmental Science’ class, Diane honed her focus on biology, stalking the same riverbanks and creek beds on weekend afternoons—sometimes with me. On one of those afternoons a dozen years ago Diane was scanning the sandy north bank of Crispin Creek for signs of reptilian burrows and chanced to find a turtle shell. Anxious to determine its species, she used a twig to carefully free it from sand and roots. Rinsed in the creek, its color brought back, she recognized it as Graptemys pseudogeographica, the False Map Turtle, now a protected species not found in this part of Iowa. How long had it been in the bank? Anyone else might have casually skipped the turtle shell across the water, not even pausing to watch it sink. Instead, excited, Diane telephoned Mrs. Lawton and the two converged at school, where our science library confirmed her speculation; a false map turtle it was. And rare in these parts. Cleaned and preserved, it revealed one more startling bit of information.

The turtle’s upper shell or carapace is composed of bones that constitute its spine and ribs, with a covering of horny plates called scutes. As the animal grows, the pattern of the scutes changes, like watching the hands of a clock move, no doubt. For when the women inspected the shell they found evidence of scratching; marks from the claws of a predator (like the muskrat) or made during mating. But the marks were too regular: four diamond shapes of about the same size. Telling the story to family at dinner that night, Diane was surprised to hear the legend of her great-grandmother Libby Holt, an eight-year-old with an unrequited 19th-century passion for Nature; a girl who had taken her father on a warm spring afternoon to see an oddity in the natural world, some unexplained marks on a turtle’s back. Once more in the lab, Diane understood those marks: the diamond-shaped 8s had lain across the scutes and their components had grown in different, opposing directions. She had found her great-grandmother’s turtle, enshrined in oral tradition as “Old ’88.”

Given the better-paying jobs that abound for someone with such credentials, we should be grateful Diane Stokes-Sanchez has come home to fill the petite but substantial shoes of her mentor Virginia Lawton (and my mentor as well, if only I’d had the good sense God gave a rutabaga). How many more young scientists will come from a lineage like theirs? And how many of their stories will come full circle?

1 Comment

  1. […] #17 Harold Russell Holt (a.k.a. Hal) was a retired engineer who became director of the Fennimore County History Center. A second article about his passing was written before the “Ghost” series began. Hal Holt isn’t based on anyone I know; I think he may be either someone I’d like to know or even someone I’d like to be. I’d certainly prefer to be remembered that way. […]

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