What the Turtles Taught Me

During my first month working in Oakland Township Parks, I was rewarded by the sighting of three Blanding’s turtles! These creatures seemed assured in my presence; their heads stuck out of their shell gallantly with a smile. I inched closer to get a better look. 

Two of the Blanding’s Turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) I saw during my first month at the parks. The left turtle was at Bear Creek Nature Park and the right at Watershed Ridge Park.

To my astonishment, they didn’t startle as I moved toward them. It was like their mind was elsewhere, and I left with envy at their mellow state. I admit I rarely experience a blank, light consciousness. In modern times, information is infinite and often a click away. There is so much to process at all times, that it is too easy to get lost in the constant happenings. In the presence of the smiley turtle, I saw the possibility of a different existence.

Turtles are the oldest living reptiles, even older than dinosaurs. Not only are turtles evolutionarily archaic, but they also have lifespans similar to humans: In 2016, a recaptured Blanding’s Turtle near Ann Arbor was believed to be 83 years old! Standing a short distance from them, their detached calm radiated onto me. This species, like so many others, is under threat and is currently listed as a species of special concern in Michigan. They take 14 to 20 years before reaching sexual maturity and have large home ranges (both wetland and upland). Yet, on my early visits to the parks, there they were. Obviously, humans are not turtles. They don’t have to pay rent and taxes or check their email. But that doesn’t mean they can’t teach us how to live on Earth. They have, in fact, been around the sun longer.

Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) laying eggs last week at Gallagher Creek Park.

Lucky for us, Michigan is in the center of the Blanding’s range. According to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Oakland County has the highest occurrence of Blanding’s turtles in all of Michigan.  Keep an eye out for a domed shell and bright yellow neck that is characteristic of a Blanding’s turtle. You can report a rare species observation here https://mnfi.anr.msu.edu/species/report on Michigan Natural Features Inventory’s website.

Because we are in late spring, you are most likely to see female Blanding’s and Snapping turtles. They may be crossing roads, trying to find areas to nest. If you are fortunate enough to witness a Blanding’s turtle laying eggs on your property, you could build even build a nest protector to ensure hatchling success! See https://www.nohlc.org/install-a-turtle-protector.html for instructions. These would need to be checked daily so hatchlings do not get trapped. If you see a turtle on the side of the road and it’s safe, move them to the side of the road they are facing. After you’re done, maybe stand a short distance away and stay in their company. Who knows, you may just learn something.

Sharing those moments with the turtles, I now understand their influence. Without language or expression, I could feel their sureness. I picked the invasive garlic mustard near them and worried that my conservation efforts were never going to be enough. Seeing these turtles whose lineages have remained mostly unchanged, I am reminded to take a moment outside myself. It’s a constant inner battle to exist with the same assurance as those turtles.

Like the turtle, my existence spans past space and time, and yet as humans, we are caught in our own self-made troubles. These long-lived, traveling species are not equipped to cross a busy road. Neither are they able to protect their nests from the increasing urban predator populations. Therefore, this species’ life history is at odds with the increasing urbanization and fragmentation caused by us. Their very presence should be a lesson to see that there is a vastly complex world that should not be ignored. As long as we continue to have turtles as neighbors, we can be reminded that life is bigger than ourselves.

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