Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The age of reptiles

Be still, don't startle. She is in the midst of her preparations, spread-eagled on the sandy lawn, using her hind legs to excavate a nest.

She casts a wary eye, but goes about her business. I creep close to get a photo. Then feel abashed. There is something intensely private about her activity. The camera only adds to my sense of being a Peeping Tom.

I can't watch a turtle lay without thinking of Mr. J. W. P. Jenks of Middleboro, Mass., my neighbor in space if not in time. A century ago, nature writer Dallas Lore Sharp told the story in an essay called "Turtles Eggs for Agassiz." The essay became something of a classic, often anthologized, but now -- like other tales of pluck and patience -- gone sadly out of style.

At the age of 23, John Whipple Potter Jenks was principal of Middleboro's Pierce Academy. One day Louis Agassiz, Harvard professor of zoology and America's most famous scientist, appeared in the doorway of Jenks's classroom. The great man asked for turtle eggs, for his study of turtles, part of his monumental book "Contributions to the Natural History of the United States."

Jenks said yes. The catch was this: If the proper information was to be obtained by dissection, the turtle eggs could not be more than three hours old. The distance from Middleboro to Agassiz's home in Cambridge was 40 miles. And thereby hangs the tale.

On May 14, weeks before the turtles were likely to lay, Jenks began his vigil at a Middleboro pond. There he sat, among the cedars, from 3 A.M. until the bell at the Academy announced early classes. Here is how he described those mornings, many years later, to Dallas Lore Sharp:

"What fragrant mornings those were! How fresh and new and unbreathed! The pond odors, the woods odors, the odors of the ploughed fields -- of water lily, and wild grape, and the dew-laid soil! I can taste them yet, and hear them yet -- the still, large sounds of the waking day -- the pickerel breaking the quiet with his swirl; the kingfisher dropping anchor; the stir of feet and wings among the trees. And then the thought of the great book being held up for me!"

But no eggs, not yet. He sat and watched, Sundays and rainy days included, until finally, at the end of the second week in June, an enormous female snapper came shuffling up out of the pond. She paddled across the meadow to a sandy bank, excavated a nest, and laid her eggs. No sooner had she finished than Jenks scooped up her cache and layered them with sand into a bucket. It was 4 A.M. on a Sunday morning, and he had three hours to get his treasure to Cambridge.

I'll not tell the rest of the story -- of the wild gallop toward the Boston Pike, the unexpected freight train, the frenzied hackney ride across the Charles River, the knock on the door of Agassiz's house just as the clock struck seven, the distraught face of Agassiz's maid as she opened the door upon a wild young man with a bucket of sand. Suffice it to say that Jenks was acknowledged in the preface of the great book.

Pluck and patience. Necessary virtues if one is going to watch turtles. And maybe that's why I feel abashed as I watch my turtle lay. It is not a private intimacy that I intrude upon, but the intimacy of another age, a slower, more patient age, an age willing to wait for a month for something to happen.