Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Snapping Turtles and Eagles

I turned 38 last week. Damn it. My 20 year high school reunion is looming, and I’m not sure I want to go. I know some people who aren’t going and some people who are, but for me my life growing up was hardships and difficulties and things like that stay with you. I wasn’t fond of the place when I was a kid.

I still vividly remember my childhood, and even if it wasn’t always great I guess it still gave me things in life to build on. Like stories. One fact about having a poor and tumultuous childhood is that it gives you lots and lots of stories.

I tell my kids my stories and they actually listen, but they have to because I tell them at dinnertime while they are eating. That isn’t fair, though, because they actually prod me to tell stories in general, and even ask for specific ones.

So, today, I will tell one of their favorites.

When I was about 12 or 13 my family lived in a townhouse for about a year (we were always just a year or so at a place because we weren’t the best tenants in terms of, you know, paying rent, what with being poor and all). This was a standard issue townhouse without much interesting things about it; it was considerably more boring that the rental townhouse I live in right now. Interestingly enough, my next door neighbor (who was a year or so older than me) was really interested in music and eventually grew up to be a guitarist and singer. It was a small cul-de-sac without a lot of buildings, but there was a cute girl who lived across the other side of the street. I don’t remember her that well, but she wasn’t bad looking, though a little pale, and a year younger, but she was dating some guy who was in my grade but actually should have been a year or two above in terms of age. I was a shy kid whose parents just split up and was growing about 4 inches a year, so I never talked to her or anything. I also wore baby blue corduroys and had a thick head of hair that was awkwardly not kept short but also never grown long.

That last part isn’t something I ever actually tell my kids. Maybe when they are older.

One great thing about those townhouses, and actually most communities on the Broadneck peninsula where I grew up, was that it backed into woods. The woods weren’t that thick there (they were really thick other places) and much of them haven’t survived the 25 years since then, but they tended to be thick and wild enough for someone like myself (who was born to be in nature) to find a respite and an almost sacred place to feel….right. To feel at home.

The woods that backed the townhouses weren’t very extensive, and you could just stroll through them to get to another community very easily. This is exactly what I would do, not just to get out into the woods, but also because I could get through that community to go to the whole little shopping center where Graul’s Market was (yes, this is the same time frame that I described when I talked about mourning doves). These woods were great, though, because they had a little stream running through them. So when I took my bike through the woods to get to store, I had to pick it up and cross over this little stream.

Now, this stream wasn’t very big, but it was big enough that I could find raccoon tracks and convince myself that I also saw mink tracks. I’m sure there were little stream fish and crayfish in there too. But it wasn’t big enough that I would get my feet wet when I crossed it (at least at the narrow point), which is why I was surprised when I came back from the store and looked up a distance (perhaps 30 feet) and saw a beautiful snapping turtle mostly emerged on the bank with its mouth wide open. Twenty five years later and I still can see it. It was amazing, and that was compounded with the fact that I had absolutely no anticipation of ever seeing something like that in a little creek between two townhouse communities.

I watched it for a little bit and went back home to put the groceries that I had away. I did other stuff while home (I like to think I did my homework, but I know how I was growing up) and it was a few hours later when I came back to the stream. Now, in my mind I thought I would grab it and keep it, but that wasn’t really what I thought. I had nowhere to put it, nothing to feed it, and I wouldn’t have wanted to take a wild animal from the wild anyway. It would have taken a few fingers off anyway if I tried. But I wanted to see it again, and I wanted to just sit there and watch it, unburdened by groceries or my bike or any schedule.

But when I went back it was gone.

I just never got that many really amazing and unexpected encounters with charismatic animals like that growing up. I only saw red foxes three times in my entire childhood (two were on the same night), never saw any grey foxes, and coyotes weren’t around there then. I actually wasn’t that much of a birder at all when I was a kid, but I knew enough of the big and impressive raptors to spot the red tails and turkey vultures and eagles.

Except there were no eagles.


Growing up I never saw a single bald eagle, and I lived on a peninsula between two rivers that fed into the Chesapeake bay. The first time I ever saw one (in the wild) was when I was in college and went on a vertebrate zoology field trip to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. That was the bald eagle sightings of my youth in its entirety. There were no bald eagles and no osprey and no peregrine falcons. You probably know why, but DDT decimated the populations and I grew up in the down time.

When I go back to visit my brother or friends in the area I always find more construction destroying more forests. There are still lots of beautiful forests there, but much less than when I was a kid, which is what you expect in a county that has gained over 110,000 people since I was in high school (according to Wikipedia). One of the things that has also changed is the presence of bald eagles.

Bald eagles are everywhere now. I’ve seen them at my work many times, I’ve seen them while driving along in South Jersey, and I’ve even seen one fly over my kids school here in Wallingford. When I went to where I grew up a few months ago I saw two soaring right over where my high school was, and then I saw another one further up the road. This was after I saw an osprey perching on the Chesapeake bay bridge while I was driving over it.

The world can be bad, right? Things like deforestation get worse and the natural world is always being destroyed, right? Except people sometimes work hard to make the world not like that, and sometimes things get better in the world. I can’t speak for the snapping turtle population, but things are much better on the Broadneck peninsula for eagles and osprey and falcons.

That has really changed the way I see the area I grew up in. Sure, it is full of bad memories and awkward childhood trauma, and sure there are less trees, but it is a place where I remember snapping turtles and dubiously identified mink tracks. It is a place with a well thought of area for birders. It is now a haven for large and charismatic raptors. It isn't that bad a place, I guess.

Crap, does this mean I have to go to my reunion?

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