Turtles by Jim Ross

Slow and Easy Wins the Race

By Allan Stein

It wants to scream but has no voice—rounded bony carapace and short, stubby legs frozen paralyzed amidst the thunderous rush of cast metal on wheels.

The Eastern box turtle is mere inches from being crushed to death beneath the weight of two and a half tons of human ingenuity and indifference. Through the spider cracks in the windshield of my battered old Chevrolet, I watch as these mobile instruments of destruction approach the frightened turtle and pass on by.

Fate has made me an unwilling witness to this small tragedy about to unfold. A merciless thump, a grotesque crunch, the cruel explosion and shrapnel of flesh, cartilage and bone—one more animal casualty on this soulless Massachusetts highway.

I imagine the turtle’s fear and feel its helplessness as my own, but there is nothing I can do about it yet in this relentless traffic. So I pull over to the highway’s shoulder, brace myself for the terrible squish and squash of turtle doom, and wait for an opportunity, or a miracle, to happen.

It is early autumn and Route 12 between Fitchburg and Ashburnham is a cadaver farm of turtle parts stretching for miles in both directions. Some of these flattened victims are looking bloodier than sliced beef, barely even resembling the four-legged all-terrain vehicles they once were.

It is too awful for me to look at too closely, this scene of wanton road kill and unnatural selection by way of groove radials and pimped out chrome rims, rolling callously along Box turtle road to extinction. For these hard-shelled reptiles, it is a sad game of motorized Russian roulette. The odds and the end result are both and always the same: near mathematical certainties.

Speed is always a factor.

Though, sometimes, the universe is kind. All-Season SUV tires this time miss their prostrate quadruped mark by less than a foot, right before my wincing eyes. An 18-wheel tandem rumbles next into position—much too close for my sanity—and passes, leaving the turtle unharmed.

Why won’t these people stop or swerve away? It is something any humane person would do.

But not here.

There is only me.

What am I to make of my fellow humans? What I feel for this helpless animal, no one else seems to feel. Or pretends not to feel, safe and secure in the solace of willfully not seeing past their own windshield tunnel vision.

It is breeding season in early October and the Eastern box turtle is on a kamikaze mission to replenish its decimated ranks. Why do these lumbering slowpokes risk everything crossing such a treacherous route? To get to the other side, naturally: the quasi-comic urgency of the turtle’s drive to reproduce.

Too often, though, the joke is on this gentle threatened species. Their broken, decomposing bodies furnish the obscene punchline. Those reproductively viable adults that survive the crossing vanish into the crabgrass and swampy shallows, forgotten heroes for yet another dive into the precarious Box turtle gene pool.

Slow and easy wins the race. It loses the race just the same.

But not today.

By the grace of a paper-thin lull in traffic, the stranded tortoise has been granted a stay of execution, another chance to make good on nature’s adaptable, cryptic plan.

My hands work quickly, grasping the heavy turtle by its smooth plastron, lifting up and holding the animal at arm’s length, carefully, so that it doesn’t kick free and fall to the pavement.

I ignore the dissonant blaring of automobile horns and carry the turtle to safety in the moist underbrush, there setting it free.

About Allan Stein

Allan Stein is a freelance writer and newspaper reporter living in Hartford, Vermont. His work has appeared in the New York Daily News, Brockton Enterprise and Patriot Ledger in Boston, the Union in Grass Valley, California, the Hull Times, and numerous specialty publications.