Archive for Sunday, August 1, 2004

Summer thoughts turn to turtles — and life

August 1, 2004


Toward the beginning of "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck describes a turtle attempting to cross a road -- a negligible feat for a human being, but for the turtle as much an epic as the Joad's calamitous migration from Oklahoma to California.

"Over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell ... his hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, not really walking, but boosting and dragging his shell along. The barley beards slid off his shell, and the clover burrs fell on him and rolled to the ground. His horny beak was partly open, and his fierce, humorous eyes under brows like fingernails, stared straight ahead."

Anyone interested in the craft of writing might well study this example of sympathetic observation and the transformation of humble details into art. Students of the craft of living might consider it as a reminder that nature strews small wonders in our paths, if we'd only take the time to look.

The passage is part of a meditation on the powerful instinct of animals and even plants to disperse and multiply. The turtle makes it to the other side of the road, in spite of a brutish truck driver who flips him over "like a tiddly-wink" in an attempt to squash him. Compared to the truck driver, the turtle comes across as noble, heroic, more human.

So much for the literary take on turtles. In the country, where I live, folks are more likely to side with the truck driver. Most of them have no great fondness for turtles, particularly of the snapping variety. Their instinct is to go out of the way to drive over them. Snapping turtles, in their view, are rapacious predators who wreak havoc on farm pond fish populations. The sight of a snapping turtle squashed like a ripe melon is not unusual on our gravel roads, nor displeasing to the eyes of most passing motorists.

I approach the subject from a third point of view. Fifty years ago, I had a turtle steak for dinner and remember it through the cloudy prism of memory as the best meat I've ever tasted. Several authorities have recommended snapping turtle as a great delicacy to me. One of my missions in rural retirement is to sample as many wild sources of food as I can stomach, with exceptions such as possum, raccoon, bull snake, grasshopper and wood rat.

Occasionally, a huge snapping turtle rises to the surface of my pond. He may be decimating the fish for all I care. I want to catch and eat him. Unfortunately, my wife and daughter have forbidden it. So I've been waiting for an acceptable alternative means of acquiring the flesh I crave.

Early this summer, when turtles were crossing the gravel roads in search of love, opportunity presented itself. I saw my neighbor's car stopped in front of my house, where I'd spotted a big snapper half an hour before. I guessed what was up. Sure enough, by the time I got there, the turtle had passed away. I began to salivate. Here was my chance to dine on turtle meat without breaking house rules. I asked my neighbor if I could have his trophy. He looked at me strangely, shrugged and yielded up the bloody carcass.

I'd heard that the downside of eating a turtle was cleaning it. I called my mentor in nature lore for guidance. He spelled out the gruesome process.

"The first step is to cut off the head," he said. "You'll see why later." There were as many as seven different kinds of meat on a snapping turtle, he said. The white flesh around the neck was like crab or lobster meat. The legs were like steak. And, of course, some parts were supposed to taste like fried chicken.

As I began to remove the headless turtle from its shell, its legs began to twitch. Now I understood what my mentor meant by "involuntary muscle spasms." Even without its head, the turtle seemed still to be alive. I experienced queasiness and an inexplicable dulling of appetite. Nevertheless, I plunged ahead, separating meat from bone and a phlegm-like substance that was omnipresent. I rolled the precious meat in batter, fried it in bacon fat, tucked in my bib and sat down to the feast. My wife politely declined to join me ...

In closing, a few more comments about turtles ... Hart Crane wrote a line about "mammoth turtles climbing sulphur dreams," an image some consider to be erotic. Once in the Caribbean, I watched two sea turtles mating for hours, riding the waves, unhurried, making love in turtle time. It was as if they'd elevated carnal sex into a form of meditation.

Lillian Hellman wrote an essay about the snapping turtle she and Dashiell Hammett tried to kill after it bit their poodle. They dragged it on the road for a mile, shot it between the eyes, chopped its head off with an ax and left it overnight in the kitchen, anticipating a tureen of rich turtle soup. The following morning it was gone. It had crawled out of the house -- without its head -- leaving a trail of blood.

By the way, in a creation myth of ancient India, the creator of the world took the form of a turtle to hold up the land.

According to Joseph T. Collins, writing in Natural Kansas, the snapping turtle is found throughout Kansas. "It probably will never be threatened with extinction," he writes. In other words, my neighbor's quest to rid the countryside of snapping turtles is probably futile. Moreover, according to Collins, "these reptiles are not harmful to fish populations."

Footnotes: I recall a famous brand of chocolate turtles made by some people named "Gurley," relatives perhaps. I once saw a snapping turtle on the highway, lunging and snapping at 18-wheelers as they passed over him.

Love, sex, courage, fearlessness, immortality, creation ... These are a few of the great themes turtles bring to mind, along with involuntary muscle spasms. Have I forgotten anything? Oh, yes. My gourmet repast. The reader may be wondering: Was it a dainty dish fit to be set before a king? Was it more like twitching chicken -- or twitching beef? It would be churlish for me to spoil the surprise of anyone wishing to duplicate my eating adventure. I offer only two words in commentary: never again.

George Gurley is a columnist for the Journal-World.

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