My tortoise made its move the other day.
At any rate, I guess it’s a tortoise.
I’m no expert, but I gather the main difference between a turtle and a tortoise is that all turtles are tortoises but not all tortoises are turtles. Tortoises stick to land, whereas turtles can live on land, in the ocean or in any handy pocket of water. Then again, some land turtles aren’t tortoises.
The critter I’ve seen for the 20 years I’ve lived at my current location is, I think, a box turtle. So far as I can tell it moves twice a year, once from a patch of burning bush growing alongside my house down to a patch of juniper below it. A few months later it moves back. Aside from these moves the only time I’ve seen it was when I was burning off and digging up part of said juniper patch. I rescued it as the flames approached, as it clearly wasn’t going to double up on its yearly exercise quotient by moving a third time.
The first time I saw this turtle it appeared to be fully grown, so it’s at least 20 years old. Looking over turtle literature, there seems to be general agreement that a lifespan of 50 is probably about average, although some may be much older. Poking around I found one report from 2012 of a turtle in Pennsylvania that might have been 130 years old, as researchers found the year 1878 engraved on its shell.
I haven’t heard much about turtle engraving, but I do recall hearing of the practice of people painting the date they discovered a turtle on its shell.
We’ll stop right here and say, please do not paint turtles. Not good for them.
The practice of doing so in the mountains differs greatly from what goes on from time to time in Florida. Remember the local craze from a year or so ago named “WNC Rocks”? People would paint nice messages on rocks and put them around town in easy-to-find spots, hoping to bring a smile to a stranger who, in turn, would hopefully pass it on.
Florida being Florida, people took to painting turtles in all kind of elaborate patterns because … well, because Florida is a state where the phrase “geez, tone it down a bit” has never been uttered. It got so out of hand Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation issued repeated warnings that advocates of the practice were in essence leaving behind beautiful tortoise corpses, as a layer of paint doesn’t go well on any living thing. Just look what happened to Tammy Faye Baker.
Back to the dated turtles: My family was out in the woods so much that it was inevitable somebody would come across one. This was back in the 1960s, and I vaguely remember the date written on the shell was from the late 1880s or early 1900s.
It was a matter of some debate whether or not the turtle was really that old. Some pointed out that paint couldn’t survive on a barn that long, so how could it survive on a turtle?
It was also pointed out that people would lie about the size of a fish or distance of a shot that brought down a deer, so surely some would lie by painting a false date on an innocent turtle.
Nonetheless, there was general agreement that in the lore of early mountain settlers, dating a turtle was indeed a practice.
In the end, we decided to treat such dates as legitimate.
Unless the date ended with “B.C.”
That sort of gives away the game.
Buchanan is special projects editor for the Sylva Herald.