A wild turtle, Stumpy has found Tom in these West Virginia woods every spring for over 30 years. Like its fellow wood turtles, Stumpy spends its winters misting (the reptile equivalent of hibernation) in a clear, fast-flowing stream. As the days warm up, it emerges from its aquatic home and roams the nearby woods in search of food —first tender leaves, then flowers and, finally, berries. At the start of Stumpy’s circuit is Tom’s old house, where the human throws huge, juicy strawberries at him – months before the wild berries are ready to eat.
It took a while for Tom to figure out Stump’s species, as Stump’s shell is worn and scraped. Usually, wood turtles have beautiful shells that look like they were hand-carved from mahogany. “He was already old when I first saw him, so he must be really old now,” Tom says. “Of course he could say the same about me.”
Curious, lovable and exceptionally pretty, wood turtles are highly sought after as pets, says Andrew Walde, chief operating officer of the Turtle Survival Alliance, whom I called after my first visit to Stumpy Acres. This combination of characteristics makes them vulnerable to poachers, who sell them as pets. “Whenever something is published about a particular population, that population is finite,” Walde says. (To protect Stumpy and other wood turtles from poachers, we don’t publish his exact location or the last names of his human friends.)
The eastern panhandle of West Virginia is one of the last strongholds of wood turtles, Walde says. In most of their range, they are in steep decline. In fact, half of the world’s population 357 species of turtles are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss, poaching and other human pastimes. This is an animal that survived not one, but two mass extinction events: the massive volcanic eruptions that paved the way for the dinosaurs. and the meteor strike that ended their reign. But surviving the Anthropocene might be too much for even these hardiest creatures.
Tom makes a visor with his hand and looks into the woods, but there are hardly any turtles to be seen. Could Stumpy have succumbed to habitat loss or poachers, or perhaps just old age? (The wood turtle’s longevity record is 58.) It’s a shocking thought that a creature that seems almost eternal would suddenly disappear. “I hope he didn’t go to the big turtle pond in the sky,” Tom said before giving up for the day.
Tom no longer lives in Stumpy territory. Last spring, he sold his house and moved to a more remote location, up a nearby mountain. He loved being by the river, but the pandemic has brought an influx of tourists and new owners. Noise and traffic were pretty bad, but worst of all was their aggressive landscaping. “A family clear cut to the river,” Tom said. “They didn’t want brush or shrubbery – they’re scared of snakes or this or that – and they kind of destroyed the habitat.”
He was determined to find a buyer who would be a good steward of the land – not just for vague environmental reasons, but also for Stumpy’s sake. Fortunately, the first person who came to see the house did the trick. Tommy, a 28-year-old computer programmer from DC, told Tom about the sea turtle conservation project he had worked on one summer in Costa Rica, and he promised not to clear-cut the property for a view of the river or better internet access. . “We talked about Stumpy, and he said, ‘Oh sure, I’d love to take care of the turtle,'” the elder Tom recalled. “He also said I could visit Stumpy whenever I wanted.”
A week after Stumpy’s no-show, Tom sits in a rocking chair on the patio of his mountaintop home, looking out over the weather-worn foothills of Appalachia. “They look like turtles,” I said. Tom grimaces, like I’m being ridiculous.
I am not the first person to see turtles in the mountains. With their hard shells, turtles seem to be both animals and objects. At least three different cultures balance the world on the back of a turtle, while others have imagined the universe contained within a giant turtle, its domed shell forming the heavens and its flat bottom the earth.
Does Stumpy represent nature? Survival against winds and tides? The incessant ravages of time? Tom rules out all of these possibilities. “Stumpy is just Stumpy,” says Tom. “He is an individual. That’s what makes it special.
We drive to Tommy’s house and start to trample. Stumpy really should be out of hibernation by now, but he’s not at their meeting point by a large fallen tree, and he’s not on the berm by the river. He doesn’t lounge on his log, nor does he sleep under the papaya trees.
As we return to Tom’s car, disappointed, I think to myself that humanity’s love for nature is a particular affliction. On the one hand, it is unconditional. If you spend time outdoors, you will end up seeing something brutal, and you will be forced to accept it with serenity, because nature is obviously beyond our judgment. Loving nature is also a bit tragic, because no matter how much you care about it, it will never care about you.
But maybe I’m wrong, because suddenly I hear a rustle in the leaves. Tom makes an excited sound. “Here it is!” he said pointing. About 10 feet ahead of us, a small brown turtle is running on tiptoe – who knew turtles could run? And even though I’m closer and I’m also carrying strawberries, he heads straight for Tom.
Tom crushes a strawberry between his fingers and drops it at Stump’s feet. A voice rises from the direction of the house. “Is he here?” call Tommy. He’s seen other wood turtles, but this is the first time he’s seen Stump this season. “Sumpy in particular – he’s like a wise old man,” says Tommy. “He’s not one of those fledglings.”
Soon Stump’s face is covered in pink pulp and he has half a strawberry clinging to his chin. His species may be threatened, his habitat may be in jeopardy, but right now Stumpy seems elated. “He’s such a messy eater,” Tom said. “Do you see that? What a pig. Stumpy usually hangs around for a few weeks, making intermittent appearances, Tom says. As to where he goes next, no one knows, but Tom has a theory. “Maybe he visits a lot of people, up and down the river, and we all think he’s ours.”
Sadie Dingfelder is a Washington-area writer.