When performing oral surgery on a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), one must open its mouth and keep it open without losing a finger. Snappers are aptly named; sharp and powerful jaws cut carrion, vegetation, and prey with ease. They also have a reputation for being ill tempered and aggressive but they are in fact quite docile as they spend their lives quietly patrolling the bottoms and margins of any permanent body of water – as they have done for 90 million years. They are only dangerous to humans if perturbed on land when they drag themselves forth (to relocate or lay eggs) or are dragged up by anglers or hapless boys on summer vacation.
I learned snapper surgery in my eighth-grade summer on the Nodaway River in Northwest Missouri. This 45-year old memory had remained submerged until I attended a summer “reading and writing nature” workshop with professor and prairie writer John T. Price. He asked us to write about an early childhood experience of nature – as early as we could remember. But I never made it back that far; I had snapping turtles on my mind. I had been reading the personal journals of Henry David Thoreau. He had an odd obsession with the snapping turtle that carried the earth on her back and the coin-size baby snappers kept under his bed and the empty turtle shells with which he decorated his chamber. That could be why I landed a memory from my junior high days that included a very large snapping turtle.
Early one morning we were hauled in my uncle’s Studebaker pickup to the county bridge and left to wade up the river to tend a draconian contraption that only made sense to 13-year old river waifs. It consisted of a clothesline strung with giant hooks baited with hunks of stinking carrion and spoiled organs, tensioned across a side channel and secured to logs the night before. We arrived to find our brilliant invention in disarray. My pimpled companion, the designer and mastermind, was sure that a giant flathead catfish had thrashed it loose. It took both of us to drag the slimy line onto a sandbar and with it not a flathead but a huge and angry snapper.
She was full of primeval rage. Her mud-colored back was smooth; long life had erased her jagged ridges. I felt fearful and also quite foolish for having hauled up this innocent monster from the murky depths. My father and uncles had instilled in me love and respect for wild creatures, and I felt guilty of crimes against that turtle and that river. But my own dilemma was puny compared to that of the creature dredged up from the Mesozoic. Examination of conscience would have to wait; we had a delicate procedure to perform. And even beyond human ego and turtle triage, the events of that day were deeply symbolic in Thoreauvian context – though my adolescent self had no inkling of that.
Such a drama would have metaphysical implications in the worldview of Thoreau. He had assigned the snapper to a constellation in the night sky to replace what he considered an obsolete zodiac sign. This celestial snapper would also loom large in his proposed “New Testament” that was intended to be a big improvement over the defective one that belonged more to the Levant than to New England, in his estimation. His local mushquashes (muskrats) and winter-killed fish would have played central and prophetic roles in this new world scripture as well, as he proposed in his journal entry of October 16, 1859:
There will be some reference to it [musquash], by parable or otherwise, in my New Testament. Surely, it is a defect in our Bible that it is not truly ours, but a Hebrew Bible. The most pertinent illustrations for us are to be drawn, not from Egypt or Babylonia, but from New England…. The signs of the Zodiac are not nearly of that significance to me that the sight of a dead sucker in spring is. That is the occasion for an immoveable feast in my church…. The snapping turtle, too, must find a place among the constellations, though it may have to supplant some doubtful characters already there. If there is no place for him overhead, he can serve us bravely underneath, supporting the earth.
The task at hand was to free an innocent turtle, repent of bad fishing, and in transcendentalist hindsight to secure the moorings of the earth on the carapace of the celestial snapper. I held the untested conviction that a snapper can’t close its mouth with neck fully extended with enough confidence to risk a digit. The task fell to me because my impatient companion wanted to behead the beast and be done with it. He nonetheless agreed to suspend the clothesline and snapper vertically with mouth open, neck extended, and hind feet on the sand.
As one taught to fish lightly, my minimalist tackle box held only delicate tools like toenail clippers, needle-nose pliers, and a Cub Scout pocket knife. I had been taught to release fish by clipping the end of the hook if it could not be humanely removed, but the industrial-size meat hook was too heavy to cut quickly. With my fingers inside that scary maw, I rotated the clippers while bearing down; I also managed to lacerate my knuckles on her upper jaw. I was able to score the heavy steel hook just below the barb but couldn’t cut all the way through. So I used the needle-nose to twist and rock the tip until it broke.
But the snapping turtle, now cursing in smelly glossolalia, remained upright. The tension on the curved shank of the hook held fast. I grasped the hook-eye with the needle-nose and tried to rotate and back the hook out. But the weight of the turtle and my bleeding fingers required another course of action. Fortunately, the hook was not deeply imbedded. With my Cub Scout pocket knife, I severed the thin flap of tongue that held the remaining shank. The big snapper continued to issue profanities as it crashed to the ground, finding no consolation at having drawn my blood to mix with her own.
A snapping turtle has little need or talent for travel on land, being much better at balancing the world on its back than walking upon it. I grabbed the hissing and blood-drooling beast by the tail with one hand muddy and the other bleeding and dragged it back into deep time. The sandbar was littered with tangled clothesline, big hooks, and putrid offal and scarred with bloody drag and a confusion of bare footprints. Had a fisherman happened on this scene, one could only conclude that something illegal or ill-advised had transpired.
And indeed it had. But a resident of Nodaway County on a hot summer afternoon in the 1960s would not conclude, like Thoreau might have, that a drama of cosmological and metaphysical significance had been reenacted between County Road PP and Highway 113. I didn’t conclude that, either. I just needed band-aids and root beer. We watched the snapper crawl through the shallows into deeper waters, collected our mess, and waded on toward less heinous adventures.
Sometimes a turtle is just a turtle, and that’s good enough for me. But reading Thoreau has nonetheless brought me to recollect the many snappers I have rescued, caught, freed, raised, and admired in good company and most of all, with my sons. Snapping turtles patrol the river-bottoms of my memory and scurry as hatchlings across the sandbars I have walked my entire life. And sometimes Mother Nature drags herself forth or is dragged up, my blood mixed with hers, cursing fishermen and philosophers in a wounded tongue.