Thursday, June 18, 2015

Things are not what they seem

As I've mentioned before in these pages, every summer I join a bevy of citizen scientists to monitor the health of the local river. Every couple of weeks I trek to the Souhegan to gather water samples and make observations. It can be a nuisance when the weather doesn't cooperate, and there is a moderate level of risk--mostly of getting soaked or contracting poison ivy--but I love it.

This year is no exception. The first sampling date occurred after a month of near-drought followed by three inches of rain in three days. Needless to say, the water was quite high. I nearly chickened out, and it took me the rest of the day to warm up from the chilly water and the rain.

But the second date was gorgeous. Blue skies, moderate temps, river only slightly higher than average. Once I negotiated the rampant poison ivy and chopped Japanese knotweed out of my way, I rolled up my pants and waded a few feet into the water. Samples safely stowed in my pockets, I submerged my thermometer and tied its string to a branch. While it took the river's temperature, I wandered downstream, trying to identify bird songs and enjoying the peaceful ambiance.

The river bed is uneven, so I watched where I set my feet. When I found a relatively stable spot I stayed there for a while, up to my ankles in the cool water, and admired the vast variety of shapes on the stony bottom. My eyes lingered on a nicely rounded rock, dark with a hint of green, then meandered a few inches away. Four pale, narrow things clung to the downstream end of the rock. I admired their parallel alignment without thinking much about it. Something at the other end, a slight movement perhaps, or just a reflection in the current, caught the corner of my eye. A brownish bit of matter stretched from a gray stone half-buried in the mud to the greenish one. A branch maybe. It stirred. Stilled. Stirred again. My focus sharpened. The pale, narrow things flexed.

The coolness of the water on my skin, the smell of it, the air moving, insects buzzing--all faded away. For an instant I was only a pair of eyes. My curious greenish-black rock had regular patches on it, a decided hump in the middle, and at the front a large, blunt, khaki-colored head, with a wicked triangular beak.

My senses re-emerged. I held myself completely still but totally alert. "Okay, Mr. Snapping Turtle. I'll just stand here not bothering you," I told the reptile less than five feet from my toes. It was a big 'un, the carapace a good fourteen inches long. True to my word, I stood without moving and watched as it slowly rotated its bulk away from me. Obviously, my standing there did bother it. Inch by inch, it turned to face the opposite bank, and gracefully disappeared into the clear, dark water.

Things are not what they seem. A rock might be a turtle. A simple encounter between a reptile and a mammal might mean nothing. But to me, it is--well, I don't know. Hope? Promise? A healthy river? A sign our efforts are worthwhile and a moment to treasure? Okay. I'm happy with that.