The Aftertaste of Conquest
What simple history the turtle of Chesapeake Bay makes: nothing happened for millions of years. Possessors of one of the oldest morphologies of the animal kingdom, the order Testudines emerged about 157 million years ago, with the common box turtle of the Eastern United States undergoing no essential evolutionary change for the last five million years. The ancient profile these reptiles present is one reason they fascinate.
On vacations with my family at Scientists Cliffs on Chesapeake Bay, rainy days plucked deeper chords even for a little girl than sunny days. As the clouds thickened and waning daylight grayed the surf, mystery descended as we set out looking for turtles. It was on the wet days that we were likely to spot them. As the woods soaked up water, the underbrush disgorged its prehistoric treasure. The turtles emerged to haul themselves up onto the roads, risking total exposure. We curiosity seekers zeroed in on the first turtle we found, lifted it, inspected it, found it to be no more and no less than a tidy miracle in a tightly closed shell. Carefully we placed the miracle in a cardboard box brought along for the purpose and conveyed it to the patio of our cabin to cherish and guard it. After a few miserable days for the turtle, we let it go, disappointed to be no wiser about what a turtle is.
Only years later did I learn that the turtles we found, Terrapene carolina carolina, were not called box turtles because we put them in boxes. The box referred to its hinged plastron, the lower shell, which it clapped shut to protect itself from predators, which is what we were and unwittingly remain.
Yes, it was all adventure and fun for us. But it’s been a rough ride for the turtle ever since the European settled the Chesapeake Bay area in the early 17th century. The Native Americans who inhabited the area for some 11,600 years prior to that made use of the turtle, ate its meat, used its shell as bowls and rattles. But the impact of the Native American on the environment, on the turtle, even on the oyster, was negligible, certainly not ruinous. Captain John Smith relates that in the late spring of 1629 Captain Newport was feasted on the James River by King Powhatan, who made ready a land turtle along with parched meal, beans, and strawberries. That extent of exploitation did not disturb the turtle population. Only the white-tailed deer suffered significant decline at the hands of the Native American. It was the introduction of the European that eventually altered everything in the bay environment but the size and shape of the bay itself – the Spanish, the English, even the Americans after them couldn’t change that.
The degree of resource exploitation that followed the European settling of the area – removal of oyster reefs, depletion of fish populations, deforestation – was possible for two principal reasons. First was the sheer number of Europeans streaming to the new continent. “More than the stars in the sky” one Native American was told when, alarmed, he asked a pioneer how many more of his kind were coming. The second reason was attitude. Native Americans considered themselves a part of the environment. Spurred by a misreading of their holy books, the Europeans believed nature’s bounty to have been put there for their use, their pleasure, their profit. The profit point proved the ruinous one. Suddenly, Diamondback terrapin represented revenue. Turtles became soup, the heavily creamed and sherried delicacy that became the rage.
At the onset of the European invasion in 1585, standing on Roanoke Island some 70 miles south of Chesapeake Bay, Thomas Hariot reported sightings of many tortoises, some over a yard wide, presumably sea turtles. Terrapins, obscured in the marshes, were smaller but as plentiful. In fact, in the 18th century Maryland, Diamondback terrapins abounded in such numbers that they served as a source of protein for slaves, and the slaves protested. By the late 19th century, demand for turtle soup – not for personal consumption, but as a commodity, a product, a source of revenue – induced harvesters to extract 89,150 pounds of terrapin from the bay in one year. Diners in New York City restaurants could order for themselves Maryland terrapins for $2.50 apiece. And they did. Time and after time. Although the demand remained high, the turtle harvest yielded a mere 823 pounds by 1920, an indication of severe decline.
Yes, the turtles of Chesapeake Bay, as elsewhere, took a pounding, and their peculiar characteristics have kept them from bouncing back: low annual fecundity, high nest mortality (see Tennessee Williams’s “Suddenly Last Summer” for a dramatic account of that), delayed maturity, and longevity. Yet their systems of defense sound risible: The land turtle can tuck its head and limbs into its shell. The semi-aquatic spotted turtle, if caught basking unawares, dives into nearby water and buries itself in the mud. Some turtles snap. What worked throughout eras beyond our ken failed in confrontation with the enterprising European.
Chesapeake Bay is still home to the box turtle, the delicious diamondback terrapin, the spotted turtle. Several of the seven sea turtles extant today can be found there, too, including the loggerhead; the green turtle, which now serves as the largest source of turtle meat; and Kemp’s Ridley, one of most endangered animals, easy to read in the homey description of this smallest sea turtle: “dinner plate–size.”
We love the wind, we use the wind, we profit from the wind, but we do not annihilate the wind. So let it be with turtles, or soon the only box to confine that ancient morphology will be the showcases in well-funded museums.