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Posted on Apr 26, 2013

Baptism by Mud by Jeffrey C. Beane | Excerpt from Courting the Wild

Baptism by Mud by Jeffrey C. Beane | Excerpt from Courting the Wild

Today we celebrate the release of the revamped edi­tion of Courting the Wild: Love Affairs with Reptiles and Amphibiansedited by Jamie K. Reaser. If you haven’t already heard, we are doing something rather special with this release. Every time you buy a copy of Courting the Wild: Love Affairs with Reptiles and Amphibians, whether on Amazon or right here in our book­store, Hiraeth Press will donate $2.00 to the ASG (Amphibian Specialist Group). So dive in and make a splash, order a copy and share this post. Help us raise money for this worthy cause.

Enjoy this excerpt from the collection. Baptism by Mud by Jeffrey C. Beane.


Baptize me in the holy waters
and healing muds of Earthly paradise
so that I might know Nature, truly.
— Anonymous

I’d already jabbed a broomstick into the muck of four spring-fed sedge meadows several thousand times. Nothing—unless mud counts. Reluctant suspicions about the integrity of Dennis Herman began to take shape in my subconscious as the day wore on. He’d assured me that this was one of the most effective methods of finding what we most longed for, but images of a metaphoric snipe-hunt fluttered in and out of my mind.

“Thunk!” I could feel the reverberation shimmy up the wooden broom handle and then a slipping sensation as the rock I had struck started slowly traveling away from me. The rock moved. The rock moved!

Mindful that rocks seldom move of their own volition, I plunged my open hand into the iron-colored rivulet and felt my eager fingers close over the shell of my first wild bog turtle. In that moment, I was baptized. A baptism is usually an immersion symbolizing rebirth or renewal. I don’t know terribly much about what motivates humans to invent religions, but I know about spiritual things, and I know about renewal. Only my hand and wrist were immersed in the water, but there was renewal all over. Each time I see a “lifer”—a species that I have never encountered before—there is at least some inkling of this feeling, but when I pulled the adult female bog turtle from the muck—knowing what I had before I ever saw her—it was much more powerful than usual. It was different. I was different. Everything was different. I still don’t know exactly why. Only a few other creatures have come close to producing similar feelings when I encountered them for the first time—my first eastern diamondback, my first Gila monster, my first indigo snake, maybe a few others. But finding a wild bog turtle made me feel like more than just a guy who had finally found a bog turtle—I knew that, from that moment forward, they would be a special and important part of my existence. I would look for bog turtles, find bog turtles, work with bog turtles, learn about bog turtles, and fight to protect bog turtles and their habitat for the rest of my life.

Since, I’ve never driven past a stand of tag alder and needlerush without a quickening of the pulse; never smelled the mountain mint without an adrenaline rush. Even the common yellowthroat’s “witchity” song is sacred now. I was imprinted upon these things in a moment, and will forever associate them with bog turtles.

Dennis Herman was right—I could find bog turtles by poking in the mud with a stick. I’ve since been blessed to know more than 500 individual wild bog turtles. Counting recaptures, I’ve probably had over a thousand encounters. I’ve seen 28 in a single day and found nests, hatchlings, mating pairs, and fighting males. Besides probing with sticks, I’ve discovered them by feeling randomly with my hands, by stepping on them, and by reaching as far as I could into deep holes, in water so cold it was painful. I’ve taken them in traps and located them by watching grass or mud move, and by following their tiny tracks in the mud. I’ve seen them sitting in the open on dry land, walking, running, swimming foraging, feeding, and asking on grass or moss tussocks. I saw one sunning itself on a rock in the middle of a large, swift stream. I’ve seen them road-killed and predator-killed. I found 13 under sheet metal in one day. I’ve helped discover several new populations, including some of the largest ones in the South. I’ve marked, weighed, and measured them, radio-tracked them, inserted tiny bar codes into them, taken blood samples from them, treated them for injuries, and nursed sick ones back to health. I’ve written scientific and popular press articles about them. I’ve learned what I could about them and introduced many other naturalists to them. The hip waders I’ve ruined would fill a small dumpster. But mostly, I’ve loved bog turtles.

Generally regarded as the smallest and rarest North American turtle, the bog turtle is federally listed as Threatened. Ranging from New York to Georgia in scattered remnant populations, it is both rare and secretive, spending much of its time buried in mud or otherwise concealed. This makes it a difficult creature to get to know. Specialists, bog turtles live in very specific habitats—relatively open, spring-fed wetlands, better described as wet sedge meadows than as true bogs. Originally kept open by beaver activity, fire, natural hydrology, and grazing by elk and bison, spring-fed sedge meadows were once as common in the Appalachians as today’s strip malls and subdivisions. But the large herbivores were extirpated, fire was suppressed, and marshy wetlands were converted into “useful” farm ponds or ditched to create dry fescue pastures. Most bog turtle wetlands that still exist are small, privately owned, and relatively isolated. Succession threatens to render some “protected” sites unsuitable for turtles. Ironically, grazing by cattle has become an important substitute for the factors that once kept the sites open, and the best bog turtle populations in the South are found in grazed sites. But, throw in paved highways, increased populations of some predators, and a lucrative, illegal hobbyist trade, and you have a potential recipe for extinction.

In 1995, I helped found a grassroots conservation initiative called Project Bog Turtle, its ultimate goal being to protect the bog turtle and its habitat in the Southeast. In some ways, it’s been one of the most important initiatives that I’ve ever been privileged to be part of. Most of the group’s core members are not professional herpetologists or conservationists, but they are among the most bog turtle-dedicated people that I have met, and there is something magical about bog turtles that inspires that dedication.

I am, I think, supposed to be some sort of scientist. I’ve helped curate a large museum collection of preserved reptiles, amphibians, and other animals for well over 20 years. For most of that time I have studied, or tried to study, wild bog turtles. Once I even heard someone refer to me as “one of the best bog turtle hunters in the South.” But there are things about them that don’t mesh with science—that don’t fit the strictly rational concept of science. Sometimes, “studying” them feels more like engagement in art, or philosophy. It feels more like religion. Like ceremony. It feels more important than science.

Bog turtles changed me—they helped me find my place in the world and inspired within me a greater passion for life. I’ve seen them transform others in ways that don’t easily translate into words. I’ve seen people of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and ideologies brought together by bog turtles, seen powerful friendships formed and existing ones strengthened in their presence. My long-lasting friendship with Dennis Herman is but one example among many. I feel unscientific, deeply emotional, every single time I find a bog turtle. There are spiritual things in the physical world, and I have seen some of those things embodied in a secretive, muck-loving turtle the size of a computer mouse. I have studied many other animal species in the wild, for most of my life. None of them are like bog turtles. And I’ve never known anyone who has worked with them to say otherwise.

Who would I be were it not for bog turtles? Had I not found that first turtle that day, I don’t know whether things would have played out the same for me or not. Perhaps they would have. But whether or not, bog turtles came into my life and in my life I found meaning. For the baptism I received, I am ever grateful.



Feature Image:© Jeffrey C. Beane