Monday, November 5, 2012

Secrets of the ideal urban pets revealed: Box Turtles.

Today I introduce my dear friend Tom Murphy, a prince of man and a wonderful writer.  When I asked him for a bio to go with this post, he sent the following:

"Tom has published seven novels, five of them mysteries."

I will respect his modesty by leaving it at that, but I will wax poetic about what a lovely human being and splendid friend he is, if you but ask.

 Here is his report on Box Turtles, an adventure I have had the privilege of sharing with him.

Annmaria Alfieri

They're beautiful, a bit mysterious and filled with ancient wisdom.  They never bark, you don't have to clean up after them and they have been known to live for 150 years.  No wonder people in many cultures, for uncountable years, have been fascinated by turtles.

I grew up in a very rural part of Connecticut with a farm across the street and a tempting selection of ponds and streams.  From early childhood, I was captivated by reptiles, fish and amphibians.  Garter snakes to scare my sister.  Frogs which I raised from small black dots encased in clear frog-jelly clinging to weeds at the edge of ponds.  Submerged in water, those little dots ate the jelly, slowly grew tails and lo! tadpoles.  Which in turn became frogs.  But best of all were turtles, box turtles especially.

Maybe it's the clever engineering.  Box turtles have evolved a hinge toward the front of their bottom shell.  When threatened, they quickly withdraw their head and all four paws; this hinge snaps shut and they are very secure from predators like raccoons.

Maybe it's the slow, ponderous way they move, or their beautiful orange and black scales, or the calm expression on their wrinkled faces.  For whatever reason, turtles
– like owls – have long fascinated people in many cultures, in many parts of the world.  In African folklore, turtles are the cleverest animal.  In China the tortoise is one of the Four Fabulous Animals which govern the four points of the compass. They appear rarely in Egyptian art,  but Greeks and Romans were captivated.  The next time you're in the Louvre, take a look at the Aphrodite Ourania, a lovely, lightly clad marble woman whose bare left foot rests on a turtle.  In Japan turtles are symbolic of long life and often appear on scrolls, in sculpture and pottery. 

By the time fate turned me into a writer living in Brooklyn Heights, my love of turtles hadn't diminished.  I even have a small garden quite suitable for turtles, half river pebbles and half greenery, with a small pool for refreshment.  But no turtle.  Luckily, I knew mystery writer Patricia King (AKA Annamaria Alfieri) and her husband David Clark.

The King/Clarks owned a beautiful country house in Putnam County, complete with woodlands and swimming pool.  One day Pat's father Sam discovered a lovely box turtle in that pool and rescued it, naming it (her) Clementine after the girl in the song "My Darling Clementine".  (The girl in the song fell into the Foaming Brine and drowned, alas.)

Clementine Turtle spent some time in the King/Clark garden in Waverly Place, but that garden wasn't green enough.  Pat remembered my enthusiasm for turtles, and before long Clemmie (as her friends call her) was installed in Brooklyn Heights.  This was September 13, 1989. ( I have the official adoption papers: you can't sell box turtles in New York State.)

The first thing I learned about  Clemmie is, she's an escape artist.  Twice she found her way into my neighbors' garden.  I quarantined her indoors until I could have my fence lined with steel mesh running six inches underground.  She seemed happy in the garden.  I made steps to help her climb from the pebbled surface of the garden up the two-brick wall that defines the green part.

As the weather grew colder, I wondered how Clemmie would survive the winter.  Box turtles hibernate.  They dig in when the weather gets really cold, in Clemmie's case, around Thanksgiving, and spend the next six months in a reptilian coma, coming up around Easter.  I attach no religious significance to this, but it's happened every year for 18 years.  Up comes a very dusty Clementine.  I give her a warm shower and she's set for the season.

Eventually Turtle Love came to Brooklyn Heights.  I doubt that reptiles feel affection.  Nevertheless, I wondered whether Clemmie might be lonely, and asked Pat and David to look for a boyfriend.  It isn't easy to tell the sex of a turtle.  Even vets have trouble.  The prime indicator seems to be the color of the pupils in their eyes.  Orange allegedly means male.

It took a few years, but eventually Pat and David discovered a male and were kind enough to give him to me.  Inevitably, Clementine's consort must be named Winston.  Did they hit it off?  Consider the following.

Winston and his Offspring
One evening in mid-June, 1990 some friends came for dinner and we were having drinks in the garden.  What should we find but Clementine, against the western fence, perched over a surprisingly deep hole she had dug, gazing upward in a trance of incipient motherhood.  I'd seen enough nature films to know what that meant.  We were transfixed and apprehensive lest we frighten her.  Not a chance.  Clemmie was in another zone, quite oblivious.

We watched for nearly an hour and then: Plop! Plop! Plop!  Three white eggs the size of large olives dropped into the hole.  By this time the sun had set and it was time for dinner.  Three hours later we were back in the garden with flashlights.  No Clemmie.  No hole.  If we hadn't known, we never would have guessed.  Miraculous.  And three months later came Miracle #2.

On a rainy Friday morning in early September I was in my kitchen drinking coffee and gazing idly out at the pebbled part of the garden.  And one of the pebbles moved.  Then another.  Wondering if I'd finalIy slipped my tether, I quickly got binoculars,  Two tiny, maybe 1-1/2" turtles were making their way across the pebbles.  To them, an obstacle course comparable to the Rocky Mountains to westering Mormons.  The babies were lovely, a rich beige color with no markings as yet.

Baby's First Restaurant Meal
Out I went, gently put them into a shallow bowl (their shells still quite soft). and came to a hard decision.  I'm not set up to become a turtle breeder.  That requires a large indoor terrarium and more maintenance than I could offer. I took some pictures and did what would happen in nature: put them up in the green part of the garden.  I haven't seen them since.

It's possible they're out there still, though I doubt it.  To this day, every time I'm in the garden, I watch very carefully where I put my feet, fearing to squash an adolescent turtle.

Meanwhile, Clementine and Winston prevail, and the garden has acquired yet another turtle in the form of a lovely, bigger-than-life-size concrete turtle fountain, a gift from Pat and David last fall.  I can hear it merrily gurgling as I write.
The Turtle Fountain

Tom Murphy



  1. What a great turtle story!! There are two wild ones on my in-laws property on Long Island and they hiss at passersby who walk too close to their favorite hiding bush on the side of the house. And you are right they are really quite lovely to look at.

  2. This is charming and touching, just the right kind of gentleness we need on a day with nature turned all upside down and the worry of many of us as we go over to the voting stations!!!! Thelms Straw

  3. What fun to participate in this! Evidently the Hindus think turtles hold up the world. I would prefer that to any other explanation I have heard.