Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Even Turtles Need a Nice Place to Call Home - via Herp Digest

By Julie Lasky, NYTimes, Published: August 15, 2012
Two years ago, the children’s-book author and illustrator Jan Brett and her husband, Joseph Hearne, a bassist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, installed a turtle pond on the grounds of their two-acre home in Norwell, Mass. It was inspired by her plan to write a book about an Eastern box turtle with wildflowers and ferns sprouting from its shell. In “Mossy,” due out next month (G. P. Putnam’s Sons; $17.99), the turtle spends some unhappy months on display at a natural-history museum until a penitent biologist restores it to its habitat.
Ms. Brett, 62, waited and waited for a turtle to move into her pond. Now, mere weeks before the book’s publication, one is said to be living there. A suspicious reporter had questions, which Ms. Brett answered good-naturedly by phone.
You’ve done books about hedgehogs. You’ve done books about chickens. You’ve even done books about gingerbread babies. How did you get started on turtles?
We were at our summer place dangling our heels into the lake at the end of our dock, when I looked down and saw what looked like waterweeds in the shape of a turtle. It rose out of the water. It was a snapper turtle growing all these waterweeds on its back. So I got the idea: what about a book about a turtle that grows a garden on its back? But then I thought it needed a terrestrial turtle. The turtle in my pond is an Eastern painted turtle, which is aquatic.
Before we talk about your turtle, can we discuss the pond?
We had it made specifically for turtles and for the book. We made it quite deep, so they could hibernate there, below the frost line. We had basking rocks made that are a little above the pond surface.
Basking rocks?
Even though aquatic turtles live in water, they need to haul out — that’s the expression used — and dry their shells.
Then what happened?
We knew we were on the right track when we got a giant bullfrog. That was last year. This year, we have tadpoles.
So when did this alleged turtle show up?
In June. We have wetlands beyond the house. I was afraid turtles wouldn’t come because they were enamored of those ponds. Finally, one moved in. I think the sound of the bullfrogs did it. In the Northeast, so many ponds form in the spring, but then they dry up in the summer. When the pond dries up, tadpoles aren’t able to survive.
Are you saying that turtles are reassured by the sound of bullfrogs because they know they’ll find a pond deep enough to remain in year-round?
That’s my theory. A herpetologist following an Eastern box turtle noticed that, in very dry weather, it would tap its foot on the ground, and then earthworms, which are its food, would rise to the surface thinking it was raindrops. When I read that, I was incredulous, but if you’re a turtle or any kind of animal on the ground, it’s your survival. Nature is complex.
You’re sure you didn’t just pick up a turtle at a pet store?
I thought about it. But, no, there was no pet-shop intervention. You don’t know what kind of disease might appear. I also thought of buying one from the Internet, but if you take a turtle and put it in a pond, it will crawl off and go where it wants to go.
Is it possible that an Eastern box turtle like Mossy will find its way to the pond?
I had been hoping, and it still might happen. Eastern box turtles are constantly on the move in ponds and rivers, where their food source is. They browse. So I planted strawberries and lingonberries and different flowers around the pond to attract them. There’s lobelia, joe-pye weeds, cattails, waterlilies, tons of ferns. I even planted squash.
You’ve owned some of the animals that served as models for the characters in your books. Hedgehogs and chickens spring to mind. And now you have a turtle. Have you considered more traditional pets for inspiration?
I’ve done a lot of bear books, and that’s because it’s easy to put the features of a human being on a bear: bears can stand up, and they have eyes in the front of their head. It’s the reason I don’t do many reptiles in my books. I’m doing a chicken Cinderella at the moment. Chickens have very expressive body language.
Would you recommend other people install turtle ponds?
I would. And my biggest recommendation is to have two big rocks where you can invite someone over and sit. We have breakfast at the pond every morning, with fresh eggs from the chickens. I cook them up, and I make my own bread. The turtle doesn’t usually come out at that time. She comes up at about 9. I say “she,” but I don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl.
What do you look at from your perch?
So many different kinds of dragonflies and damselflies. I’ve identified three different kinds, but don’t ask me what they are. The cardinal flowers are my favorite because hummingbirds come to them. We have black-eyed daisies and, in fall, New England asters, which reseed themselves. The pond turns purple around the edges. There are tons of birds, and they bring some of the seeds, I assume. Maybe a bird book will come of it. 

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