Maple Glen, PA — This autumn has for me been a season of strange rescues.
First it was finding a tiny baby snapping turtle with a shell no bigger than a quarter on one of the bricks of the patio at the back of our house. Now such a thing would have been bizarre even in late spring, which is when such creatures typically hatch after having been laid in sand somewhere among a clutch of other turtle eggs by some hulking female snapper.
There is the question how did such a tiny creature managed to climb up the step from the sunken walkway and onto the patio? And more curious yet, where would it have hatched? There isn’t a pond or river for miles from where our house is and surely it must have been the mother who made the trek to our property, as the little thing could never have covered more than perhaps 100 feet since hatching. And then there was the matter of timing. Turtles mate in early spring after hibernating in the mud under water all winter, and then the female lays her eggs, the young hatchlings coming out when it’s warm. By fall, before the babies in turn go down in the mud to hibernate for their first winter, their shells are a good two inches long.
I had to get instructions from an expert to know what to do. I was afraid to just bring it to a pond I knew of in a nature preserve where common snappers lived for fear this one was so young it might not make it through winter hibernation. It’s a good thing I didn’t do that too, but for a different reason: The expert I called at a local nature preserve assured me the baby turtle could survive the winter, but she also told me female snappers typically go up streams a bit away from the home pond to lay their eggs so their offspring have a chance to grow a bit before they join the pond. Too small and they’d be snacks for larger turtles!
My next rescue happened a few days ago. I had just finished doing a re-roofing job on a one-story extension of our house and was walking over to a pile of discarded old shingles I needed to clean up when I noticed a slithering in the grass by my shoe. Looking down I spotted a tiny garter snake not more than five inches long and thinner than a pencil. It was the latest in the season I’ve ever seen any snake in these climes, much less a baby one. I caught it easily, closed it between my two hands and, after it had ceased wiggling, lifted the top hand to find it, as I expected, curled into a tight protective knot. Again, as with the turtle, this little reptile had clearly been born way too late in the season. It should already have been hying itself to a sheltered location before the frosts came (we have only had one slight frost so far– a single night where the temperature here dropped briefly just before sunrise to 32 degrees Fahrenheit before rising again). I brought the little foundling out to the barn and put it in the dirt-floored stall near a stone retaining wall figuring it would find its way into a crack and thence to underground winter quarters where it could find the occasional insect or worm for sustenance.
The next day, I had to bring a tire from my rider mower to the garage to get a nail hole repaired — a casualty of my roofing job as I had inadvertently tossed a number of old rusted roofing nails down on the ground along with the old shingles I had pulled up off the roof and then ran the mower over one that had landed point-up in the grass.
While I was waiting for the mechanic on duty to finish putting air into the tires of a customer’s car, I looked down and saw a juvenile praying mantis about 2.5 inches long, its wings not yet fully grown. It appeared to be waiting patiently at the entrance to one of the garage bays. It was morning and still cool and the mantis was slow to react. As I reached down and picked it up by its long hard thorax it remained almost immobile, perhaps playing dead, but giving the game away by turning its uniquely moveable and intelligent-seeming head to look at me as I carried it to a field of weeds in the empty lot next to the garage. When I released it onto a golden rod, it climbed off and made its way up the stem. I had saved it from being crushed by a tire, but I know it won’t be long before colder weather does it in.
All these juvenile creatures had one thing in common: They shouldn’t have been out and about in November here in Pennsylvania. We’re having an extraordinarily late autumn this year though which, while great for saving on heating bills, is not a good sign at all about the state of climate change. Animals like the ones I found were all out of synch with the weather. None should have been born when they were born, and I’m sure they’re not alone in facing that existential crisis.
We humans can make adjustments as the climate goes haywire, but animals have to evolve into new rhythms of life, a process which requires not creative individual adaptation, but many generations of natural selection and evolution to accomplish. In the meantime, many will simply die off, including countless species that fail to adapt quickly enough.
Speaking of relics that need to adapt quickly, there was one other rescue I did this month, which was voting for Joe Biden for president. Like the other three rescues of turtle, snake and praying mantis, this one was a bittersweet affair for me. Even as I was doing it — voting for a man who has done so many things I know are vile, from launching the brutal racist program of mass incarceration to supporting massive military spending as well trying to cut deals with Republicans that would undermine Social Security — I knew that I wasn’t saving much. I had no illusions about Biden’s being some kind of FDR progressive. His presidency, I know, is likely to be more of the same kind of Clintonian neoliberal halfway measures, compromises with conservatives, military confrontations and interventions, and missed opportunities.
But just like trying to rescue these out-of-synch baby animals, it had to be done. Donald Trump may have begun as a pathetic joke, but he has clearly over this four-year presidency evolved into too much of a fascist threat to allow him to continue in office. Besides his brownshirt thugs he sent to Portland, OR and deployed in front of the White House, his four years of environmental wrecking and vandalism have just about pushed the climate to the point of no return. Another four years of Trump and it won’t just be this country, it will be the entire world that is no longer recognizable.
Wildlife needs time to adjust to the inevitable global climate changes we have already baked into the biosphere. And we on the left in America need time too to organize successfully against the ongoing wholesale corporate takeover of our lives that is underway.
I bought a little time and offered a chance these last few weeks for a few messed up little critters. Hopefully I also in my small way helped buy us Americans a little time politically, too by my vote to take down President Trump.