THE WASHINGTON POST – With his brow furrowed, Tom, 70, stomps on the damp leaf litter – thump, thump, thump, thump – and then we wait. A woodpecker cackles; bluebells tremble in the breeze. Stumpy is nowhere to be found. “I’m not worried,” Tom said, looking worried.
“It’s been a colder-than-usual spring. That might have affected him.”
A wild turtle, Stumpy has been meeting up with Tom in these West Virginia woods every spring for over 30 years.
Like his fellow wood turtles, Stumpy spends his winters brumating (the reptile equivalent of hibernating) in a clear, fast-moving stream.
As days warm, he emerges from his aquatic home and roams the nearby woods in search of food – first tender leaves, then flowers and, finally, berries.
Early on Stumpy’s circuit is Tom’s former house, where the human tosses him huge, juicy strawberries – months before the wild berries are ready to eat.
It took a while for Tom to figure out Stumpy’s species, because Stumpy’s shell is worn and scuffed. Usually, wood turtles have gorgeous shells that appear to have been hand-carved from mahogany.
“He was already old when I first saw him, so he must be really old now,” said Tom. “Of course, he could say the same thing about me.”
Curious, personable and uncommonly pretty, wood turtles are highly sought-after as pets, said Turtle Survival Alliance chief operating officer Andrew Walde, whom I called after my first visit to Stumpy Acres.
This combination of characteristics makes them vulnerable to poachers, who sell them as pets. “Whenever anything gets published about a particular population, that population is done for,” Walde said. (To protect Stumpy and the other wood turtles from poachers, we aren’t publishing his exact location or his human friends’ last names.)
The eastern panhandle of West Virginia is among wood turtles’ last strongholds, Walde said.
Across most of their range, they are in steep decline. Indeed, half of the world’s 357 turtle species are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss, poaching and other human pastimes.
This is an animal that survived not one, but two mass-extinction events: the massive volcanic eruptions that paved the way for the dinosaurs and the meteor strike that ended their reign. But surviving the Anthropocene might be too much for even these sturdiest of creatures.
Tom makes a visor out of his hand and peers into the woods, but there’s nary a turtle to be seen. Could Stumpy have succumbed to habitat loss or poachers, or maybe just old age? (The wood turtle longevity record is 58.) It’s a shocking thought that a creature who seems all-but-eternal would just suddenly be gone. “I hope he hasn’t gone to the big turtle pond in the sky,” Tom said, before giving up for the day.
Tom no longer lives in Stumpy’s territory. Last spring, he sold his house and moved to a more remote spot, high on a nearby mountain.
He loved being by the river, but the pandemic brought an influx of tourists and new homeowners.
The noise and traffic were bad enough, but worst of all was their aggressive landscaping. “One family clear-cut all the way down to the river,” Tom said.
“They didn’t want any brush or shrubbery – they are afraid of snakes or this or that – and they kinda destroyed the habitat.”
He was determined to find a buyer who would be a good steward of the land – not just for vague environmental reasons, but for Stumpy’s sake, too.
Luckily, the first person who came to look at the house fit the bill. Tommy, a 28-year-old computer programmer from DC, told Tom about the sea turtle conservation project he had worked on one summer in Costa Rica, and he promised not to clear-cut the property to get a river view or better internet access.
“We talked about Stumpy, and he said, ‘Oh sure, I’d love to take care of the turtle,’ “ the elder Tom recalled. “He also said I could visit Stumpy anytime I wanted.”
A week after Stumpy’s no-show, Tom sits in a rocking chair on the deck of his mountaintop home, gazing at the timeworn Appalachian foothills.
“They look like turtles,” I said. Tom makes a face, like I’m being ridiculous.
I’m not the first person to see turtles in the mountains. With their hard shells, turtles seem to be both animal and object. At least three different cultures balance the world on a turtle’s back, while others have imagined the universe as contained within a giant turtle, its domed shell forming the heavens, and its flat bottom, the earth.
Does Stumpy represent nature? Survival against the odds? The relentless ravages of time? Tom dismisses all these possibilities. “Stumpy is just Stumpy,” Tom said.
“He’s an individual. That’s what makes him special.”
We drive to Tommy’s house and commence stomping. Stumpy should really be out of hibernation by now, but he’s not in their meeting spot near a large fallen tree, and he’s not on the berm by the river.
He’s not basking on his basking log, and neither is he napping beneath the papaw trees.
As we walk back to Tom’s car, disappointed, it occurs to me that mankind’s love of nature is a peculiar affliction. For one thing, it’s unconditional.
If you spend time outdoors, you’ll eventually see something brutal, and you’ll be forced to accept it with equanimity, because nature is obviously beyond our judgment.
Loving nature also feels a little tragic, because no matter how much you care about it, it will never care about you.
But perhaps I’m wrong, because suddenly I hear a rustle in the leaves.
Tom makes an excited sound. “There he is!” he said, pointing. About 10 feet in front of us, a little brown turtle is running on his tiptoes – who knew turtles could run? And even though I’m closer and I’m also carrying strawberries, he’s beelining straight to Tom.
Tom squishes a strawberry between his fingers and drops it at Stumpy’s feet. A voice issues from the direction of the house. “Is he here?” called Tommy.
He’s seen some other wood turtles, but this is the first time he’s seen Stumpy this season.
“Stumpy in particular – he’s like an old sage,” Tommy said. “He’s not one of these young sprouts.”
Pretty soon, Stumpy’s face is covered in pink pulp, and he’s got half a strawberry hanging from his chin. His species may be threatened, his habitat may be imperilled, but in this moment Stumpy seems delighted. “He’s such a messy eater,” said Tom. “Do you see that?”
Stumpy usually hangs out for a few weeks, making intermittent appearances, Tom said.
As to where he goes afterward, no one knows – but Tom has a theory.
“Maybe he visits lots of people, up and down the river, and we all think he’s ours.”