by Ed Byers | The weather is warmer, and they will come, at least for another year. Theodore Roosevelt called them part of the “little forest folk” but I had never heard them called holy until I met a Native American named Don Whyte, a member of the Mountain Utes.
You will probably see them while you are traveling on a secondary road in the Ohio Valley. When you get closer will you recognize the shape of a box turtle trying to cross the road. If they are lucky and the timing is right, they will slowly cross the road and reach their destination. Too often we see them as roadkill; silent testimony to the urban encroachment of our cities and towns into natural and rural areas. Most box turtles will not travel more than one mile from their birthplace, unless we decide to subdivide their ancestral homes. Then they are forced to move on, to find a new home to lay eggs and seek food. We inadvertently force them to move to keep living.
Time is a relative issue between species. Some tortoises have lived to be over 100 years old although most of them will not live more than three years. They are tempting bite-size morsels to many other “forest folk.” Even while in the egg, they are in jeopardy of being another creature’s meal. As adults, many bear the scars from lawnmower blades, mischievous children, and dogs. Some even have fools’ initials carved into their shells.
When I was a national park ranger, I had the fortune to work with Don Whyte. On paper, I was his supervisor but, in reality, I learned much from this dedicated and gentle person. He had forgotten more about horses and mounted patrol than I would ever learn, and I found him good company in all aspects of a ranger’s work.
We worked the desert area west of Tucson, Arizona. Among our duties were road patrol, performing traffic enforcement in a stretch of highway that was notorious in the national park system for motor vehicle accidents. We also had ongoing roles in wildlife research projects, particularly a study of endangered desert tortoises.
When we would find a tortoise, we would record as much data as possible to assist the researchers in their program. We recorded weight, the number of digits (toes), the location and the time we found it, sex, and any numbers or telemetry device or distinguishing marks on it. Determining sex was easy; red eyes were males and gold eyes were females. (Once a rattlesnake researcher told us to turn a rattlesnake over and count its anal plates to determine sex. We determined that flipping a coin was far more prudent.)
One day during traffic enforcement, Don and I found a tortoise trying to cross the busy highway. We pulled the marked police interceptor off the roadway and activated the overheard blue and red lights. We took the tortoise up a wash (a small dry gorge) to complete the wildlife observation card. We dutifully measured weight, counted toes, noted the eye color, and looked for distinguishing marks. As I was engrossed in converting pounds and ounces to into grams, Don made an astonishing observation. Our topic of conversation during that patrol had centered on Native American religion. Don had explained to me that throughout the ordeals placed on Native Americans by the Europeans, they always managed to keep their religious beliefs. As this tortoise looked directly at me, Don remarked that turtles were generally thought to be representatives of the gods. I was stunned when I realized that I was holding someone else’s angel. In one short afternoon, Don had given a sterile scientific project a soul and, in a very human way, reminded me why I had become a national park ranger.
I spent the remainder of that season learning southwestern Native American lore from Don. He remained in the National Park Service long after I left. I knew that Don, and people like him, would do what is best for the national parks, not what the National Park Service told them to do. And that thought continues to give me great comfort….
A friend later told me that religion is not a substitute for faith, but that religion is a way to express one’s personal faith and beliefs. Tolerance and acceptance are essential so that others may worship in a manner most meaningful to them, not necessarily us. America was founded by the human desire to worship freely and such rights remain in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
When you see a box turtle trying to cross a busy highway (and it is safe to do so), take time to help it across the road. It is moving to keep living, possibly away from construction activities. I feel confident that the time you spend helping someone else’s angel will be met with great respect when your judgement comes…..
Ed Byers is a resident of Charlestown and a retired United States federal agent. He is finishing his Ph.D. program at the University of Louisville in Criminal Justice with a specialty in policing and is an adjunct professor at that university. His dissertation examines factors involved in police shootings.