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This weekend, during our routine pre-sunrise walk, Heathcliff and I found a box turtle making her way across the rarely travelled, gravel turn-around. Perhaps the turtle sought shelter in the accumulated leaves and mud on the other side, a place to lay her eggs or to escape the heat. And perhaps the turtle’s decision to take the “high road” to the upper side of the mountain stream rather than to navigate the culvert underneath the turn-around also created greater natural advantage for her. This morning, however, the turtle’s choices made her highly visible to a very curious dog.

Keith and I have a special fondness for turtles, and Heathcliff shares our interest if not a similar mode of study. On high alert, ears cocked, hackles up, our dog approached the slow-moving turtle and sniffed. The turtle immediately pulled her hook-beaked head and clawed appendages into her bright yellow-patterned shell, startling Heathcliff to jump back warily. With potential predator out of range, the turtle re-emerged, which renewed Heathcliff’s curiosity and sniffs. And so the dance continued: dog-sniff, turtle-close-shell; dog-startle-back, turtle-open-shell. Stalemate.

“Heathcliff, let’s show the turtle to Keith,” I said to break the standoff. I carried the close-shelled turtle up our steep, winding mountain driveway, Heathcliff hip-hopping beside me. Apparently, the turtle did not perceive me as much of a threat because along the way, she emerged head fully craned, legs and feet flailing.

“Ah, you found a box turtle, and a fine turtle she is,” Keith said as I handed him our find, Heathcliff’s nose tracking every movement. Keith inspected the turtle’s markings then placed her on the great room floor. Almost immediately, the turtle took off trailing pee, a drooling dog and me with cleanup rag.

“Ok, it’s time to return the turtle to her home,” I told Heathcliff as I carried the turtle outside to the edge of the woods facing down towards the mountain stream. Although tempted to linger, Heathcliff readily followed me back into the house, no doubt both of us thinking about breakfast.

Later that morning while Keith and I worked in the yard, Heathcliff checked the spot where we had released the turtle. The turtle was not to be found. Heathcliff’s attention then wandered towards other forest creatures, squirrels, blue-tailed skinks, wood bugs. In the side yard, Keith transplanted cherry trees and draped them with deer netting. I pulled oak, tulip poplar, maple and deciduous sassafras seedlings in the front around the septic and thought again about nature’s advantages. By protecting the cherry trees from the deer, Keith advantaged those trees and disadvantaged the deer. By disadvantaging some tree seedlings, I advantaged other seedlings and trees. By choosing Heathcliff from the dog shelter, Keith and I advantaged him and not the other dogs.

By interrupting her trek, had we advantaged or disadvantaged the box turtle?

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