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2009 National Book Award Finalist,
Nonfiction

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David M. Carroll
Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Video from the 2009 National Book Awards Finalist Reading

 


Photo credit: Laurette Carroll

CITATION

In a voice that is lyrical, probing, wise and vulnerable, David M. Carroll’s Following the Water finds a place in the exalted tradition of American nature writing that includes such classics as Walden, Silent Spring, and Sand County Almanac. The deep intimacy with the natural world that Carroll evokes in his literary chronicle of wandering familiar wetlands of his native New Hampshire takes on startling poignancy as it becomes evident how encroaching urban development threatens that world and the magical bonds to it nurtured by this extraordinary writer.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Following the Water is the chronicle of David M. Carroll’s annual March-to-November wetlands immersion—from the joy of the first turtle sighting in March to the vibrant trilling of treefrogs (“lichen with eyes”) in late May, and ending with the ancient sense of love and loss Carroll experiences each autumn when it is time, once again, to part with open water. Illustrated with the author’s own pen-and-ink drawings, Following the Water is a gorgeous evocation of nature, an utterly unique “admission ticket to a secret corner of the world.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David M. Carroll is the author of The Year of the Turtle, Trout Reflections, Self-Reflection with Turtles, and Swampwalker's Journal, which won the prestigious John Burroughs Medal. In 2006 he won a MacArthur "genius" award for his work as writer, artist, and naturalist. Carroll has been featured on Today (where he reached down into swampy water, miraculously pulled up a turtle he knew, and told her history), in numerous newspapers and magazines, and in the most popular documentary in the history of New Hampshire public television. He is an active lecturer and consultant to conservation institutions throughout New England. He lives with his wife in Warner, New Hampshire.

SUGGESTED LINKS

David M. Carroll's Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Page
http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/

Wood Turtles Hatching - Excerpt from New Hampshire naturalist's book
by David M. Carroll
Turtles Studies by David Carroll
Excerpted from Following the Water: A Hydromancer's Notebook
http://www.yankeemagazine.com/issues/2009-07/features/freshwater-turtles

VIDEO - WBUR - February 16, 2007
David Carroll talks about his life with turtles. In recognition of his work with turtles, Carroll was named a 2006 MacArthur Fellow. The Foundation said: "His underst...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XB56v9nSMiw

EXCERPT

YEARBREAK At the earliest openings of the ice in the overwintering niches of the spotted turtles, as minute glimmers of quickening water appear in acres of wetlands still locked in ice and snow, I forsake my winter paths: the worn floor by the kitchen table and fireplace; the even more worn threshold of the narrow doorway to the Oriental-carpeted passage down the back hall, the narrow gallery hung with paintings and drawings above agreeably overburdened bookcases, lined along the floor with stacks of more books and empty frames; the footworn stair treads up to my studio workrooms, with their slender passageways among bookcases, drawing and writing tables, and shelves, all impossibly piled with papers, notebooks, pencils, pens, and paintbrushes. With the opening up of the earth and water I go beyond my few, close-to-home outer trails of the cold season: my way to the woodshed, as trodden as an ancient deer path, and my modest snowshoe circlings through the back field and bordering woods. At thaw I begin to walk a wider way again, beyond house and gardens, in places every bit as home to me as those.

Some of my paths are of my own making, many are borrowed from deer and muskrat; most are routes that water traces. In some of these water-and-mud channels my feet drop into hollows exactly matching my strides: my own footprints of previous years’ passings. In rare places left alone enough, generations of black bears walk historic migration routes in the impressed footprints of their ancestors.

Stepping from a snow-crested bank, I descend into the icy running of the brook. There is the daybreak that comes with every rising of the sun, and there is the yearbreak that comes with thaw and the unlocking of the ice. As I enter the newly opened water, I enter the year and, in a mingling of dream clearly remembered and new dream just beginning, start to wade again the streaming of its seasons.

The turbulent whitewater spates of mid-March have run their course. Floods may be brought surging back to life by April rains and the last of the snowmelt from headwater hills, escaping the banks again and surging through the low white pine terrace, the alder and meadowsweet thickets, the red maple swamp. But for now the brook has settled back within its channel and is not so restless that I cannot see into it. Insulated by neoprene, I wade in. For the first time in the year I move within the variously black, sky-reflecting, and (where shadows allow my sight to penetrate its masking surface) clear, clear flowing of the stream.

At another winter’s ending I have one more setting forth, one more initiation. Though I am always one year older, the year is ever new, renascent. I leave the past cold season, a time passed largely in the theater of my own mind, my inner wilderness, leaving it behind like a skin I have sloughed, and enter the wild realm that lies outside of myself and ultimately outside of all human knowing. But my new skin bears the same markings as before, and whatever I encounter within the season extending before me will be at once familiar and completely new.

As I have somehow known from my first intuitive setting out, I will recognize what to follow. The water will set a course and lead me through the days; the days will take me through the year. I go forth directed and open to direction. What guides the feet? the mind? the heart? The heart, too, is forever seeking.

I once brought a naturalist friend, one whose quests range as widely over the planet as mine keep to a circumscribed corner within it, to some of the places that have been at the heart of what I have followed in the wild over the past three decades. I introduced her to a vernal pool, a marsh, a swamp, a stream, and along the way I found some turtles to show her. I talked some, of what I see, what I look for.

“They say that the Sufi is always looking for his be loved,” she said. “You are always seeking your beloved.”

My first heading out of the year always takes me back to the first time I wandered out, the beginning of my being there. I felt that I was called, that something called me, and I set out alone. That was in my eighth year, when spring was turning to summer. In every year following, that feeling has come at ice melt, when I go out to see the stream at its first running clear, see the water in marshes and swamps at the moment of opening up, trembling with the restless stirrings of the air at the time of great transition —water set free, vibrant and vibrating, shimmering back to the sun, the heart-melting light of spring’s awakening. The touch of the ascendant sun on ice at length gives birth to water, and water gives life to the year. After winter’s silence, countless dialogues begin. I set out to see if the water has come back, always with the hope, mingled with anticipation, of seeing the first turtle. In the renewal of the year I can find again that first turtle, take it in with my eyes, touch it with my fingertips. Could a year begin for me without this? My life has come to be measured in first turtles.

As I wade against the steady, at times insistent, flow, I think back to my earliest experiences with this liquid mineral, now clear, now silver or amber, gold, black, deep wine red, or tannic tea, so alive and life-sustaining within its fundamentally physical, utterly indifferent nature. Water nurtures beyond the purely physical. As a boy I entered waters that, if not alive themselves, were so filled with light and life that my binding with them was as much metaphysical as physical. These primal immersions took place in small still-water marshes and swamps and running brooks too minimal to serve the prodigiously expanding economic and recreational needs and desires of mankind. These places of my boyhood continued to hold something of the heart of wildness in a landscape being stripped of all original meaning. Not yet subject to human usurpation and engineering, they were the soul of the seasons, the lifeblood of ecologies. They were wild out of all proportion to their scale in the landscape, and they imparted wildness to my boyhood heart and mind, my youthful imagination.

But over time so many of these watery places, even the least of them, were driven into corners, becoming heavily compromised relicts marginalized out of their existential meaning, if not out of existence. These were my baptismal waters. For all that they gave me —the beauty and the belonging, the intuitive knowledge of something of my place in life, becoming something that I simply could not live without —I think sometimes of the heartache, the anger and despair, that I would have been spared, had that entrance into the water not opened, had I not entered. Their loss is overwhelming. With every passing year, my following of the water has increasingly become a matter of finding water to follow.

Streamside thickets and occasional taller trees along the stream write their signatures on the water, an undulating script on an ever-moving page. Even these shadows have their identities: the whiplike lines of silky dogwood, broader trailings of alder stems, bolder strokes of red maple trunks, and sweeps of white pine crowns. Are these shadows or transparent reflections? They cut narrow slits and wider openings in the clear water, which the light of day would mask. I shift my head, looking in from as many different angles as possible, trying to catch sight of a wood turtle, tucked in or perhaps even shifting about, as sometimes happens as the long overwintering approaches its conclusion, even when the brook is only four degrees above freezing. But it is enough to see the streambed again, its sand, cobble, and stones, sunken branches and drifts of leaves.

I raise my head and look upstream. Can I be looking at a wood turtle? The shape is far enough ahead that I cannot be certain, and my disbelief that a turtle would be so exposed, up on an open, muddy mound of stream bank surrounded by snow and ice, prevents definite recognition. But as I advance I begin to read it as a turtle, and the reading is disturbing. The angle, something in the way that so-familiar sculpted shape is settled, is sharply out of keeping with any search-image I have. Wood turtles always place themselves in harmony with their surroundings, with the configurations of the earth or stream bottom on which they have settled or over which they move. This gestalt has struck me as unfailing. Except when they are compelled to cross a road or open lawn, wood turtles are never out of place.

Even from some distance, as I wade, looking into the turtle’s face, I know that something is terribly wrong. Where is that light in the eyes, the light of life and reflected day that shows before the gold-ringed eyes themselves can be clearly seen? What are those shadows, dark pockets on either side of the jet black head? Where are the legs, black-scaled, with vivid flashes of red-orange skin color that should be part of the pattern? Riveted by this troubling vision, I never look away as my feet find their way over the streambed and I wade to the turtle. A profound confusion comes over me, the elation of seeing that first turtle up out of the water at the end of hibernation mingling with a reality I do not want to see. The turtle ’s eyes are closed, her legs are gone.

I pick her up. Her shell is so familiar, that shadowy umber brown carapace with yellow-gold striations, like faint flecks of sunlight. Tiny notches I have made along her marginal scutes identify her. An adult female, she is one of the first wood turtles I documented along this brook, where I have been recording them in notebooks over the past twenty years. Her head does not move, there is no sign of life in her tail as I move it from side to side. A few tiny bubbles appear at her nostrils, perhaps a last flicker of life. All of her right front leg is missing and the lower half of her left front. Her right hind leg has been eaten away from the knee joint down, and her left hind leg is only a shaft of bone to where the knee joint was. How did she get up here? My crowded thoughts and questions settle out, and I realize that of course she could not have climbed up onto this mound but was left here by the otter who discovered her in her winter hold in the stream and wrestled her onto land to work at her, force out at least a foot to eat from the fortress of her shell. There is not one tooth mark on her carapace or plastron; predators know there is no biting through the shell of a wood turtle this size.

A sense of foreboding comes over me, as it did five years ago when, at this same seasonal moment, I discovered an adult male who had lost both front legs and then a six-year-old who had been bitten through and killed. I am familiar with reports by others who study turtles of heavy losses on colonies of painted and snapping turtles by otters preying upon them during their hibernation. I found no further evidence of such predation that year, but I wonder what I will find when the wood turtles here begin their first streamside basking of this new season.

I set the turtle back down. The temperature will drop well below freezing tonight. If the least flicker of life does remain within her, it will be extinguished. A life of decades, likely more than half a century, has come to an end. Borrowed stardust is at length returned, and the flame that burned within passed on. In silence, the water flows on by. Alder shadows creep across the snow. This is an aspect of what takes place in the stream, along its banks and beyond. My human-turtle connection does not allow me complete objectivity. But my deepest griefs are human-driven, not by the death of any individual living thing within the ecology, but that of the ecology itself.


 

David M. Carroll interviewed
by Meehan Crist

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