NEAR OUR FARMHOUSE was a small rocky pasture with a shallow pond where the horses could drink. Our father said that he and his father used a team of horses and a drag scraper to deepen a small marshy area to create this pond to water livestock. It took days to finish it plus a lot of handwork too. It was a great place for us kids to play, explore and get into the mud, and especially to catch turtles.
That old pond taught us so many things about nature and about ourselves. Our mother always had an excellent reference library for us to use, and if we couldn’t get information about a creature there, we went to the Chatham Library. The books said our turtles were shy, fast swimmers and pretty slow on land, and told how to identify them.
As far as we could tell there were only painted turtles in the pond, and are one of the most common turtles in New York State. Wading into the mud was an experience and often resulted in bloody legs covered with leeches. For some reason this didn’t seem to disturb us, probably because we were used to seeing blood from skinned knees, and numerous other minor mishaps from outdoor farm activities. Leeches produce an anesthetic with their anticoagulant so they didn’t hurt, and we just pulled the squirming, blood swollen things off and shook them off fingers before their suckers attached there. They were only about an inch or two long, not like the monster leeches that Katherine Hepburn encountered in the “African Queen” movie. One of those would have stopped our hearts.
Painted turtles are good-natured and fairly small, with a shell about 10 inches or less in length. Most of ours were about 4 or 5 inches long and pretty. The head and legs have black or green skin with red, orange and yellow stripes. The darker top part of the shell is called the carapace, and the lighter colored bottom is called the plastron. The plastron can be plain yellow, orange, have dark patterns, or be brightly patterned depending on the subspecies.
Today we are warned about the danger of salmonella bacteria when handling turtles, but back then who knew about such things. Our mother was a registered nurse so we were trained to be careful not to get things in our mouths and to wash our hands, which probably saved us.
We tried to keep turtles in an aquarium a few times without success. They always got sick and died. We just didn’t have enough information to care for them properly and kindly quit trying. We enjoyed watching them outdoors as they basked in the sun and enjoyed the summer, walked out of the pond to dig holes to lay their eggs, and eventually disappeared in the fall to dig down deep into the mud to survive the winter. The little pond is on the way to Chatham and it is wonderful to see them again each spring. The painted turtles may live longer than 30 years and are truly old friends.