A boy grows up to the age of eight in a central Pennsylvania town, never knowing anything beyond the world of family, church, school a human world, with purely human concerns. But when the family moves to a town near Long Island Sound, the boy wanders off into the Connecticut woods rising near his front door, into a thicket, then into a swamp. When he spots his first turtle, the jolt of wonder and recognition staggers him. Here, in this new world, "all the more miraculous for being real," he knows he has come home at last.
David M. Carroll was that boy, and has remained that boy all through the years of his grown-up achievements as naturalist, artist and author. In this radiant memoir, he shares a lifetime of abiding passions for nature, art, teaching and a few kindred human souls. In the telling, Carroll magically collapses time into one ever-renewing turtle cycle of hibernation, nesting and hatching. Before encountering this book, anyone might naturally laugh with scorn at the notion that a walk into a wetland to look for turtles could be a thrilling thing to read about, fraught with anxiety and delight. Scorn turns to amazement, though, as Carroll takes hold of the reader as surely as he picks up one of his slow, spotted friends to examine its underside (called plastron, as we gratefully learn). "Eccentric" is a word often applied to someone like Carroll or his beloved literary mentor, Thoreau. The word simply means "off-center." Self-Portrait with Turtles joins Walden, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and a handful of other great books which reconfigure the center where it has always been, with the Earth herself and with her creatures. Human beings, even the most urban of us, rightly belong in that company, but in our mad haste, we have gone "eccentric," away from our natural home. Carroll wants to bring us back. But it is hard, and it is late, for the natural world is already so terribly diminished by what we have wrought upon it in the name of progress. Like his three earlier books (The Year of the Turtle, Trout Reflections and Swampwalker's Journal, together called the Wet Sneakers Trilogy), Carroll's memoir is in part an elegy for what has been lost. Here is a man who loves people as much as he loves turtles it's mankind he can't stand.
Michael Alec Rose is a music professor at Vanderbilt University.