Monday, February 13, 2012

“GO FOR TURTLES”

On a recent trip to central Florida, we dipped southward to the beach near Fort Walton, and after a brief look around at deserted condos and empty beaches with sea oats swaying in the wintry wind, we turned north again toward DeFuniak Springs. We traveled on a narrow highway that led through Scrubs and stretches of ancient sand dunes dotted with scrub oaks, pines, and curious mounds I learned were the homes of gopher turtles. My intent was to stop and investigate the mounds, but we were due in central Florida that evening, so we sped across the fifteen-mile stretch of turtle habitats without making a widespread search for the actual reptile.

Gopher turtle mounds near Navarre FL
Later, when we settled in central Florida, I talked with the caretaker of Inez Sullivan, our hostess for several days, and Juanita, the caretaker, told me how her people caught gopher turtles during hard times when food was scarce in lake country. The hunters reached into a turtle hill with a long hook and simply pulled the turtle out of its hill. She claims that the success rate of catching one of the gopher turtles was 100 percent – no bait, just a hook and a croker sack to hold the catch. Sometimes the hook yielded a rattlesnake, which I assumed shared the hill habitat, and I asked the caretaker what happened when the hunter caught this reptile. “He’d run like the devil was at his heels,” she said.

I remember some of the stories my former father-in-law told about Depression Days when turtles were coveted as food. He claimed that the family would save up enough money to buy a little gasoline to run their Model T, not to make a trip, but to putt-putt through the woods and scare up turtles so that the family could have meat for supper. Juanita said that a favorite recipe among country folk was turtle meat stewed down with onions and seasonings to serve over rice.

I love turtles and believe that when they appear, they bring good fortune. A few years ago, I wrote a blog about a box turtle that appeared in my yard at Sewanee – a specimen that had the #1 marked on its shell. The following day another turtle of the same species appeared with the #2 on its shell. “Now,” I told my readers, “if a turtle with the #3 imbedded in its shell had shown up, I’d have been spooked, but these two turtle sightings completed the show.” I wasn’t tempted to stew them or to play the lottery using the numbers, but the sight of turtles with numbers for markings did give me a start.

Gopher turtles were known as “Hoover chickens” during the Great Depression, but hunting them in Florida and other southern states is now forbidden as they’re an endangered species. Developers in Florida are required to temporarily move populations when they begin development of land for subdivisions. Floridians regard the Gopher turtle highly and designated it as Florida’s state reptile.

So far, I’ve only seen the turtles’ burrows, which I’m told often reach a depth of nine feet and which protect them from coons, skunks, foxes and other predators – and, I might add, curious investigators like me.
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