David Carroll tracks turtles to reveal what nature has to say to humans
Scientist David Carroll doesn't publish academic papers but tells turtles' stories through his art and writings.
The glossy knob of the head of a spotted turtle peeks out from a vernal pool. Seen from 10 feet away, its tiny eyelid throws a flick of light as it closes.Skip to next paragraph
"Blink," David Carroll says, with a quietness and adoration he might use to speak to a napping baby. "They can disappear in here so fast, it's really hard to get your hands on them."
It has been a rainy May in Warner, N.H., ideal for turtle spotting. Turtle season began a little late this year, April 3, when ice receded in the ponds, and Mr. Carroll saw his first turtle from his snowshoes.
Now that the season is in full swing, he'll come out almost every day to observe spotted and wood turtles until they go back into hibernation in October.
For more than 30 years, Carroll has followed the same turtle-tracking routine on this 1,000-acre piece of land near his home. He records details of the turtles and their nests. When he finds a new turtle, he'll pluck it up and file small notches on its shell to mark it.
Despite the large amount of data that Carroll has accumulated, he's made relatively small contributions to the field of biology. He's helped graduate students with thesis projects, and he's given away some records to other biologists. But he hasn't published any papers of his own.
"I could never do the right kind of number crunching, statistical analysis," Carroll says.
Instead, Carroll is known for the five books he's written and illustrated about turtles, natural history, and his life.
His most recent, "Following the Water" (2009), follows Carroll as he looks for turtles in the woods. It was a nonfiction finalist for a National Book Foundation medal.
He received his biggest honor in 2006: a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant worth $500,000.
As a self-taught field biologist but an artist by training, with degrees from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Tufts University, his science, art, and writing inform each other deeply.
He draws both reptiles and humans with anatomical precision and poetic whimsy – crisp turtles laid neatly over silky, pink water-color leaves; longhaired women copied carefully from photographs, sketched on gold-stamped paper.
His painterly prose about wandering in swamps is twinned with acute scientific observation and laced with personal philosophy.