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The previous post was a poem I wrote around 20 years ago. I don’t know why I wrote it, except that, somehow, I sensed some magic there.

Yesterday at 6:30 my family and I drove to Canaveral National Seashore for a Turtle Watch. The guides said they hoped to get a female loggerhead nesting early so that we could see the entire process. I was nervous; what if after all this planning and anticipation, no turtle shows up? What if I’ve brought my family out here, used some of our precious Florida time, exposed them all to bug bites and late-night drives, for no payoff? Worse, what if the whole thing is underwhelming? What if the magic isn’t there?

We drove to the beach and immediately were informed that a volunteer had spotted a loggerhead crawling up the beach right by the boardwalk. We were to be quiet and careful as we walked onto the beach and formed a semi-circle behind her.

And immediately there she was, facing up the beach. A red light behind showed the egg chamber, where over one hundred ping pong ball-sized eggs were dropping into the darkness. She was silent, but the effort caused the turtle to flex her flippers as each egg fell. We watched, amazed.

The volunteer had told the guides that a second turtle had crawled up the beach just after the first one, and I went down toward the ocean a bit to see. There were the crawl marks, unmistakable in the wet sand of the lowering tide. And there was the turtle, looking like a dark log. The Moon was nearly full, and so bright that everything was visible, though ghostly. I glanced between the two turtles, not believing this could be happening. Not just one turtle, but two, on the same beach at the same time. And then –

“Hey, there’s another turtle!” someone shouted. I thought he must be mistaken. There are coquina rocks on the beaches here, some rounded, and low tide exposes  them. Surely that’s what the shouter had seen.

But no, there was a third turtle, coming out of the surf and crawling up the beach between the first two! The guide instructed us to back away from the first turtle, so as not to spook the new arrival, and we did so.

The turtle lifted her head, looked around, paused. Then she crawled. One flipper at a time, the beach her ladder, the safety of the ocean further behind her with every pull of her massive body up the beach.

I talked with the volunteer. He said that usually under such circumstances the new turtle would turn back to the ocean (a “false crawl”). But not this time. The turtle kept coming, stopped just a few feet short of the distance of first turtle’s crawl up the beach, maybe 30 feet away total from that first loggerhead. And she started digging, too.

We watched as not one, not two, but three ancient reptiles undertook the ritual performed by their own mothers, and their mothers, and their mothers, back and back and back in time for a hundred million years and more. I almost fell over from the dizziness of thinking of all those turtles, all those evenings, all those crawls and nests. And here it was, in front of me, tonight.

I sat down in the sand and dug absent-mindedly with my own hands, watching as the first turtle tossed sand everywhere. Now the second turtle, the largest of the three and perhaps a more experienced nest builder, finished early and headed back to sea. I watched her go, watched her reach the wet sand, approach the water, feel that first splash of salt on her face, then move into the dark waves and disappear.

The guides talked to me, talked about how they weren’t sure what to do, about how this usually didn’t happen, how they’d considered pulling us all off the beach so as not to disturb the new arrival. But she seemed unfazed, and began laying. The first turtle was finishing now, and I watched her turn her massive body around on top of her nest. She started down the beach, and we followed. She paused, often, and this was unusual, too. Usually, the volunteer told me, once turtles finish their work they make a beeline to the water. Something was slowing this female down.

I studied her. She had barnacles on her back. Her shell tapered down to perfect, sandy back flippers. Those back flippers don’t do much when the turtle swims, I remembered. But for nest building they are amazing digging tools. The turtle’s front flippers were strong, and you see their strength as they dug into the sand and pulled the turtle along. She crawled, paused, crawled some more. The turtle swung her massive head around and looked back at us. What could she possibly have thought of these strange, skinny creatures standing there, swatting flies in the moonlight? The Moon’s shadows were long, and I wonder if our shadows, dancing on the sand, slowed her down.

Finally the turtle reached the sea. The water washed over her face, her flippers, her shell. As the waves rolled in the sand from all her efforts melted away, and she shone in the moonlight. Then quietly, softly, she was gone.

While the guides showed how they protect the nest from raccoons and other predators, the third turtle finished and turned down the beach. I watched her go. She was smaller than the others, and she had worked quickly. She shot down the beach, no hesitation until she reached the water line. Then she stopped, looked around a bit, and slipped into the sea.

Left behind were over 300 baby turtles. There they would stay, changing within their shells through another full Moon, then halfway toward a second. Finally they would burst through the sand and dash toward the sea. As my family and I left this beach, left the eggs to grow and change and finally hatch, I knew.

There is magic in the world.

night moonless stars

shining waves whisper

singing softly to

silent Sand

head flippers dome

memory guides you

heavy with eggs toward

your own Sand

you know this place

and dig burying

nearly yourself in

the white Sand

you cry do i

see you dreaming of

the babe abandoned

in cold Sand

or are you just

tearing removing

with sea from your rep

tiles eye Sand

struggle slowly

seaward say you prayer

to god of sea or

ancient Sand

or do you only

smell the air?

Father’s Day 2010 and I’m on the Atlantic Ocean with my girls. They all like to sleep in; I don’t. I woke up at 4:30 this morning, but took my time and didn’t hit the beach until around 5:40. I will never forget all that I saw.

Sunrise was at 6:26, and the sky was just beginning to lighten as I started walking north toward Patrick Air Force Base. I saw little shapes scurrying away in the surf in front of me. Ghost crabs. I watched for them as I walked, then saw that a little ways out the dolphins were awake. They and the diving birds like cormorants and pelicans were crazy active. There were also little pops of something in the water, I couldn’t tell what. Every once in a while a little black – something – would pop the surface, then go back under. I wondered what it could be.

About two condos down from ours, I saw a turtle crawl. The tracks went up the beach and back down, stopping at a circular depression just below the line of dune grass. I was certain it had to be a fresh nest. I noticed that the tracks covered all the human footprints and so on from the night before, so they had to be fresh. I wondered if I should call someone, so they could stake off the nest. Now I feel a little silly for thinking that.

I kept walking. In the space of the four or five condos between myself and Patrick AFB I saw at least six turtle crawls.  In one of them, I scared a ghost crab. I was between it and the ocean, and it seemed confused by that. It found an old footprint and hid. I got down on all fours and stared at it. We watched each other for a few minutes, neither moving.

Then I spotted a four-wheeled ATV moving up and down the beach. I remembered from my time on the gulf side that this was what the turtle nest spotters rode, and I wondered if this might be this beach’s spotter.

I saw that they’d stopped near the original nest I found, so I walked that way again. As I got closer I saw that it was a man and a woman. The man was on his knees digging, and the woman was following the tracks. At first I was going to walk past, because I feared they might be poachers. I was actually tempted to call the police. But then the woman waved to me, and I noticed she had a clipboard. Poachers probably wouldn’t have clipboards, I was thinking, so I got closer.

It turns out they were students at UCF, monitoring and counting the nests. The man had taken the eggs out to count them, and as I approached he was putting them back in. I asked if I should have called about the other turtle crawls, and they said no. They patrol the beaches each morning to spot the new nests. I asked if they would stake them out to protect the nests, but the researchers said there are so many nests this time of year that they couldn’t possibly stake them all. They just record the location, mark it in sneaky ways (I won’t say how, in deference to the turtles), and then move on.

Wow. So I saw turtle eggs. Each one with a baby turtle inside, growing and changing. In 60 days or so, that baby would break out of the shell, pop from the sand, and scramble toward the sea. Incredible.

I asked about the little popping shapes in the surf; could those be turtles? They didn’t know, but knew the turtles were out there, mating, waiting for nightfall. Loggerhead females will lay up to four nests during mating season, and the males are out there, too, for obvious reasons.

The Sun was just coming up, but a thick cloud covered the horizon. That’s ok, still plenty of days left to see that amazing sunrise over the water. The clouds kept the Sun from blinding me, and I still saw dolphins, thick as flies, out in the surf. They were everywhere! Lots of times a dolphin would come up right beside a floating cormorant. There were pairs and even triplets of dolphins. Mothers and babies, I guessed. I wonder if dolphins have a Father’s Day?

Anyway, I went up to the condo to try to stir the girls, to let them know about all the wonders out here. No good. Too sleepy. I went back down and just stood in the surf. Little pops were still happening all around. And then it happened. A loggerhead sea turtle stuck its whole head out of the water, not 20 feet from me, and stared me down. I literally gasped, my jaw dropping open and my hands flying to my face.

It’s Sunday, and of course all over the country people are having their moments of Sunday morning religion. That was mine.

I saw a wild loggerhead sea turtle.

I stood and saw many, many more turtles (or maybe the same one many times, though there were at minimum two, since once two heads popped up at the same time). Those little pops? They were turtles! I’d been seeing them the whole time without knowing it. Sea turtles, wild and free and only a few feet from me. And that’s worth getting up for.

Vacation is a time to catch up on sleep. But I’m not sleeping. There’s just too much great stuff to do.

At the beginning of the spring I bought myself a used mountain bike. I used to ride 30, 40, 50 miles on a weekend before marriage and children came along. Now that the kids are a bit older, I’m finally able to ride again, a little bit, anyway. The mountain bike isn’t as zippy as my old road bike was (or maybe I’m just 15 years older.) But it feels great to ride again. This week I’m getting up early and riding. First just through the neighborhood, but then across the road, past an old pioneer cemetery called Clover Cemetery, and then to my new favorite place.

It’s not a lake. Maybe if you stretch you could call it a pond. It’s a U-shaped trough of water, around 20 feet across and maybe 150 feet along each arm of the U. I don’t know if it has a name, or even who owns it. It must have been built recently, because it doesn’t show up on Google Earth.

The gravel road that runs behind the cemetery comes right up to one corner of the U. That’s where I stop, climb off my bike, walk through a short field of clover, and then just watch.

There are lots of frogs, squeaking and diving into the water as I approach. There are turtles, poking their noses up as they paddle just below the surface. There are tiny minnows swimming among the leaves that cover the water’s surface.

Yesterday, as I watched, a fish jumped in front of me three times. It wasn’t a beautiful fish, silver and sparkling in the sunshine. Instead it was yellowish, a bit dull. I suspect carp, but I’m not sure. I didn’t expect anything that big in such a small body of water. I wonder how many more there might be?

Today, as I rode up, a turtle basking itself on a branch slipped into the water. The frogs, as they always do, went skipping over the surface at my approach. Then, off to the left, I saw a muskrat carrying cattails from the inner shore to the outer one. The muskrat swam back and forth several times before finally diving under the surface. Maybe it finally noticed me standing there, but I’m not sure.

I think I’ll call the place Cloverfield Pond. Who knows? Maybe a giant creature will emerge from it and devour the city. Or maybe I’ll just see the muskrat or the fish again.

It is sometimes surprising how shallowly you must scratch the Universe to uncover wonder.

Take an ordinary battery. I like the 6 volt batteries with the positive and negative terminals on the top, the kind they sell in sporting goods’ sections for those big flashlights.

Attach one wire with an alligator clip to the positive terminal of the battery, another alligator clip to the negative terminal. Attach the other ends of the wire to a light bulb.

You can buy all these supplies at Radio Shack for maybe $5. And yet, with this simple demonstration, you’ve revealed something amazing.

The light bulb lights up, because electrons from the negative terminal are able to jar electrons in the wire, eventually causing a huge number of electrons to flow through the bulb and cause it to light up. But here’s the catch. Electrons being pushed with 6 volts of electrical pressure shouldn’t be able to jump from the alligator clip to the terminal of the light bulb. Not even close. Yet they do jump. Why?

The reason is that electrons aren’t the tiny particles I always picture them as. At least, not always. In some circumstances, electrons act like waves.

Think of a bunch of electrons getting to the boundary between the alligator clip and the battery terminal. Even though the two surfaces are touching, corrosion and coatings on the surface make for an energy “hill” between the two, a hill that the electron has no chance of getting over.

But the electron isn’t only at the boundary. Because it also has wave properties, the electron is fuzzy, spread out. What, exactly, is spread out? That’s the most amazing thing! The spread out stuff is probability! The electron is probably still in the alligator clip somewhere, but it might just be in the light bulb terminal, on the other side of the hill!

This small probablilty translates to a small percentage of the electrons actually appearing on the other side of the hill, almost as if they are tunneling right through to the other side. Scientists call it quantum tunneling. But the electron hasn’t really tunneled through anything. Actually, it simply appears on the other side of the hill, without ever being in between.

Every electron has this property. And since matter is made of electrons (and protons and neutrons, but they have the same qualities), that means everything, including you, have this property of fuzziness. You are a probability wave.

All that, just from hooking up a light bulb and a battery. Wonder is everywhere!

I was watching a Richard Dawkins video (The Genius of Charles Darwin) with both my daughters. Dawkins was discussing evidence for evolution and was talking with an eye expert. Thinking I knew what was coming, I stopped the DVD and had my daughters discover their own blind spots by closing one eye, then extending their fingers and staring at the finger opposite the open eye while moving the other finger closer. Eventually the moving finger passes into the blind spot and seems to disappear. I explained that this happens because our retinas are actually backward, yet our brains are able to fill in the missing piece of our visual field.

Then I turned on the DVD again and Dawkins went through the same experiment, explaining that this was very good evidence that the eye evolved.

More than an argument for evolution, what I hope my daughters get from that is that the simplest experiments you can do yourself really can open you up to the deepest and most amazing scientific ideas.

It was a good day.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
June 2010
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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