Thoreau and the Snapping Turtle

I was struck by Wagoner’s “Thoreau and the Snapping Turtle” because I had just finished my series of essays on Thoreau and was, like most readers, struck by Thoreau’s sensitivity and deep commitment to Nature. In fact, it’s hard to think of the “nature movement” in modern America without thinking of Thoreau. I must admit that my simple admiration for Thoreau derived from my high school years had been somewhat diminished by Thoreau’s egotism and self-righteousness at several points in Walden Pond. Thus, Wagoner’s poem added even more to a more mature, critical view of Thoreau.

Although this isn’t my favorite David Wagoner poem, in some ways it seems to illustrate his genius more clearly than any other single poem as it combines his sharp insight into human nature with his deep sensitivity for nature:

Thoreau and the Snapping Turtle

[It] looked not merely repulsive, but to some extent terrible even as a crocodile… a very ugly and spiteful face.
-Thoreau, Journal, May 17, 1854

As his boat glided across a flooded meadow,
He saw beneath him under lily pads,
Brown as dead leaves in mud, a yard-long
Snapping turtle staring up through the water
At him, its shell as jagged as old bark.

He plunged his arm in after it to the shoulder,
Stretching and missing, but groping till he caught it
By the last ridge of its tail. Then he held on,
Hauled it over the gunwale, and flopped it writhing
Into the boat. It began gasping for air

Through a huge gray mouth, then suddenly
Heaved its hunchback upward, slammed the thwart
As quick as a spring trap and, thrusting its neck
Forward a foot at a lunge, snapped its beaked jaws
So violently, he only petted it once,

Then flinched away. And all the way to the landing
It hissed and struck, thumping the seat
Under him hard and loud as a stake-driver.
It was so heavy, he had to drag it home,
All thirty pounds of it, wrong side up by the tail.

His neighbors agreed it walked like an elephant,
lilting this way and that, its head held high,
A scarf of ragged skin at its throat. It would sag
Slowly to rest then, out of its element,
Unable to bear its weight in this new world.

Each time he turned it over, it tried to recover
By catching at the floor with its claws, by straining
The arch of its neck, by springing convulsively,
Tail coiling snakelike. But finally it slumped
On its spiky back like an exhausted dragon.
He said he’d seen a cutoff snapper’s head
That would still bite at anything held near it
As if the whole of its life were mechanical,
That a heart cut out of one had gone on beating
By itself like clockwork till the following morning.

And the next week he wrote: It is worth the while
To ask ourselves… Is our life innocent
Enough? Do we live inhumanely, toward man
Or beast, in thought or act? To be successful
And serene we must be at one with the universe.

The least conscious and needless injury
Inflicted on any creature is
To its extent a suicide. What peace-
Or life-can a murderer have?… White maple keys
Have begun to fall and float downstream like wings.

There are myriads of shad-flies fluttering
Over the dark still water under the hill.

The startling contrast between Wagoner’s objective description of the turtle’s capture and resulting demise and Thoreau’s idealistic entries in his journal the next week makes us re-examine not only Thoreau’s commitment to nature but also our own. Wagoner’s description is so matter-of-fact that we see the situation clearly, as if seen through the lens of the television camera. It’s only near the end of the description in lines like “as if the whole of its life were mechanical” and “That a heart cut out of one had gone on beating” that we begin to see how different Wagoner’s view of the episode is from Thoreau’s view. But Wagoner’s careful selection of lines from Thoreau’s journal makes it crystal clear that Wagoner sees through Thoreau’s hypocrisy, or at least Thoreau’s blindness to his own prejudices.

Lines like “Is our life innocent enough?” and “the least conscious and needless injury inflicted on any animal is to its extent a suicide” make it perfectly clear that in Thoreau’s mind the turtle was somehow exempt from these rules, though how he could have felt that way is hard to imagine.

In some ways, this poem reminds me of Carolyn Kizer’s “ The Ungrateful Garden” where the mother rejects the bat because it has lice. Or, more politically relevant, it follows the recent argument of several Republican legislators that it was perfectly acceptable to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because is “wasn’t even beautiful.”

When we are only capable of seeing the world from man’s viewpoint, we are apt to miss the miracle of life itself.