At this time of year in Vermont, every time you leave the house you see animal infants: little white lambs on the big meadow by the river; red or black-and-white calves on every farmyard; geese, ducks and wild turkeys stopping traffic with their retinues of adorable, fuzzy goslings, ducklings and poults (o.k., poults are not adorable). And I won\’t bore you with yet another description of the brain-melting cuteness of baby goats.
The little phoebes who just left the nest in our front porch were irresistible at the point when, fully feathered but not yet able to fly, they overflowed the nest like an out-of-control souffle. Last week I planted tomatoes in the company of a very young and naïve chipping sparrow, complete with its little orange cap, who kept fluttering among the vegetables and making vague “feed me” motions before finally disappearing under the broccoli.
But the hands-down winner in the 2009 spring baby cuteness contest is a painted turtle that I found on the ground a couple of days ago while pruning lilacs. It was the descendant of the painted turtles that, contrary to what is supposed to be their habit, move away from the pond in the woods and up the hill to cruise our yard and driveway. Where Wolfie finds them and, as I\’ve explained before, crunches through their shell and eats them.
It\’s a good thing I saw the turtlet before Wolfie did, because he would have swallowed it like a vitamin pill. The turtle was the size of a quarter, its carapace a polished reddish black. Its orange underside was decorated with a symmetrical black design in the center, like a shield. Around the edges of its top shell, near the rear, there was a thin line of bright-red piping.
I set it on the palm of my hand and it sat totally inert, like a flat river stone or an exotic nut, the way its mother had taught it to. But then, encouraged by the warmth, a front leg with tiny claws appeared, followed by another leg, and by a clever-looking head with shiny pin-prick eyes and thin red stripes, the same shade as the piping on the shell, running along its neck.
Everything–the shell, the legs, the little tail, the head– looked as if it had just been lacquered. Everything about it was new and bright and optimistic.
It took all my will power not to put the baby turtle in a box and give it a leaf of lettuce.
Instead, whispering endearments into its ear I carried it way off into the field and hid it in the tall grass, and kept Wolfie out of there the rest of the day.