In Maine, as in much of America, there are undeclared seasons. I do not mean hunting and fishing or the four we flip through, but quiet seasons, the sort locals know – seldom talk about. One is turtle crossing season – with an unspoken lesson for our time.
Undeclared seasons are like the silences between notes in a famous piece of music, always there but seldom mentioned. When was the last time you heard someone say they loved the silences in Handel’s Messiah, Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, or the 1812 Overture?
But ask yourself, would those pieces be more than run-on sentences without the melodious unspoken magic – of all those well-placed silences? Of course not.
Or think about how an uncelebrated prelude changes things. What would Sweet Home Alabama be without “one, two, three…” Half the Beatles songs without an unexpected first note? Does anyone talk about it? Or rest between sprints, sleep between days, on sunny days haze? No.
So in Maine, we have all sorts of undeclared seasons, antler-dropping late December to April, moose rutting – fighting and mating – late August to October. Add black fly, loon baby, leaf peeping, and tourist – none of which makes the national calendars.
All this is fine, the way different regions take turns awaiting, surviving, and celebrating all sorts of seasons, planting to harvest, worry for rain, running, skiing, and hurricane.
If these are not quite seasons, they are at least rituals. If not quite silences or preludes, they are a shift in tempo or pause, and behind each one is a cause. One such season is turtle crossing in Maine. It starts late spring, tapers early summer. You would be surprised what happens.
All of a sudden, when you least expect it, rounding some corner, topping a hill, driving for coffee or groceries just after sunup or right before sunset, even in black night, you may see a car pulled over, side of the road, lights flashing or maybe not – so be careful.
You will look around and nine times in ten, find some good Samaritan, a teenager who has no need to be cool – or fire or Gucci, picking up a painted, wood, or spotted turtle, maybe (with practice) a snapper behind the rear legs, careful not to let the longnecked critter snap him.
You might find an older lady or gentleman, well off the road, helping a rolling mudball or self-shuffling shoe get across the asphalt, picking up the turtle, speeding her on her way.
Her? Yes, her. The season, you see, is just a stretch when females search for the perfect spot to lay their eggs, invariably crossing roads to get to where only they know they are going.
If this sounds quirky and infrequent, it is neither. It is a ritual with method. These turtles – if taken too far off route – will almost always go back, cross where they were. They seem to know their digs, surroundings, where they are going.
The problem, as with many of us, is they are slow, and drivers can be impatient. Turtles are independent minded, go at their own speed, choose their own direction, and in this season are filled with resolve, all of which can get lost on fast-moving cars.
This is where something amazing happens. On Maine roads, more often than the reverse, you will see live turtles not dead, and people just stopped ahead, helping these loggerheads cross.
You will see grown men, living otherwise busy-and-do-not-bother-me lives stopped, pulled over with intent, reprioritizing things to help their slow-moving fellow Mainers complete the journey, to safely lay their eggs and get back to where they came from.
This is where the lesson appears. How curious, surprising, even mesmerizing – how strangely contenting and silently satisfying, oddly gratifying – to see someone you do not know, someone you would not expect, asking no credit to help a turtle, cutting the old leatherback some slack.
How funny, in a way, that people will stop – by the thousands – to do an animal a good deed, halt their rolling fortress to help a helpless tortoise. What does it tell you? What might it mean? What does the undeclared season suggest?
My guess, although it could be wrong, is that there is something inside us for which, in this impersonal world, we often long. The chance to do something simple and decent, not grand or glorious, not going to change any world but one – a little blessing, no sin, to help a terrapin.
Here is the silence between those notes, point of this piece, a question. If we can do this for a little, nameless, hard-shelled critter – and we can – why not more often for our fellow man?
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.