In the heart of a big city like Tokyo the cliche says that nature exists as but an afterthought. For such hulking carbon-units as us humans that may well seem like the case, but all it takes is a slowing of pace and a pair of good eyes to see that the world around us, all of it, IS nature; we just have to learn how to see.
At the start of August, one cloudy day, in the midst of my summer-long hiatus from work, I decided one day to walk to the nearby Noh River and see what I could see. When I reached the banks I found myself slowly down to a crawl, barely moving along. These photographs are the result of nearly four hours stepping through the riverside grasses and bushes along a distance of only about 100 meters. What I actually saw far outnumbered what I captured in the camera. With the wind and light many of the pictures were either impossible to get, or else would have been uninteresting. If I had stayed longer no doubt I would have seen a lot more.
(What you see on-screen may look like washed-out photographs. The actual versions have much greater contrast, tone, and saturation. If you are using an LED screen you may want to tilt it back a little to allow more contrast and a darker image to show. The difference can really make the photos stand out.)
Pepe, our seven-year-old Red-Eared Slider, has been living with us since we first moved back to Tokyo. I found him (and his former sister Isabella, who died several months later) in a dirty tray at the side of a local pet shop near where I work. The tray had been heaped with baby turtles, half of them dead, and I was so taken aback by the apathetic treatment of the little creatures (Japan has a truly abominable record when it comes to the treatment of animals… you can go into any pet shop here and find endangered species curled up in cages… I once saw a fennec fox sleeping in a tiny cage. Needless-to-say visiting Japanese pet shops is so distressing that I avoid them whenever possible) that I decided there and then, without much thought for the consequences, to save at least two of the babies before they could die, too.
I hadn’t known that Isabella was sick, and the months that followed we watched her die a slow, labored death as her breathing faltered and froth constantly poured from her nostrils. We couldn’t find a veterinarian anywhere who would handle reptiles and so the only recourse I had was to seek help from the then very spotty Internet, through the help of reptile-lover, and expert, Melissa Kaplan. There wasn’t much that we could do, except to make Isabella’s last days as comfortable as possible.
Pepe survived, however, and graces our living room to this day. He’s put on weight. When you pick him up he feels like a large round stone, more than 20 centimeters long. He spends his days basking on the rock in the aquarium, chowing down on turtle pellets, cabbage, white shrimp, and the occasional slice of banana, and, of course, hours and days and weeks endlessly sleeping. Turtles have the basics of life down to an art and use no more energy than is necessary. I’m always amazed that with virtually no exercise Pepe puts my weight-lifting skills to shame, and when the mood strikes him he can react like lightning.
Since I spend my days working at home I’ve often had time to sit and observe him and learn bit by bit the nature of turtles and how they might perceive the world. I never knew, for instance, that when turtles move about in the water they constantly drink the water, tasting it, and since turtles are air-breathers, they can’t use smell underwater as a sense, and so seem to have evolved taste as an alternative way of locating food and making their way through murky water.
I always thought, too, that reptiles, being cold-blooded, don’t carry their own body warmth, but in winter, when Pepe sidles up against the aquarium pane, the glass fogs up with his exhaled breath and a white jet billows out just like someone drinking a cup of hot coffee.
So you’d think that with seven years of watching him I would be pretty up on his identity. After all he sits there staring back at me day in and day out, no matter the weather. So what a surprise when I looked in the aquarium the other day and spotted a white lump deposited on the back side of Pepe’s sunning rock. I poked it and discovered that it was soft, like the plastic outside of a mayonnaise tube. It was round, like a mushroom. I picked up the object and nearly dropped it. It was a turtle egg!
“How the heck…?” I said to myself. I looked back at Pepe and just stared. “Pepe, you’re a she? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Pepe said nothing, of course. She’d been vindicated, finally, after all this time of my calling her a him.
“But how did you…?” Yes, lay an egg. I mean, as far as I know Pepe had had no nightly trysts at all in the aquarium-bound existence she’d been subject to all this time. I know that Red-Eared Sliders can only mate once they reach a certain size and that sexual maturity is not determined by age, but by size (also, in general, Red-eared Sliders’ sex is determined, while they are still egg-bound, by the temperature the eggs are reared in: cooler temperatures produce males, and warmer temperatures produce females. Many paleontologists believe that the demise of the great dinosaurs might have come about because the cooler temperatures brought about by a large meteor hitting the earth might have produced too many males and not enough females), so it is highly unlikely that Pepe could have had her eggs fertilized while in that filthy tray in the store.
Later someone educated me about females producing unfertilized eggs, including the revelation that the chicken eggs that I buy in the store are all unfertilized eggs. Shows you just how out of touch with my own food sources I am!
I like to pride myself on my knowledge about animals, but then people like Pepe come around and remind me of just how many surprises I am apt to encounter in even just one representative of a single species. I could probably watch that immobile little shell of a turtle and learn something new every day if I looked hard enough. It’s sometimes easy to overlook the familiar and assume I know more than I do.
No matter how much I know or don’t know, however, Pepe’s clear and earnest eyes will continue to grab me from across the room and have me gazing back. There is a lot of wisdom in there. I guess it’s never a good idea to assume you know what someone else is thinking.
For the first time in months the air was warm enough to go out in just a T-shirt. If I lifted my nose I could smell the perfume of flowers in the wind. Gray starlings, rufous turtle doves, and brown-eared bulbuls filled the still-bare branches of the trees and the rooftops with their chortling and cries, all getting ready for the hunkering down of spring. Grass lizards poked out of the cracks in the garden wall to sun themselves and a lone sulphur butterfly fluttered past the back door and nosed through the organic clutter of my unkempt garden, amidst the only greenery in the immediate neighborhood. The first hint of warmer months to come was getting off to a good start.
With my diabetes acting up lately, making me feel more exhausted than usual, I opted out of my usual 10 kilometer run, and decided instead to go for a long-overdue stroll with my camera. I packed a shoulder bag with sketchbook, extra pens, my pocket notebook, a telephoto lens, a pair of binoculars, and a chocolate bar for low blood sugar emergencies. The excursion had no particular itinerary; I just wanted to get out to stretch my legs and have a looksee. Like the birds the warm wind was making me anxious to get outside and explore.
Any direction would have been fine, but almost without thinking I found myself beside the Noh River. For four years now I’d been watching its changing character, always heavily impacted by the combined encroaching of the apartment buildings and human population along its crowded and concrete-contained banks. I passed this way more out of necessity than for any abundance of natural things in the water and riverbed.
The water ran ankle deep as it does most of the year, a bare trickle. Flocks of spot-billed ducks and mallard ducks paddled in the deeper pools, keeping eyes out for people tossing bread crumbs. The smaller pintailed ducks that had wintered among the other ducks since last November had taken off for parts north, in the more comfortable climes of Siberia and Kamchatka. The vast winter flocks of the gray starlings had recently begun to break up into the smaller mating groups. Dusky thrushes still dashed along the grassy banks, though within a week or so they, too, would set off for the north. American painted slider turtles, pets that had been released from captivity after they had grown too big for their caretakers, basked on stones at the river’s edge, and huge gray carps patrolled the murky brown riverbed, lazily muscling among the dozing duck flocks.
My whole morning had been spent in front of the computer so it took a while for my eyes to adjust to noticing potential photographs. For the first part of the walk I mostly just drank in the fresh air. Other pedestrians, many of them sneezing incessantly from the clouds of cedar pollen that yearly invades Tokyo from the surrounding mountains, jogged and quick-walked along the footpath along the river, so I descended to the trail along the riverbank itself and waded through old dried stands of reeds. My shoes caught in the stiff bracken, sometimes tripping me up, but it was quiet here and I could stop with less self-consciousness to examine the tiny flowers and the fritillary butterflies that flashed their colors here and there.
I got so caught up in kneeling into the grass to take photographs of tiny, violet flowers, that I lost track of time. Before I knew it I had wandered a little further than I had intended and had to hurry to get back home in time to get ready for my evening job. I clambered back up to the paved footpath above and upped the pace. A chilly wind had stirred up and clouds began to close in from the west.
I was nearing the last section of the river before I had to turn away and head to my apartment when I noticed two jungle crows… the huge, raven-sized crows that have taken over Tokyo… harassing a lone, female spot-billed duck in the water. Oddly the duck refused to budge and instead sat huddled right inside the flowing water. The crows pecked at it and attempted to pull away feathers. The duck swiveled its head in weak attempts to drive off the crows, but other than that it didn’t attempt to get away.
Concerned I backtracked to the nearest emergency stairway, descended back to the river bank, and made my way over to where the duck lay two meters from the edge of the river. It was too far to reach. The duck made no attempt to flee, though normally spot-billed ducks always put at least five meters distance between themselves and me. The crows flew off to the treetops overlooking the river, joining a group of other crows peering down.
I squatted by the riverside, watching the duck and trying to figure out what I could do. She was obviously very weak; her head swayed unsteadily and when I moved she worked her bill in a silent mime of quacking, no sound coming out. Occasionally she shook her head as if trying to clear her vision or concentrate, but then she would drift off again into listlessness. I thought perhaps the white plastic bag that had wrapped around her tail feathers might be the culprit for her predicament, but the water moved it away somewhat and I realized that the duck must be sick or badly injured.
Just then the air above me erupted with the racket of a hundred or more crows cawing at me and at one another. I looked up and saw the air above the opposite bank of the river and above my head swarming with the black wings of crows. For a split second it felt as if it were me they were after and whose name they were calling. I glanced back down at the duck and a great sadness filled me. She watched me unsteadily, silently quacking at me to back away.
I didn’t know what to do. There is no animal rescue that I have ever heard of in Japan that could have been called for just this situation. Just to go home and seek the information would have taken so much time that when I got back the crows would already have done their job. I contemplated swathing the duck in my windbreaker and bringing her home, but I knew nothing about caring for a wild duck. And what if she were sick? I evaluated the water, only ankle deep, thinking that it would be so easy to just take off my shoes and wade barefoot into the water to retrieve her, but I didn’t budge. I glanced at my watch and realized that I had no more time to waste here; I had to get home and get ready for work. So I stood up and backed away from the edge of the water. Then I thought, I must do something to remember the situation and how I felt. Drawing out my camera I knelt along the bank and took two shots of the duck. She quacked at me silently.
I walked back up the emergency stairs to the promenade above.
Looking back up at the crows I justified my actions by telling myself that the crows were doing their job just as they were meant to. The duck would be dead by the next morning, her bones picked clean. The duck was too weak to survive much longer and hopefully the crows would play their role quickly. I headed home, glancing back only once. In the glare of the evening sun reflected on the surface of the river I could make out her silhouette, alone and waiting. I wasn’t there to help, and neither were her flock mates. The whole world had abandoned her.
Except the crows. They waited in the treetops as the wind picked up. Waited and cawed and watched me walk away.