As We Seek Nature, We Wall It Out

Diane Ackerman in The New York Times:

Ackerman_img-popup Graced by beautiful rings and ridges on their shells, diamondbacks look like a field of galaxies on the move. They inhabit neither freshwater nor sea, but the brackish slurry of coastal marshes. Mating in the spring, they need to lay their eggs on land, so in June and July they migrate to the sandy dunes of Jamaica Bay. The shortest route leads straight across the tarmac at Kennedy International Airport. Never mess with a female ready to give birth. On June 29, more than 150 diamondback terrapins scuttled across Runway No. 4, delaying landings, halting takeoffs, foiling air traffic controllers, crippling timetables and snarling traffic for hours. Cold-blooded reptiles they may be, but they are also ardent and single-minded. Don’t the plucky turtles notice the jets? Probably not as monsters. Even with polka-dot necks stretched out, diamondbacks don’t peer up very high. And unlike, say, lions, they don’t have eyes that dart after fast-moving prey. So the jets probably blur into background — more of a blowy weather system than a threat. But planes generate a lot of heat, and the turtles surely find the crossing stressful.

Mounted on the shoreline of Jamaica Bay and a federally protected park, indeed almost surrounded by water, J.F.K. occupies land where wildlife abounds, and it’s no surprise that planes have collided with gulls, hawks, swans, geese, and osprey. Or that every summer there’s another turtle stampede, sometimes creating two-hour delays. People around the world became obsessed with the plight of the quixotic turtles, a drama biblical in its proportions (slow, sweater-necked Samsons vs. steely Goliaths). It defied reason that small reptiles would take on whirring leviathans whose gentlest tap may crush them and whose breath can blow them to kingdom come. Many people also felt a quiver of disquiet, of something elemental out of place. Supposedly, in our snug, walled-in cities, we’re keeping nature in check, growing docile plants, adopting pets and erecting a buffer of steel and cement. If wild turtles can find their way into suburbia, can larger animals be far behind, ones with fangs and teeth, whose red eyes pierce the night? The answer is yes; it happens more often than one supposes.

More here.