Dreams of Big Al
In the farm pond down the steep, grassy slope below the house, the farm-raised ducklings trailed obediently behind their mother as she passed from shore to shore. It was not much of a pond, more of a West Tisbury kettle hole scooped out of the marshy boundary between pastures.
Waste from the cattle pens drained into it, as did water from the more extensive marshes north across the large field. A sheltering cluster of beetlebung trees, a few locust and black cherry, and one overhanging oak sheltered the western side. Grass ran to the water's edge everywhere else around the circumference.
Springs fed the marshes, so the pond was never low, not even in the driest summers. But in the summer, algae bloomed thickly green across the surface so that swimming was out. In the winter, because it was low and protected all around, the pond formed ice that hardened and thickened quickly. Winters without skating were rare.
Those ducklings, or the farm's goslings for that matter, were lucky to get in one round trip behind their oblivious parents. One by one they disappeared. Seven today, six tomorrow, four next day. Mother kept pottering out and about, apparently marveling at how fast kids grow up and get out of the house these days.
Snapping turtles had got them all. Small as it was, this pond and two others on the rocky, wet, unfruitful 90 acres met the requirements of a small army of snapping turtles. The turtles did not confine themselves to polishing off the farmyard small fry. When a calf - in the old days, there were loads of them romping across the pastures in the spring, weighing 90 or 110 pounds at birth, big boned and all white - encountered a strolling turtle in a field, the youngster's curiosity would often be rewarded with a chomped nose, or worse, a badly lacerated foreleg.
Countermeasures for snapping turtles included fishing for them with rotting meat as bait on a big stainless steel hook, hauling the hooked turtle out of the water, and chopping off its head with an axe or machete. Finding one in the field led to the same end, though a stick thrust in the direction of the turtle's head was needed to get the neck to sufficiently extend.
The news that Gus Ben David will retire soon from Felix Neck reminded me of the story of the snapping turtle wars. Gus has become a TV evangelist on behalf of our non-human neighbors, in videos produced by Anne Lemenager and shown on MVTV. Gus's televised visits with birds and snakes and children are the most charming and instructive programming on the local access stations. Over the years, before his television debut, Gus introduced scores of young visitors to Felix Neck and its denizens. Youngsters were always happily prepared to get acquainted with whatever Gus was offering, including especially Big Al, the venerable Felix Neck showtime snapping turtle.
Big Al, distant relation to all those gosling-gulping, calf-nipping nuisances that made farm life bloodier than it ought to have been, was a marvelous, mildly intimidating, irresistibly exciting, and perhaps nightmare-inspiring, fellow creature to those kids. Kids expect the world to include hideously lingering prehistoric hangers-on, intriguing at one moment and capable of snapping the limbs off sturdy farm animals at the next. To kids, it's all part of the circus of life.
J. K. Rowling might very well have used Big Al, or a facsimile, to guard the Sorcerer's Stone. Harry would never have got by him. I wonder why children find the stories so compelling.
Richard Bernstein, writing in the New York Times, explained it. He invoked psychologist Bruno Bettelheim.
"In his classic study of children's literature, 'The Uses of Enchantment,' Bettelheim denigrated most children's books as mere entertainments, lacking in psychological meaning. The exception to this rule was fairy tales, to which Bettelheim attributed something close to magical power. 'More can be learned from them about the inner problems of human beings,' he wrote, 'and of the right solutions to their predicaments in any society than from any other type of story within a child's comprehension.'''
Bettelheim's view, according to Bernstein, is "that children live with greater terrors than most adults can understand, and fairy tales both give uncanny expression to that terror and show a way to a better future. The same can be said of the Harry Potter books….
"Ms. Rowling's books are not fairy tales in the conventional Grimm Brothers sense, and they are not as good either. They lack the primal, brutal terror of the Grimm stories, and it was the expression given to that terror that was at the heart of their emotional usefulness for Bettelheim…."
I suspect Big Al is precisely what Bettelheim had in mind.