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The "Swampwalker"

The "Swampwalker"Tufts graduate David Carroll’s lifelong passion for turtles has earned him both personal and professional satisfaction, but he sees disappearing wetlands as a growing cause for concern.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [02.26.07] David Carroll’s lasting interest in turtles began when he was eight years old. Decades later, the author, artist and naturalist has turned his affinity for swamp creatures—turtles in particular—into a career that has brought him personal and professional satisfaction. But disappearing wetlands are jeopardizing both Carroll’s livelihood and the animals he loves.

“I’m writing elegies to turtles and to places,” Carroll, who earned a degree in fine arts from Tufts University in 1965, recently told WBUR’s Here and Now. “And that’s getting increasingly more difficult for me.”

Nicknamed the “Swampwalker,” Carroll has chronicled the lives of turtles and other swamp creatures since his days in grade school.

“When it comes to turtles, no one with two feet comes closer to the clan,” WBUR’s Here and Now recently reported. “He has been undeterred by mosquitoes, blackflies, brambles, brush and big holes into which he’s occasionally sunk up to his neck in waders. He’s played Homer to the Odyssey of turtles, traveling ponds, marshes, brooks, bogs, swamps and mud. Of wood turtles alone, he’s chronicled the lives of 250.”

To get his stories and sketches, Carroll has gone to great lengths, following his subjects into their natural habitats to observe their actions. According to the news program, he has “detailed [turtles’] life histories and ecology in exquisite narrative, rich watercolors and finely drawn pen and ink.” The fruits of his labor are three natural histories: “The Year of the Turtle,” “Trout Reflections” and “Swampwalker's Journal” (known as “The Wet Sneaker Trilogy”). He has also published an acclaimed memoir, “Self Portrait with Turtles.”

But Carroll’s chosen profession never made it easy for him to make a living. WBUR reported that he and his family spent many years struggling to make ends meet. That all changed when he received a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation last fall informing him that he had won a prestigious, $500,000 “Genius Grant” for his work involving turtles.

“The McArthur jury decided ‘Swampwalker’ has the eye of an artist, the mind of a scientist, the voice of a great storyteller and the soul of a conservationist,” Here and Now reported.

Carroll was thrilled by the honor.

“It’s kind of a victory for the mud people,” Carroll told the news program. “I have gone from somebody who thought, ‘Well, this work will probably be worth more after I’m gone’ to now thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m suddenly worth money alive.’”

But that victory was bittersweet for Carroll, who told Here and Now that he is increasingly concerned over the continued disappearance of wetlands. He has been watching the turtle’s natural habitat shrink for decades; in fact, he came to New Hampshire 37 years ago after the wetlands in southern New England were developed out of existence.

“I’ve had to migrate north as I found out my beloved turtle places were … either marginalized out of ecological meaning or downright paved and disappeared entirely,” he told Here and Now. “Then I discovered these incredible wetlands [in New Hampshire], but I see all those signs of problems occurring again. I bought myself maybe a third of a century by coming here.”

In New Hampshire, he also fears that conservationists who seek to provide public access to wetlands may actually be doing more harm than good.

“They just absolutely riddle [a place] with trails, maps [and] signs, [and] bring the world in,” Carroll told Here and Now. “And they say this is a wonderful wildlife habitat, we have sensitive species here.”

That’s not the way to protect wildlife, Carroll cautioned.

“It’s not going to work,” he told the news program, noting that he’s been involved in some of these efforts in the past. “Some people congratulate me, and they don’t understand that I actually feel a loss.”

According to Here and Now, Carroll has earned the right to his opinion.

“When you become artist, poet, ‘Swampwalker’ and MacArthur genius, you can preach and paint for those you love most,” the news program reported.


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