A Turtle on a Tall Mountain

A couple of summers ago, I was trapping flying squirrels in the North Carolina mountains.  It was a normal day at work and I was mostly concerned with the squirrel trapping grid we had laid out atop Roan Mountain.  That was until we found a turtle.

The unassuming box turtle found atop Roan Mountain.

Box turtles are docile, adorable, and make for great photo ops, but rather than gather it up for some Instagram-worthy pics, we only looked at it, confused.  This turtle was hanging out in the middle of a spruce-fir forest 1,875 meters above sea level.

Let me put this in perspective.  Roan Mountain is one of the tallest mountains in North Carolina.  It reaches so high that many wildlife species common across North Carolina don’t dare venture to the peaks of the Roan Highlands.  Ticks are unheard of there, a unique scenario for anyone working summer months outside in the southeastern U.S.  When North Carolina experienced a massive heat wave that summer, the squirrel team switched from long-sleeved t-shirts to short-sleeved for a couple of weeks.  The temperatures are cooler and the forests different on a peak as tall as Roan’s.

When we found this turtle on Roan Mountain, we were simply stupefied.  We didn’t think box turtles as a species existed at such heights, but there it was—a turtle, on a tall mountain.  It offered no apology or explanation, so like any good scientist, we did some digging later that day and discovered what we already suspected—box turtles had never been recorded at such a high elevation in the southern Appalachians.  This turtle was a maximum elevation record.  This turtle was noteworthy.

This morning I am preparing to step into a highly-publicized movement and declare my love for science to the world.  I am participating in the March for Science in Columbia, Missouri.  This public space is not commonly occupied by scientists.  It is true that science has had its moments, but we largely stay out of sight, fueled by our own curiosity.  We sit in our labs and offices running experiments, recording data, and writing papers.  But, this movement has been brewing for months and unlike a quiet turtle on a tall mountain, we are stampeding into this unexpected space, unified and loud.

I anticipate today will be easy.  I am marching with friends and fellow scientists and we will be surrounded by smiling faces who support the work we do.  After the march, we will discuss our research with the science-loving public at a local festival.  But then what?  Are the ears on Capitol Hill listening?  Are climate change deniers opening their minds to real scientific evidence?  Are we really making strides in how the public perceives science?

Today is not a challenge.  Today we collectively throw ourselves into the public eye, a space where we aren’t expected.  Where we go from there is the challenge.  Perhaps we scientists belong in everyday life the way a box turtle belongs in a spruce-fir forest on top of a mountain.  It’s unexpected, not wrong.  So here’s my suggestion: don’t leave this public space we’ve come crashing into.  Stay visible.  Keep talking about your work, keep putting it out there in a way that anybody can digest.  And don’t apologize about being in that space.  Don’t offer an explanation.  Be present in that space until it’s expected.  Be noteworthy.  Be a turtle on a tall mountain.

You.

Read the turtle note here.

Advertisements