Saturday, October 02, 2010

Deadly Nightshift

We had to return home from Emerald Isle, North Carolina before hatching time -- so we missed this year's march of the sea turtles.

The potential incubation site was at the foot of the sand dunes, about twenty feet east of the weathered wooden stairway that leads down to the beach from the condominium complex at which Mars and I spent two warm, sunny weeks.

The area was demarcated by one strand of yellow plastic crime scene tape wrapped around four firmly planted wooden sticks. A nearby sign attached to a yellow plastic pillar by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Sea Turtle Protection Program told the reader "Because sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act, it is unlawful to harass, harm, capture, or collect sea turtle eggs and live or dead hatchlings, juveniles, and adults. Violators can be prosecuted under civil and criminal laws and assessed heavy penalties."

One of the permanent residents at the complex of buildings told us that the eggs were scheduled to hatch between 50 and 60 days after being laid. The birth rate can be anywhere from one to one hundred. It being the 53rd day when we were being told this, volunteer "nest sitters" would soon begin setting up nightly campouts at this location -probably that very evening.

They didn't. But the next day (Thursday) we checked at 7:00 p.m. and found a group of four barefooted women in shorts and tee shirts sitting in low-slung web beach chairs alongside a manmade foot high trench. They had scraped out the sand pathway in order to direct the newbies towards the ocean.
Frankly I was disappointed. I had hoped for more of a SWAT team look with dark uniforms, ski masks, forehead laser lamps, and night vision goggles.

And I was even more disheartened by the failure of the hatchlings to hatch. Apparently adhering to some schedule of their own, rather than our vacation dates, the little fellows failed to materialize during our stay. We visited the location every thirty minutes that evening - interrupted by a trip to the DQ for Blizzards and the season opener of "Bones -- but nada appeared. At around 9:30 the rescue team called it a night, and so did we.

On Friday we followed roughly the same schedule - minus the sundaes and choice of TV programming - and so did they.

The next day we left for home.

But while the amphibian beach fauna was not nocturnally appearing, the courtyard flora was - although it took me a while to catch on to what was happening.

Every morning at around 7:30 a.m. Mars and I walked over to an adjacent convenience market to get the daily newspaper. The grounds of the condo are landscaped with a mixture of southern perennials and annuals along the pathways between the units, and a combination of prickly pear cactus and white trumpet-shaped flowers on squash-like vines along the sides of the driving area.
A few evenings into our getaway I noticed that the large white flowers were still wide open well after dark. Then, one day around 10:00 a.m. I noticed that they were closed up.

Mars, who had observed all of this strange plant behavior days before, opined that they looked to be a form of Datura -- a shrubby annual plant that we had previously seen in New Mexico (along with the prickly pear cactus). It contains toxic or narcotic alkaloids and is used as an hallucinogen by some American Indian peoples.

Datura (aka Jimson Weed) would have been the actual drug of choice for Carlos Castaneda during his self-documented explorations of the spiritual world with the Yaqui mystic Don Juan in the late 60's and 70's. Castaneda's consistent misidentification of this narcotic plant as Peyote rather than Datura is often cited as evidence of the fictional nature of his entire metaphysical enterprise. Or maybe distorted memories are just another side effect of this all-natural narcotic. (

The Carolina species apparently was the dusk to dawn version of the plant -- sort of a "Deadly Nightshift".

When I got home I typed "white trumpet night flower" into Google.

"The Datura, or bush moon plant has six-inch or larger white trumpet flowers that open at night and remain open well into the following day... Keep in mind that all parts of this plant are poisonous."

Datura are a favorite of the "Night Gardening" movement -- the use of plants that either bloom exclusively at night, or are open during the day but do not release their scent until evening.

Perhaps Mars and I should have spent the time after dusk watching the trumpets unfurling rather than the terrapins not birthing. Or maybe we could have combined the two by smoking some of the former and visioning the latter. Who knew?

We did walk on the beach in the dark one morning at 6:00 a.m. We were under a full "Harvest Moon", but earth's natural satellite was too low in the sky at that hour to provide any meaningful illumination. The sun began appearing about fifteen minutes into our journey, slowly emerged from behind the horizon-level cloud cover and turned into the bright orange orb that we hoped we would see. Forty-five minutes later the shore was bathed in daylight and we returned to the condo. The turtles presumably were still sleeping and the Datura was probably beginning to turn in for the day.

We took our final trek on the beach on that last Friday afternoon around 2:30. The tide was the lowest it had been on any of our previous jaunts. And the sands were busier than prior days with the early influx of weekend vacationers. Several fishermen were tending lines cast out into the surf and we tried to be aware of them as we strolled between the anglers and the water.

We had become pretty adept at spotting the fishing string after two weeks of daily (sometimes twice/day) shoreline hikes. Usually we could see it emanating from the top of the fishing rod and, by squinting our eyes, follow its progress out to its point of intersection with our path. Occasionally we espied its entry point into the ocean and worked back from there. And once or twice we didn't see it at all until it suddenly loomed in front of us - inches away and rapidly approaching.

But this time we both simultaneously saw the seemingly disconnected middle section of one strand of floating filament, glistening in the sun, suspended over the sand. A moment in space and time untethered from its past and its future -- like a good vacation.

(Photos by Mars)

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