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Charney/My Turn: Strengthening keystones

“I’m a turtle grazer,” she says, introducing herself to the small audience who has come to learn about gopher turtles. Her audience titters. “Really,” she says, “that is my title. ”

Turtle grazers carry their 10-pound charges to a designated area to absorb sunlight, investigate the grasses, socialize with other turtles and NOT escape. It’s part of their rehabilitation process before a safe release, after shell or limbs, tops or bottoms have mended, a process that can take six months or more, multiple surgeries, special diets and finally — turtle grazing. “Gopher turtles can move fast, believe me,” our guide informs, “so no reading, listening to iPods or chatting with other turtle grazers. It’s a full-time watch and record duty.” Our turtle grazer had recorded yawns, nuzzling, wrestling, flops and up-righting moves. “These are keystone creatures imperative to our fragile southern Florida environment,” she adds with a note of solemn pride. Their special contribution is to dig deep holes, nine feet or more that provide critical shelters for other turtles, snakes, or mammals. These are survival shelters from heat, cold or forest fires.

Keystone. I look it up. The dictionary defines a keystone as “the wedge-shaped piece at the crown of an arch that locks the other pieces in place.” Keystone species. Without the gopher turtles, many other creatures would perish. In Florida, there are now elaborate efforts to protect and rehabilitate these turtles from the damaging impact of people and their fast-moving cars.

I learned a lot more about keystones as a visitor to a Florida wildlife refuge. Oysters are also considered a keystone species. They filter five gallons of water an hour, 60 gallons a day, by sucking up impurities and returning clean water back into the bays and estuaries of the Gulf. And the mangrove forests that inhabit these coastal lands, they are a big time keystone. These amazing trees sink their tangles of roots into loose soil of the saltwater tidal basins. They desalinate and purify, soaking up salt and excreting it into leaves. Mangroves provide nurseries for hundreds of species of marine life and they are storm buffers, reducing the fury of 100 mph winds and moderating ocean surges. Without the mangroves, the land, the waterways, the sea creatures are imperiled.

Thinking of keystones reminded me of an amazing performance I watched on a You Tube video called “Woman with a Feather” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KVPA). A dancer creates, with slow grace and concentration, a rotating mobile made of 6-foot-long curved bows and a single, delicate feather, piece by piece, floor to sky. Suddenly — and truly this is not a spoilers alert — she plucks the single feather from its midst and this splendid construction falls apart. The feather, her keystone.

The dancer’s balancing act has been recorded. The turtle grazer must stay vigilant as she watches over her maimed turtles. The Gulf, so recently saturated with oil, undergoes an arduous recovery and more mangrove forests continue to be cut down by greedy developers. Much has been lost. Much more will be lost if we do not protect our keystones.

Each of us, too, must struggle in our own way to perform our own balancing acts within families and friendships, work and community. Which brings me to community, to ours as well as the one I visit in Florida. In this particular Florida community, the city incorporated in order to grow its refuge — 70 percent now in protected status — for fishing and hunting, for visitors and posterity, for gopher turtles and nesting ospreys, for alligators, manatees and brown pelicans, for kayak adventurers and shell seekers.

And what about our community in western Mass., with its clean rivers and crisp air, hills and trails, local markets, local foods, its particular welcome to home and place? We have our grace of doing business with personal greetings and the relief of not always having to show six IDs if you have to write a check.

Our community network is a kind of keystone — our Town Council, our mayor, our citizenship, our participatory democracy. It’s too fragile an ecosystem to take for granted, too important to pollute with personal insult and attacks. To protect our wetlands and woodlands, our owls and bobolinks, this network must hold, but also our good will and common cause. The feather of our humanity hangs in the balance.

Ruth Charney lives in Greenfield.

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