Wild Thing: The pleasures of green turtles and the kindness of sisters

Wild Thing is a monthly series where JHU Press authors write about the flora and fauna of the natural world—from the rarest flower to the most magnificent beast. 

Guest post by Alison Rieser

A tourist at Turtle Kraals Museum, Key West, Florida.

Judith M. Heimann, one of the people I interviewed for my newly released book, wrote in The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life that if you want your faith in humanity restored, you should write a book. Now that my book on the highly edible and endangered green turtle (Chelonia mydas) is finished I wholeheartedly agree. People you’ve never met help you a lot when you’re writing a book. Whoever said writing is lonely work should write their next book on sea turtles. My new friends include a maritime archaeologist who’d dug up thousands of green turtle bones beneath a former soup factory in Key West, Florida, the widow of a photographer who as a young man had hitched a ride on one of the last fishing schooners to catch green turtles on the fabled Miskito Bank, and the former students and grown children of the scientists who first classified the green sea turtle an endangered species.

Scientists drag a green turtle to the scales to be weighed in Costa Rica.

But I learned, too, that people are even kinder after your book comes out. Despite the gorgeous Maine summer outside my window, my family finds me most mornings bent over my laptop checking to see if any satisfied (or irate) customers posted reviews the night before. I was positively giddy when the first one appeared on August 1, followed by another (also 5 stars!), and then another. Who knew one’s fifteen seconds of fame could be such fun? When house guests and a daughter going off to college distracted me, my sister Jodie started checking for me. As a performance artist, she swelled with pride when I mentioned in the interview on NPR’s The Animal House—arranged for me by my publicist at the JHU Press, Robin Noonan—and crooned to me the 1930s love song in which Cole Porter asks, ‘Is it the good turtle soup or merely the mock?’ I was thrilled that WAMU-FM’s producer Steve Williams and his crew inserted a clip from the song and closed the interview with a hip-hop remix of Joni Mitchell’s refrain, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

As the green sea turtle now edges away from the brink of extinction and is poised for de-listing, I praise all, both living and lost, who worked so hard to save it. I give thanks to those who now love this noble creature, who allowed me to describe its conversion from food to friend, and to the strangers and the sister who helped me realize the pleasures of writing (and finishing) a book.

Alison Rieser is the author of The Case of the Green Turtle: An Uncensored History of a Conservation Icon. She lives in Newcastle, Maine and in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she teaches ocean policy at the University of Hawaii.