“Why do you call it Turtle House, Dave?” When I am at the entrance to my complex, I can see it! The braai area pokes to the east as a head, and the gray tile roof arches over it all like a shell. Do other people see it? Not so much. This week, though, I am happy to unveil a special addition to my home that will clarify its identity!
This adventure started in September of 2016, just before I left for China. I had a lovely tree beside my driveway. It had plenty of charm, with gnarled roots, a dense network of twigs, and a leafy canopy that the birds adored. They loved the little berries from the tree, too, as evidenced by the splash pattern on my driveway. That tree, though, produced very invasive roots, and it had forced a ripple in the sidewalk that was a serious tripping hazard. Its next extension would push it under my garage wall, and my neighbor’s garage was also under threat. I bowed to practicalities and contacted the “body corporate” (the homeowners’ association). Within the month, the tree had been removed, and soon thereafter the bricks in my front walk had been reset after the removal of the root. Nice work, body corporate!
The problem, of course, was the sight that greeted me as I pulled into my driveway. I should explain that some members of my family feel the same way about trees that most people do about their cats and dogs. On one road trip I took when I was a kid, I distinctly remember my dad surreptitiously planting seedlings at a rest area. Sure, I had practical reasons why this tree had to go, but that stump made me feel guilty every time my eyes fell upon it.
Happily, my friend Philomene had a solution for me! She introduced me to Robin Hauptle, a young entrepreneur and artist who runs a succulent nursery called “Cape Cacti” in an area called Zeekoevlei (“Hippopotamus Marsh”). We started a good conversation about carving the stump into a turtle. We had a humorous misunderstanding when I sent him a photo of a yardstick against the stump since he thought the markings were centimeters rather than inches! I felt embarrassed that I didn’t even know what kind of tree it had been. Robin argued in favor of the Brazilian Pepper, while Natasha thought Chinaberry was much more likely. Robin soon sent me some carved turtle images he thought might be good prototypes, and he laid out a work plan that called for four full days to complete the work. I looked at the total quote, gulped a bit, and then said to myself, “this is art!” My feedback on the prototypes was that I wanted the turtle to be lifelike rather than cartoonish, and I did not want to scandalize my neighbors (some turtle statues are quite… well, suggestive). He also clarified that I meant a tortoise rather than a sea turtle. With those questions resolved, I agreed to start the project, paying one-quarter up front.
On December 14th, Robin drove up to Turtle House for his first day. The day was a complex one since I was writing a tutorial workshop from home and was also receiving Mango Cat from a friend at work; we hoped Mango would like Turtle House. Her first experience of it, though, was a bit noisy since the first stage of carving took place by electric chainsaw. Robin asked about turning the turtle’s head toward the driveway to reflect the shape of the stump, and I was content with that. Any worries I had about the project dissipated when Mango Cat arrived. She liked Robin just fine, and she came to visit him each time he came into the house for a short break. He knew just what to say to her, the sweet talker! By the end of the first day, the rough cut was complete, and the shape of a turtle had begun to emerge, with a head, shell, and even leg bulges emerging from the stump.
December in South Africa can be tremendously hot, and the 15th was no exception. We applied our imaginations to the task and built a complex canopy from my extension ladder, tarpaulins, some wires, and a bungee cord. Robin was applying some serious sweat equity in the project, applying chisels of various sizes and a heavy mallet. Jessie, a neighboring cat, came by the house to pay his respects to Mango (through the window), and he paused to eye the carving critically. By the end of the second day, the thick form of the turtle was evident, though I wondered if he would be cartoonish, after all.
Robin was next at the house on December 20th, and the carving had been transformed. The light, freshly carved wood in the earlier photos had reddened quite strongly, and an odd wet patch had emerged at the crest of the shell. At first, I thought a bird had perched atop the turtle for a while, but Robin explained that the stump was still getting water drawn into it from the earth, and the center of the stump was where those transport vessels (called xylem) were concentrated. The red color of the wood reflected that it was oxidizing after being exposed to the elements. I was pretty excited to see what this third day of carving would bring, and sure enough, Robin brought serious definition to the upper part of the shell (called the “carapace“), highlighting each intersection of “scutes” (which are made of keratin, like your fingernails). The edges of the shell became well-defined, and he began experimenting with the feet, as well.
On December 22nd, Robin began the fourth day of carving. Would the newest addition to Turtle House be complete in time for Christmas? Robin had left plenty of detailing for the fourth day, and the tortoise’s head and feet gained form relatively slowly. Robin explained that as the days go by, the amount of wood he was removing was falling rapidly. His smallest chisel was helping him to define the turtle’s face and legs. The finish of the shell was also looking quite a lot nicer as he sanded the wood. Even though day four finished without the completion of the tortoise, I felt really proud of how nicely he was shaping up.
As the silly season reached its peak, Robin and I each had responsibilities elsewhere, but he came quite close to finishing the project on December 28th. Because he had quoted me four days of work, he did not charge me for the added days! The photo above, from December 30th, shows the personable face that Robin created for the tortoise.
His final visit, on January 3rd, finished a bit of detail on a back leg. Robin then applied a boiled linseed oil concoction that will penetrate the wood and make it more resistant to water damage. I took a final photo of it the following morning after the linseed oil soaked into the wood overnight. My tortoise is nearly finished! The only remaining step requires time. This stump is still trying to supply water to the absent tree, and it must dry out. We will likely apply a chemical to forestall any further growth, as well. After a month or two, Robin will be back at Turtle House once again, this time to apply a varnish to the carving. Perhaps now my visitors will not need to ask why my home is Turtle House!