Ozark Bestiary – Moving Islands

Other Names: grassy backs; moss turtles

Habitat: lakes; swampy areas

Diet: fish; small mammals

Appearance: Often on cool mornings in summertime, a fisherman will step out onto a wide patch of marshy plants and rocks, only to have the spot give way, plunging him into the murky waters. These are the Moving Islands, as they are most often called here in the Ozarks. They are ancient turtle-like creatures, so slow in their movement through the water that they collect plants, rocks, and often animal life that use their shells as small ecosystems of their own. There’s no knowing how long the creatures live, as no one has ever found one dead. I’ve seen them from as small as a lily-pad, to as big as boat, and I reckon they grow well beyond that in areas where they are least disturbed.

Behavior: Because of their incredibly slow pace, the Moving Islands are most often ignored until an unknowing passerby steps out onto their shell, whereupon they will plunge themselves downward in order to escape. This also, sadly, disturbs the shell ecosystem, often beyond repair. I estimate it must be like the sinking of Atlantis for the unsuspecting insects and other attached creatures. At first I could only guess how these creatures fed themselves. I thought for a moment that they might absorb nutrients via the plants growing out of their shells, but then I had the opportunity to watch one through clear, still water. The Moving Islands are of course no hunters, but I was happily surprised to watch as one specimen slowly opened its mouth under the water, posing as a rock crevice, and just patiently waited until an unlucky fish swam into its gullet.

Interactions: These creatures are peaceful sorts, who only cause harm to others as a result of protecting themselves. Moving Islands subsist on a diet of mostly fish, of varying sizes, and the occasional small mammal who unknowingly takes refuge inside of the beast’s mouth. More often, the Moving Islands are themselves the victim of violence, usually at the hand of speeding motor boats and construction crews.

Tall Tales: While there are many stories about hillfolk encountering Moving Islands, especially fishermen, and about the unexpected lessons in swimming that so often occur as a result of these encounters, perhaps the most famous legend is about the Blue Jay Campground. As it goes, there was once a popular camping area out on Blue Jay Island, near Red Bluff, on Beaver Lake. It wasn’t a big area, but during the summer could hold around fifteen or twenty tents, and was usually always packed with campers when the weather was nice. Well, one July, the island was full of folks having a good time. A couple youngsters had brought along some fireworks, illegal to set off on the island, but everyone decided to turn a blind eye and just enjoy the show. So, as night fell, the boys and a few adults set up the biggest display you’d ever saw, and as soon as it got dark they lit the fuses and ran for cover. The show was a spectacle of light and thunder, and some of the folks watching could even swear the sandy ground itself was moving from the force of the blasts. As the show ended, and folks were a-clapping and a-hollering, someone shouted that the water was rising around the island. Panic struck as the campers hurriedly packed up their belongings and headed to the few boats that stayed on the island in case of emergencies. Of course, they weren’t enough to hold everyone, so most had to take their chances swimming to safety. By morning the island had completely sunk underneath the lake, and the folks just watched on from the Red Bluff shore, stupefied, as their belongings were carried away with the current. Some said there was some seismic activity under the lake that must have collapsed a bunch of sinkholes, leading to the island being swallowed up whole. The thing about that was, no one in the area around the lake felt anything. It was only years later, when Blue Jay Island popped back up out of the water, that folks suspected some ancient creature, in particular one of the Moving Islands, was to blame.

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