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Opinion: Progress can be a turtle

Chonkasaurus the snapping turtle rests on a pile of rusty chains along the Chicago River.
Joey Santore
Chonkasaurus the snapping turtle rests on a pile of rusty chains along the Chicago River.

Stars can be glimpsed in such unexpected places.

Chonkasaurus was at rest on a pile of rotting river pylons and rusty chains along the Chicago River just below Division Street early last weekend when Joey Santore and Al Scorch captured their image on video.

"Look at the size of that effing thing," Joey Santore announced, and he didn't say effing.

"Oh my God, it's a massive turtle. Is that a snapper? He's a snapper, " Al Scorch added, civic pride suffusing his voice. "It's a Chicago River snapper!"

The video they posted on YouTube, in which they dub the snapper Chonkosaurus, has reached hundreds of thousands of viewers, including me, who have shortened the turtle's name to Chonk. There's even merch — T-shirts and sweatshirts — emblazoned with Chonk's sturdy frame.

The turtle looks broad and strong, as if embodying the spirit of the concrete city that booms above their river perch. Snapping turtles can weigh up to 75 pounds, and Chonk's steady girth seems to be part of what has endeared them to so many.

Think of Chonk as being in rhyme with Carl Sandburg's poem, "Chicago":

"Stormy, husky, brawling,
Turtle of the Big Shoulders."

Put a Chicago Bears jersey on Chonk, and they could be a middle linebacker.

In times beset with much dispiriting news, there's something encouraging in Chonk's robust appearance on a bed of rusted chains. The Chicago River was an industrial dumping ground for decades; it caught on fire several times. Fires, you may recall, have an especially harrowing history in Chicago.

But 70% of the water in the river now comes directly from wastewater treatment plants. Officials still don't recommend you take a river swim. But Margaret Frisbie of Friends of the Chicago River, who organize groups to pick up litter and help look after wildlife, says the river is the cleanest today that it's been in 150 years.

Joey Santore tweeted when he posted his video of Chonk, "Great to see this beast thriving here on what was once such a toxic river, but is slowly getting cleaned up and restored."

If you ever despair about the possibility of progress, you might want to think of Chonk the Snapper, flopped out and sunning on a berth of greenish, old pylons as boats pull past, and the city rises around them. A river, once described as "a wave of poo," is now healthy enough to be a home.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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