One of the many pleasures of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, which follow through 20.5 volumes the Napoleonic-era adventures of British Royal Navy Caption Jack Aubrey and his surgeon/spy/naturalist Stephen Maturin, are the closely observed and imagined encounters with wildlife. O’Brian, being the masterful novelist he is, never just shows us the wildlife; we see that clearly enough, but we also learn, always, something additional about whatever character is doing the watching. Usually naturalist Maturin gets that job. Here it’s Captain Jack Aubrey, whose combination of chivalry, sexual interest, and naivete both sharpen his eye and add an extra layer of pleasure — without dimming the clarity of what we see.
On a walk of this kind in the Mediterranean islands he usually saw tortoises, which he did not dislike at all — far from it — but they seemed rare on Gozo, and it was not until he had been going for some time that he heard a curious tock-tock-tock and saw a small one running, positively running across the road, perched high on its legs; it was being pursued by a larger tortoise, who, catching it up, butted it three times in quick succession: it was the clap of the shells that produced the tock-tock-tock. ‘Tyranny,’ said Jack, meaning to intervene: but either the last blows had subdued the smaller tortoise — a female — or she felt that she had shown all the reluctance that was called for; in any case she stopped. The male covered her, and maintaining himself precariously on her domed back with his ancient folded leathery legs he raised his face to the sun, stretched up his neck, opened his mouth wide and uttered the strangest dying cry.
‘Bless me, said Jack, ‘I had no notion…’
This is the sort of thing you can do when you’re writing 3000 pages.
From Patrick O’Brian, Treason’s Harbor, p 52.