Friday, April 08, 2005


When I was a kid there was a low-lying vacant lot across from our house, mucky and smelling of skunk cabbage in the spring, and if you turned over the right kind of stone (and one quickly learned to judge the right dimensions and placement, not too high and dry but not too deep in the muck) there was a good chance that, along with the assorted beetles and sow bugs and ants, you would encounter a delicate, motionless little form beneath, dark brown with a red stripe down the back, four tiny, fingered limbs. If you touched one it would wriggle away in a half-hearted fashion, its movements more sluggish still if the weather was cold.

These were the ordinary red-backs, the only kind I ever found in that lot. Closer to the lake, in the sphagnum woods, you could turn up the diminutive red efts, faintly spotted down the back, which I knew were the terrestrial phase of drab green newts that must have swum in the lake, not that I ever saw them. And once a friend found a heftier creature, a marbled salamander or a tiger, not far from the same woods.

I never see salamanders where I live now. It's a little too dry, too built up, too close to town. And nothing calls attention to itself less than a salamander. Silent, defenseless, innocuous, the salamander leaves little impression of itself. It's neither dangerous nor delicious, and has so little weight in our folklore and popular culture that its usual name, at least in America, is lifted pedantically from ancient Greek (though “newt,” as well as “eft,” are from an obscure Anglo-Saxon root). No one imitates the salamander, or fears it, in fact nobody except for herpetologists thinks about it much at all. There is some vague lore about its ability to survive in fire (allegedly because it was seen crawling from burning logs), there is one excellent short story (Julio Cortázar's) about an axolotl, which is, however, a rather more garish creature altogether, and that's about it. No Muppet, I'm almost certain, is modelled on a salamander.

These being hard times for amphibians in general, perhaps salamanders are fated to vanish. Interestingly, their distribution neatly reflects the ancient boundaries of Laurasia: they can be found in North America, Asia, and Europe, but not in Australia, Africa, or South America. A little more development, a little more ozone, and good-bye. Chances are they would be little missed. Unlike frogs and toads, I have never heard great claims for their efficacy in destroying mosquitoes or other pests, nor do they seem to be a food species of choice for any more conspicuous species. Their charms are subtle and solitary, qualities that are — sadly — little valued now.

But maybe their one defense will protect them still. In the deep woods, snug under their stones and rotten logs, they will wait. Natural Taoists, they will never seek to dominate, they will always be willing to sacrifice a little more, will ask nothing, and perhaps they will prevail in the end. They will miss us, I think, a little.

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