Kathleen Groll Connolly

The Unfortunate Tendencies of Salamanders

by Kathleen Groll Connolly

I helped take 19 Boy Scouts camping one weekend. A glamorous TV weather forecaster had predicted that the low pressure area on her map would stay north of our destination, and we wanted to believe her. But it was early June, and we were headed for the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

There is a good reason why our destination is named Mount Greylock. At 3,491 feet, it is the highest point in the state, and some have called it a bit of Canada in Massachusetts. So our party of 19 boys, five dads, and two moms was greeted by mountain weather that Friday night, which means intermittent heavy downpours, fog, and chill.

The youngest camper was 10 years old, the oldest 16, among them my own two sons. We adults deliberated next step, but while we tried to look as if we knew what to do, the boys discovered mud with so much excitement, you would have thought they'd been given the rest of the year off from school. Soon enough, there were 38 mucky shoes and, with 200 percent humidity in the atmosphere, 19 sweatshirts exuding the scent of a wet dog.

The weather certainly justified a retreat to a motel, but the boys weren't complaining. In fact, they seemed to be outright enjoying themselves. So, in between downpours, up went the tents—fancy new catalog tents and older green tents. They all sagged.

Out came the little pocket knives most of the boys carried—pocket knives in search of opportunities. Here, let me do it! they cried. It didn't matter whether the project was opening a giant package of dinner plates, whittling chips, hacking at logs, cutting duct tape, or preparing sticks for the nighttime marshmallow roast that was not meant to be. When the coast seemed clear, a spontaneous knife-throwing contest erupted, only to be ended by parental authority.

We had dry firewood in the SUVs and vans, but a new downpour ended hopes of a brief Friday-evening campfire and pushed everyone into shelters.

"We will fall asleep like the ancient people," declared our leader, a man who knows the attraction of boys to ritual. He added with a deep nod, "We will fall asleep when darkness falls."

As we prepared to go native, various high-powered, high-tech flashlights shone the way for bedtime runs to the forest bathroom.

That's when the kids made their big discovery: this place was awash in salamanders. Fast-moving, slimy, brick red amphibians were clinging to trees, rocks, leaves, and every other surface. A flashlight game broke out.

"There's one!"

"There's one!"

"Another one!"

Our dubious decision to stay looked smart, educational, you know—we were braving the elements for a unique experience you could only have in the rain.

While the kids reveled in amphibians, I retreated to a tent and hauled out my Peterson guidebook. Based on the pictures, these might be spring salamanders (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus). If so, it was one of the lungless salamanders that breathes through its skin and relies on moisture to stay alive.

Then I learned from the Audubon guide that, during nighttime downpours, spring salamanders "may emerge from under rocks and streamsides to forage for food, including other salamanders."

If so, we were witnessing no ordinary event. We had dropped in on the secret life of salamanders.

I went outside, hoping to share my findings with anyone who would listen, but the sounds of boys drowned me out.

Ewww…gross…slimy…cool.

I heard one of the fathers say, "Don't touch. They breathe through their skin."

"Ewwww…they breathe through their skin" was passed along like token in the darkness until a young voice, higher and more intense than the others, repeated, "Don't touch them. They breathe through their skin."

A moment later the same young voice repeated the line. I recognized it as Richard, a diligent sixth-grader who was always outside the crowd.

***

On Saturday morning the scoutmaster picked two 13-year-olds to bring wood from the cars and two more boys to build the fire. They went to work with enthusiasm, but the fire crackled weakly. Yellow birches and mountain ash sprinkled the previous night's raindrops on the forest floor and the fire. Weak coffee was served, pancakes were slowly fried, and the cleanup patrol sent to work.

As the rest of the troop idled, I watched two rascals steal away into a tent, in hope of escaping to play electronic games on battery-powered handhelds. One boy kept watch, peeking out from the tent flap guiltily, on the lookout for adults. A father obliged his fears and took the device away for the weekend.

Four boys had secured a plastic tarp among the bending trunks of birches with one father's stretched-out, wet socks. They didn't seem to be thinking of Robert Frost's "Birches" poem, though, as they crawled under their shelter and dealt a hand of Texas Hold 'Em. A pair of enterprising 12-year-olds offered to clean shoes for $1 per shoe.

When rain started again and a 13-year-old was eager to hike, other boys suggested, "Can we just drive around?"

Diligent young Richard built an extra shelter of sticks and plastic garbage bags to keep food and firewood dry.

We settled on a trip to the nature center.

And the salamanders? They had gone back home, under rocks, in crevices, hanging under tree roots by the streambed. A couple of kids set about exposing them. "How many did you catch?" became the question of the moment.

The boys had taken to teasing salamanders onto rocks and naming their catches.

"Here's Max," one boy announced. He had named the salamander after another boy on the trip.

My son Scott came up to me with one hand cupped over a stone. "Meet Alvin," he said, offering me a peek at a wiggling, brick red body with four obtuse legs.

"Look, there goes Richard down that hole!" shouted another, and the real Richard turned his head. "Made you look!" the first boy teased. One of the dads shot a discouraging glance at the teaser and motioned him away.

By Saturday evening the weather began to clear, and now the boys could start a real campfire. They fed and poked the flicker every chance they got, dropping sticks, leaves, and garbage, and the inevitable marshmallows to see how high they could make the flames rise and what colors would blaze. We had cooked hamburgers for dinner, and paper plates smeared with hamburger grease were in high demand for the tall blue flares they produced.

Then fire and nighttime performed their special alchemy. A salamander darted into the fire circle from under a rock; in a split second it went headlong into the fire pit and self-immolated. The body lay shriveling under a burning log until it was barely there.

"Ewwww, look, it curled up!" cried one boy.

"Come look! It committed suicide."

"Good-bye, cruel world!" feigned one dramatist, grasping his own neck and falling to the ground.

"Oh, no, it's Alvin," cried my own son, Scott.

"These things are so stupid," said another.

Then a 13-year-old with a precocious vocabulary copped a mock parental attitude, pulled his glasses down to the tip of his nose, and wagged his finger. "Now, now," he reprimanded the departed creature, "you salamanders have such unfortunate tendencies."

The boy's father, sitting on the other side of the fire, couldn't suppress a laugh.

Across the fire circle sat young Richard, dismayed, urgent.

"Why did it do that?" he asked.

Some kids were quick to respond that it was a suicide, while several adults offered puzzlements over the same question. Everyone was glued by the fire.

Some of the kids were hoping to witness a repeat, though they knew better than to say it. They didn't need to say it, though, because a moment later two more salamanders ran from the same vicinity headlong into the fire.

"We've got to stop them," said Richard, looking up at the adults who hovered above the fire.

"You can't stop them; it's what they want to do," replied another boy.

"Maybe they're attracted to flames like moths," offered a parent.

"No, they're confused!" Richard insisted. He reached down and moved the rock that had been the starting point for all three of the creatures. Another salamander scurried away from it, this time into the woods. Mixed cries of relief and disappointment were all around the fire.

A father turned to me with a little laugh and said confidentially, "Richard is like a little old man."

* * *

When I got home on Sunday, I continued my salamander education by searching the Internet. On the first line of the entry I chose, I learned the name "salamander" is derived from Persian and means "fire within." I further learned that the relationship between salamanders and fire was first recorded in the Talmud, and this relationship is in other ancient oral traditions, as well as literature throughout history.

There was no mention of suicidal tendencies or attraction to flames. The author of the Internet article reported, however, that many ancients believed salamanders were born from flames—probably because many salamander species make their homes inside hollow logs, from which they would try to escape as their log homes were cast onto campfires. I concluded, as young Richard had, that those salamanders were simply confused about which way to run as the rocks guarding the fire pit grew warm.

The unfortunate tendencies of salamanders turned out to be the unfortunate tendency of humans to misunderstand every system they touch, to avoid seeing that—and to keep their distance from those who see it differently. Richard, had he lived in ancient times, wouldn't have fit with the hunters around the prehistoric fire pit much better than the modern one.

He might have said, "Those salamanders aren't being born from the fire. They're just running from it." But his campmates might have had the unfortunate tendency to need a myth more than they needed the truth.

This essay first appeared in The Evansville Review, University of Evansville, IL, 2009.

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Comments:

“Kathy’s writing has strong narrative drive and excellent use of detail and description. The reader is quickly engaged by her voice and is eager to stay with it to the conclusion of the piece.” Sharon Charde, director of the Block Island Womens’ Writing Retreats, also author of the award-winning Bad Girl At The Altar Rail, Flume Press

More published essays by Kathy Connolly:

"Life Extension," The MacGuffin, 2008

"Dear Madeleine," South Carolina Review, 2008

"That's how Mr. Rodale Says to Do It," Living, Summer 2008

"E-mail to God," RiverSedge, Spring 2007

"Moo No More," Living Magazine, Spring 2007

"The Next Step" won first place in the Labyrinth Society essay contest, October 2005