Kathleen Groll Connolly



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 was 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 steps using our best decision-making skills, and 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 pocketknives most of the boys carried—pocketknives in search of opportunities. Here, let me do it! became the cry, 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. And 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, “when darkness falls.”

As we prepared to go native, we all hauled out various high-powered, high-tech flashlights 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!”

Okay, this was pretty interesting. Our dubious decision to stay looked, well, 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 with a Peterson guidebook. I learned that 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. I opened the Audubon guide, which said that during nighttime downpours, spring salamanders “may emerge from under rocks and streamsides to forage for food, including other salamanders.” We were witnessing no ordinary event. We had dropped in on the secret life of salamanders.

I went outside hoping to have a teaching moment, to share my findings with anyone who would listen. But the sounds of ewww…gross…slimy…cool drowned me out.

I heard one of the fathers say, “Don’t touch. They breathe through their skin.”

“Ewwww…they breathe through their skin,” was repeated like a refrain in the darkness.

And then a concerned young voice 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 only crackled weakly. The canopy of yellow birches and mountain ash sprinkled the previous night’s raindrops on the forest floor. Nonetheless, coffee was served, pancakes were fried, and the cleanup patrol set to work.

As the rest of the troop idled, I watched two rascals steal away into a tent, in the false hope of escaping to play electronic games on forbidden battery-powered handhelds. One 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.

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

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

“Don’t touch,” said Richard.

"Don't touch," repeated an adult.

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.

While the boys tested materials in the fire for special effects, 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 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 now-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.

But I couldn’t help but notice Richard: dismayed and full of urgency.

“Why did it do that?” he asked.

And while some kids were quick to respond that it was a suicide, we adults puzzled over the same question. Everyone was glued by the fire, and it was clear that 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, I think they’re confused,” said Richard, who 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 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, 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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