Royal ferns, Osmunda regalis on a streamside in the woods, Phippsburg, Maine
My father used to tell us that moss grew on the north sides of trees. If you looked for the moss, you’d know which way to go. North? What did north mean to an eight year old? There was moss on the trees; there was moss everywhere, matting every rock and fallen log in velvet green. No moss was going to tell us where to go. The moss did not speak. I thought about my plastic, Cracker Jack compass at home.
Once, from a place like that, I captured a dozen Red-spotted newts. I put them in an aquarium with pads of moss I had peeled from rocks. I put in some stones and made a little pool in a bottle cap. I put in some tiny, emerald colored ferns and rotted sticks. I put in a Shelf mushroom making an ample roof, a sort of salamander pavilion. It seemed like a perfect home for the newts. I imagined a whole life for them in their microhabitat, or glass prison. It was a veritable village of newts, which I called salamanders.
Newts and salamanders are basically the same thing. What they each came to be called has more to do with history and language than science. Newts are a subgroup of salamanders. All newts are salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts. A salamander is called a “newt” if it belongs to specific genera (I won’t bore you with the list). Generally, newts spend more of their lives in the water than salamanders; they have more distinctive differences between genders, and they have more complicated aquatic courtships. Now, wasn’t that a visual!
There are 550 species of salamander in the world. The North American continent has more species of salamanders, including newts, than any other continent on earth. Maine has eight species. For those of you who say “I don’t like lizards,” salamanders are not lizards. On their front feet, they only have four toes; lizards have five. Though there are no “blue newts” as in my poem, there is a Blue-spotted salamander in Maine. Most salamanders are lungless. They breathe through their skin which requires that their skin stay moist. For this reason, they are usually nocturnal and live under leaves and places where it’s damp. Many of them are vernal pool and wetland dwellers, places such as the photos above.
After a while, I forgot about my salamanders. My father found my aquarium prison dried up and abandoned, for which he beat the shit out of me. That was fifty years ago and I still carry the guilt. The bulging eyes, tender toes and wide smiles of a newt give me pangs of pain. But, that dark little episode of my history is part of what lead me to become an amateur naturalist and nature photographer. The dark, damp places in the woods always makes me think of the brilliant, orange salamanders I tortured. I have a lot to make up for. Maybe they are what I listen for in the penetrating silence - signs of life.
When my sister and I couldn’t find our way out of the woods, she started to cry. I was scared. I didn’t want her to know how scared I was too, terrified, in fact. So, I told her to shut up and quit crying. I knew that we had to figure it out on our own, that no one was going to help us. I knew that I had to figure it out, because I was the oldest. I listened hard for some sign, some sound that would guide us, but there was nothing. I smelled the air. Nothing.
My sister was sitting on a pad of moss, sniffling. She had a trickle of blood oozing from a knee where she had fallen. A Blackfly had left a rude, purple welt in the corner of her eye and more were gathering. “Come on. Get up and get walking,” I ordered. It probably wasn’t long, though it seemed like eternity, when one of our family dogs showed up. Though we felt far, far away, we probably weren’t very far from home. It took some scrambling to keep up, but we followed the dog home.
Decades later, I would hear on the news that a four year old boy was lost in the Maine woods to the north (August, 1975, Kurt Newton, Coburn Gorge, Maine). The biggest manhunt in the history of the State ensued to search for him. I was one of the searchers. I had to go. I couldn’t get my sister out of my head, her bloody knee, her bug bites, her futile crying. It was brutal, hot, hard hunting. Hundreds of searchers were all fly-bitten and bramble scratched. In the dense, damp woods searchers found bottle caps, cigarette butts and a wallet, all dropped by searchers who had gone before. And I saw a few salamanders, significant to only me. But, no little boy, and to this day, his disappearance has remained a mystery. I think every one of us wanted to be the one to find him and believed he would be found.
I will remain forever haunted by that search, by the not finding. I’ve since had children of my own, whom I’ve raised safely to adulthood. I know that if I was that little boy’s mother, for the rest of my life, I would listen very closely when in the silent woods.