On the night of the first warm rain in April—known to herpetologists as the “Big Night”—spotted salamanders emerge from beneath rotting leaves and logs, migrate to their natal pools, and gather in “congress” to mate and lay eggs. Salamander romance involves slippery winding together of bodies, and breeding pools are said to boil with salamanders writhing in their nuptial dance.
I’ve never witnessed the salamander migration—every year I’m too busy or too tired or I forget. But last spring I resolved to not miss the Big Night and so, on a drizzly Saturday evening soon after the snow melted, I amassed our collection of headlamps and herded my family out the door.
“We’re doing what?” asked my nine-year-old twins, already in pajamas. “I don’t really want to look for salamanders,” objected my thirteen-year-old son, who had spent most of the day in his room, reading and playing guitar. "You want me to go, too?” croaked my husband, who should be used to me by now.
“Put raincoats over your pajamas," I said. "You need fresh air," I said. “It’ll be fun.” I said.
We walked partway up our gravel driveway and into the woods near the old gravel pit, heading toward a swampy area dotted with grassy hummocks and alder shrubs—perfect salamander habitat, I thought. Spotted salamanders breed in vernal pools—shallow bodies of water that dry up every year or so, often enough to prevent fish from taking up residence. Our alder swamp fit that bill. When we reached the wetland, we circled around its northern edge, crossing an outflow stream of dark snowmelt and rainwater. Once in the open field that borders the road, I instructed my family to fan out and we began zig-zagging across the matted grass. “If you find a salamander," I said, "wet your hands before picking it up.”
I swept the fading light of my headlamp over the wet ground. A lone spring peeper called from the edge of a puddle in the middle of the field, where blue flag iris grow in June. I crept closer, hoping to spot the tiny frog clinging to a blade of grass, but it fell silent at my approach.
We made our way across the field and converged near the driveway, the twins singing Weezer’s “Sweater Song” and my oldest son gazing up at the sky. I told him to not be so grumpy and he replied, “Just because I don’t want to look for salamanders doesn’t make me grumpy." Not a single amphibian had crossed our paths. Maybe it was too cold, or not rainy enough, or our wetland was not good habitat after all.
For a few minutes we stood listening to frogs—one or two woods frog chortling and a handful of peepers singing tentatively, not the deafening chorus that would come in a few weeks—then headed down the driveway toward home.
“This reminds me of our moon walks,” I said, recalling walking with the boys to our neighbors’ field on full moon evenings when they were little.
“Yeah, I didn’t really like that,” my oldest son said. He sauntered ahead of me, his younger brothers skipped past, and I sensed time rushing up from behind, bending around me, a fixed object, and catching my boys in its current, sweeping them away, into the future.
I know that the things that matter to me—salamander hunts, moon walks—aren’t necessarily going to be the same things that matter to my children, and I’m okay with that. Despite what my teenage son thinks, I’m not out to make three Mini-Mes. All I can do is provide them with a range of experiences; it’s up to them—or their unconscious brains—to decide what sticks. My kids tell enough “remember when…” stories to assure me that at least some of those experiences have become a part of who they are.
And so I will continue to drag them with me into the woods and fields, headlamps blazing, certain that tonight will be the Big Night.
Guest post written by Andrea Lani. Andrea writes about nature, the environment, and motherhood from her home in central Maine. Her writing has appeared in SaltFront, Brain Child, and Mutha Magazine, among others, and she is an editor at Literary Mama. You can find her online at www.remainsofday.blogspot.com.