Salamander Brigade

On a Sunday morning in March 2018, I drove past half-melted snowbanks to attend training for the Salamander Brigade, a group of good Samaritans who go out on spring nights and try to save migrating amphibians from getting hit by cars. Our training took place in southwest New Hampshire, inside an octagonal-shaped building at the Harris Center for Conservation Education. Atop the round roof, a metal cutout of a bobcat was nailed to the weathervane cross. I followed the other people in hiking boots through the door. Inside, sun streamed through the tall, narrow windows, the way it did in church before I stopped going three months prior.

The center’s science director stood in front of our little congregation. She told us about an ancient ritual, one that began on rainy spring nights after the snow melted and as the temperature tiptoed above forty degrees Fahrenheit. That’s when spotted salamanders, wood frogs, and other amphibians crawled out from leafy litter and animal burrows, crept along the migratory pathways their ancestors had followed for hundreds if not thousands of years, and slipped into vernal pools to breed.

Despite my interest in the Salamander Brigade, I had little background in biology. My high school had granted me an exemption for the day we talked about genetic conditions because my religious beliefs as a Christian Scientist indicated that people were made of spirit and not matter. But now I listened, enraptured to what the science director described as congressing: when male spotted salamanders arrived at ephemeral puddles in woods and fields and squirmed around together, waiting for the females to show up so they could pick up their sperm packages and fertilize the eggs. It seemed joyful, somehow, for the salamanders to gather after weathering the winter alone.

There were obstacles to the salamanders’ survival: Predation by skunks, raccoons, turtles, and snakes. Vernal pools drying up before juveniles grew enough to leave their aquatic nursery for land. Humans developing roadways and speeding cars through spring migration routes.

That last problem was what the Salamander Brigade tried to fix. In the conservation octagon, we learned how to ferry amphibians across rural roads. We went over the list of proper safety gear (reflective vests, headlamps, plenty of layers); the instructions for recording on a data sheet all the amphibians we saw, live or dead; and a warning that the job was fun but sad. The science director reminded us we were not to put ourselves in danger for the frogs and salamanders that might still be in the road when cars came along. We were to scrape up their squashed bodies and toss them away from the asphalt, hopefully saving any predators from becoming additional roadkill. We could bring a spatula for this part, but the science director said she just used her hands, and I committed then and there to following her example.

I received these teachings and held onto them like something sacred because at twenty-six years old, the thing most sacred to me was suddenly gone. I no longer knew how to feel God, the assured presence of omnipotent good, my progenitor and protector. This started a year before the Salamander Brigade training, while I was covering the 2016 election for my hometown newspaper. In the course of reporting those stories, I lost faith in the goodness of people and began experiencing a throbbing ache in my left arm and upper chest. I was afraid of having a heart attack and bewildered that prayer, which had always healed me, wasn’t working. Where I once found comfort and certainty by ignoring the physical world and focusing on my inner, spiritual self, I now only found echoing vacuity.

I yearned for the simplicity of how life used to be, like the one summer during high school when I planted a new garden behind my family’s New Hampshire farmhouse. In the middle of the bed sat a large rock. I was afraid to move it because of the worms and other squirmy things that looked like guts and that almost certainly lived underneath. But the rock would get in the way of my cucumbers and tomatoes, so I took a deep breath, heaved, saw what I’d unearthed, and screamed. A giant salamander lay in the soil, what I would later come to recognize as a spotted salamander: blue-black with yellow spots from head to toe and nearly a foot long. Now exposed to the sun, it didn’t move much—it seemed as shocked as I was. Mom came out to help me brainstorm what to do with it. Because it was a wild animal, we decided to release it in the grass near the wetlands part of our yard, which was also where a red-tailed hawk liked to perch, so we prayed for the salamander’s safety. I affirmed that in God’s kingdom, all creatures were always in their rightful place. This brought me a quiet calm that lightened my limbs, like being one with the air. When I checked again an hour later, the salamander was gone. I was sure it was safe, just like I was sure I was safe, my parents were safe, and the world was safe.

But a decade later, in an email from the conservation center, I learned the salamanders were, in fact, not safe, that their populations were declining due to human activity, and there were ways I could help. I thought if I could help them, maybe I could help me too.