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Book Review: What Salamanders Teach: A Window into Braiding Sweetgrass

Editor’s Note: Robin Wall Kimmerer, Author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, a 2013 nonfiction book that explores reciprocal relationships between humans and the land, with a focus on the role of plants and botany in both Native American and Western traditions, will be speaking in Gettysburg on Monday, Sept. 19 at 7:00 p.m. in the Gettysburg College Ballroom.  The public is invited to attend. Admission is free. This article the second review of the book by local resident Will Lane.

A gecko has been selling insurance to Americans on TV for quite some time.  Will a salamander be able to sell us on a new way of thinking about our relationship with the natural world? 

Robin Wall Kimmerer seems to think that it may.  In “Collateral Damage,” an essay from her bestselling book Braiding Sweetgrass, she tells the story of migrating salamanders in a state park near her home in upstate New York and the risks they face as they cross the main road through the park and head back to the vernal pools where they were born.

The salamanders’ migration story begins on a rainy night in early spring when the author and her two young daughters head out to help them safely cross the road.  As we follow along, we get to know quite a bit about these creatures and their mysterious ways.

One might ask whether the yellow spotted salamander, also known as Ambystoma maculata, is a good choice as an emissary from nature and a viable candidate for our next “charismatic species.”  Picking them up, Kimmerer says, is kind of like “picking up an overripe banana.”  A little hard to cuddle, for sure. But their non-human vibe and the  strangeness of their ways may have important things to teach us, things harder to learn from our fellow mammals.

The story begins with the first warm rains of spring. A “temperature of about forty-two degrees sets the floor to rustling” as the salamanders emerge from their hidden places in the ground. “Salamanders move when darkness protects them from predators and the rain keeps their skin moist,” Kimmerer says. “And they move by the thousands like a herd of sluggish buffalos.”

Unfortunately, a road is in their way, a road toads and frogs can cross in seconds. But “not so the heavy-bodied salamanders, who belly their way across the road. Their journey takes about two minutes, and in two minutes almost anything can happen.”  A significant number of salamanders die on any given night.  Hence, the mission of Kimmerer and her daughters to lift as many as possible to safety.

Where are they headed?  How do they find their way? Strangely enough, they are headed back to the vernal pools—the small, temporary spring pools—where they were born. “Without the benefit of satellite or microchip [they] navigate by a combination of magnetic and chemical signals that herpetologists are just beginning to understand.”  A reading of the earth’s magnetic field gets them part of the way through a “small organ in the brain” that “processes magnetic data.”  “Once they are close… they smell their way with a nasal gland on their snouts.”

Given the risk to these migrating salamanders, what’s to be done? Kimmerer and her young daughters, equipped with rain gear and armed with flashlights, illustrate one approach.  A group of students and their herpetology professor, that the author and her girls run into in the dark, illustrate another. They are attempting to document the number of salamanders successfully crossing the road (and the number killed) in order to convince the state to fund the construction of a migration underpass.  The dead, it turns out, are relatively easy to count as splotches on the road.  The living who make it across the road are temporarily block by barriers of snow fence and forced to tumble into five-gallon buckets buried in the ground.  Then, they are counted and released on the safe side of the road.

What’s to be learned from these unfurry friends who can, in fact, breathe through their skin? Salamanders, Kimmerer reminds us, are “beings as different from ourselves as we can imagine.”

“Being with salamanders,” she continues, “gives honor to otherness, offers an antidote to the poison of xenophobia. Each time we rescue slippery, spotted beings we attest to their right to be, to live in the sovereign territory of their own lives…. Carrying [them] to safety helps us to remember the covenant of reciprocity, the mutual responsibility we have for each other.”  Not only between humans, she continues, but between humans and our kin in the natural world.

In the next installment of this three part review of Braiding Sweetgrass, we’ll take a look at how language shapes our experience of nature.  Science, and its language, “sharpens the gift of seeing,” Kimmerer says, but also distances us from the natural world.   Indigenous languages—and cultures—may help us see a lot we might otherwise miss. See you then!

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Charles Stangor is Gettysburg Connection's Publisher and Editor in Chief.

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  • Great article. Thanks for this valued information on salamanders. Looking forward to similar articles.

  • Terrific article. We also have these migrations here as well as several other salamander species. I’ve been rescuing and researching spotted salamanders in Adams County for the past decade. They are always an inspiration and still have plenty left to teach us.

  • I’ve read several of Kimmerer’s books & essays – she’s wonderful! Brilliant observations and a genuine, often-humorous approach to the urgent message of climate-change and conservation issues, but also a a strong spiritual connection and aesthetic appreciation – she’s a reassuring and refreshing voice! Thanks for featuring these reviews.

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