[NOTE - to hear a recording of me reading this essay, you can visit my story page at Cowbird.com]
The plethodontid salamanders have no lungs. Do you get that? Their small soft bodies draw the oxygen they need directly from their environment, through their skin. Their skin is their lungs. That’s why, when we touch them — with our oily, wicking finger print grooves and the cavernous cracks and wrinkles in our finger joints and knuckles and palms, cracks which hold onto trace elements of every chemical compound we touch, from deodorant to salad dressing to copy machine toner — our touch can hurt them. Can you imagine what it might feel like if someone touched your lungs with their dirty fingers?
This is only one reason, of dozens, to love these creatures. And where do they live? In a far away and exotic rain forest? Deep in the sea? On the moon? No, they live in my neighborhood, right around my yard. Where I live in Western New York state in the US, the mixed temperate forests are home to many plethodontid species.
One of them is the Slimy Salamander. Yes, it’s their actual name! Plethodon glutinosus has a way of resisting being touched. It secretes a thick mucusy slime from its skin. It’s an antibiotic cream to protect against microscopic invasion. It’s a foul tasting, sticky mess which fills chomping predators with despair. It’s a slick lubricating surface treatment to aid in quick getaways through tight spaces. When I get it on my fingers, it leaves a dark residue for up to 24 hours that no scrubbing completely removes.
Like all amphibians, they’re ectothermic, which means they regulate their body temperatures by interacting with their surrounding environments. Too chilly? Crawl under a patch of dark leaves that are absorbing a little more of the sun’s energy. Too hot? Burrow beneath the cool moist shelter of a rotting log. Snow and ice freezing the forest floor? Bury yourself in some densely insulating crevice, or burrow deep beneath the permafrost layer to wait out the winter.
Frosts can appear around here by mid October. Can you tell I love them? Then you’ll know that, after the autumn, I miss them.
I saw what I figured was the last Slimy Salamander of this year around the second week of October. But we never really got any serious snow. The temperature kept dropping below freezing. To the twenties. A couple times to the high teens. But then it started to spike up again.
On December 15th, it was 46 degrees and raining lightly. December 16th it was 50! My hopes were up. I could’t help it. I missed my clever, lungless friends. I wandered the woods, lifting stones. Kicking over logs.
One log I rolled disturbed the surrounding mat of oak leaves. I spied a flicker of wet muscle. Could it be possible? In December in New York?!
These are the pictures I took of that Slimy Salamander. A small, shiny juvenile. Goggle eyed and slim. Confused by my attention, slickening up its super-powered skin as I gently foiled its escape routes. The black growing darker and more reflective with its increasing secretions. The white marks standing out brighter and brighter, piercing against the black. Like the dazzle of stars shot through a galaxy. It looked like one of those Hubble telescope photographs, like a a tiny galaxy on the forest floor.
I couldn’t love it any less than I love the entire Milky Way in which my own planet orbits its sun.