This Thing Called Courage

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Big Night Saturday Night: Salamanders and Peepers





Spring Peeper (RealAudio sound sample)

I experienced Big Night Saturday Night, along with my friend Scott-- no no, it isn't what you might be thinking, a night of wild revelry and play, but Big Night in the Salamander sense of the word. Let me explain. Every spring, our local salamanders-- one of those creatures that is quite common, but not seen very often-- crawl out from under the rocks, logs, and leaf mold where they have been hibernating, and journey (up to a mile) to a local vernal (spring) pond to gather and mate. Typically the males come out a few days before the females. Once the females join in, usually on a rainy night (but always at night), the mating ritual that follows is known as Big Night. While the action can be spread out over a few nights, the bulk of activity usually takes place in one night. They gather in the ponds, and clusters of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of salamanders roll and moil and rub against each other in a kind of rolling underwater pig pile, rubbing their bodies against each other. (see pic) This results in the males emitting spermaphores, white pieces of sperm which the females take into their abdomens over the next few days; within a month, the females lay their eggs in jelly-like clusters. The Friends of the Fells, a volunteer organization assocaited with the Middlesex Fells Reservation, has many activities during the year, and in the spring their sponsor Big Night; and so it was that my friend Scotty and I found ourselves driving down to the meet-up place-- the Parking Lot at the Stone Zoo-- on Saturday night at 8.

About half a dozen people were already gathered there, including our leader, Hue Holly (great name!) who told me he has been doing this for about a dozen years. We all brought our flashlights and sturdy footgear; one of the women there, who has also been doing this for many years, brought her small-statured but husky-voiced nephew Justin, who quickly got chummy with me and Scotty. On the walk down to the vernal pond, he asked us if we wanted to hear a rap song he and his friends had made. He happened to have the cd on him, as well as a cd player, and we listened. He told us how he had sent it into a record company, and heard notrhing, and two years later a record company had had another group sing it, apparently.

After about a 10-15 minute walk, we came to the pool-- and it was Big Night! About a dozen more folks were there, and the salamanders were 'congressing' as they call it 'like mental,' according to Justin. We had to be careful where we stepped, because many of them were on the trrail, making their way tot he 'hoe-down' as it were, and these stragglers that we found we picked up and put them int eh pond to joint he fun. It was really quite amazing-- to see the curtain withdrawn for a secret, wonderful thing in Nature's bag-o-tricks. It was also just wonderful to be out at night in the woods. For tens of thousands of years, we were nomadic, traveling to the fish weirs in spring, the highlands in summer, the grain-rich meadows in fall-- and frequently we traveled by night. We held religious services by night, hunted by night, were part fo the night-- and something, I think, has died in our souls now that we've, as a species, turned our back ont he night, banished it from our lives and hearts and souls with garish light.

Anyway, it was quite an experience. And then this evening, while walking Fionn, we heard the first spring peepers!!!! (Click on the link above to hear them.) Peepers are often heard, but seldom seen. They are no more than an inch long, and the shrill peep-whistle they emit is the males mating call, which they make by inflating a sac under their mouths. (see pic). Amazing.

I cannot describe the solace these things bring to me, the delight. Yes, there are problems and troubles and worries and issues--but these things-- the salamnders and peepers and sunsets and rainbows-- have been given to us. They were here before us, they will be here after us, and it's up to us to enjoy them while we may, and remember we are of this earth-- and how lucky that we are.

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