When I was a boy growing up in the suburbs north of New York city I would root around in my backyard peeling rocks back to see what creatures lived underneath. There were centipedes and mocha colored slugs and spiders sometimes with white cottony looking egg cases attached to their behinds and the little vaguely lavender crawlers that rolled into a ball when you touched one and that we called purple people eaters. The prize though was uncovering a red backed salamander. The name alone was exotic and to think that there lived here in our own backyard lizard like creature was enthralling. When found I would pick one up very carefully and hold it in the palm of my hand awed by the delicacy of their tiny perfect feet and small black bulging eyes.
Years later walking in the woods upstate with my girlfriend I was astonished to see two small bright orange salamanders on a damp moss bed not moving even as we approached. I picked one up and wondered at it. They seemed some sort of odd omen. Later still I found out they are called efts and would later become water bound newts.
Salamanders, efts ,newts…magical names for special beings.
When I moved back to the suburbs after two decades in Manhattan I began to garden again for the first time in a long time. The backyard of our house had been long neglected and when I began working on it the old impulse to pry up a rock came back to me. When I did I was stunned to find a red backed salamander and his all black mate underneath. I called for my 3 year old son and he exclaimed excitedly when he saw them. I helped him hold one and thus began his fascination with the hidden creatures. Every spring thereafter he would join me in the garden and call out to me when he found yet another salamander not content until he had looked under every rock in the yard. He fearlessly collected slugs too and was unafraid, holding them in his hand and letting them crawl up his arm.
Hiking in the Mohonk preserve in upstate New York one day after a rain we came across many efts lining the trail. They looked to me like the teardrops of some crazed goddess come to life, their orange bodies dotted with iridescent red spot with an otherworldly glow. Yet they were so docile, so seemingly out of place scattered on the leaf bed awaiting transformation.
I believe there is often something unexpected and beautiful in our midst. Sometimes it is right there in front of us and once we become aware of it we can see it. Other times we may need to peel back the rock and look for it in the dark hidden places.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.