Dreaming of Water with Tiger Salamanders

“There is no more urgent form of communication than going extinct.”

Sam Keck Scott| Longreads | March 2022 | 15 minutes (4,070 words)

The big yellow machine casts up a brown blizzard of dust, adding to the trouble of seeing any small bodies attempting to run or slither for their lives. I chase the fleeing field mice and pocket gophers, pinching them at the backs of their necks, and stuff them into the pocket of my orange safety vest, already bulging with the wriggling bodies of alligator lizards and western skinks. 

Better that pocket than the other, where a two-foot gopher snake is coiled up, its head poking out from this alien world of fluorescent orange, where it slowly unspools its slender body, the color of wet hay, up my torso. Again and again, I coax it back in using the heel of my palm, waiting for the mayhem to cease long enough to walk across the busy road to the edge of a dry creek bed, where I unceremoniously dump them all in a squirming pile below a blackberry thicket. Homeless, but alive. 

To the rest of the construction crew, I must look ridiculous — stooped over, racing this way and that through a cloud of dust, filling my pockets with small creatures as the rotary mixer nips at my heels. But I’ve learned not to care. No matter how I appear, the biologist will always be the outcast on these projects. 

When I walk away from the machine, I can’t tell where the dust ends and the smoke begins. Once again, the air in California is lethal to breathe, bruised gray and purple, burning my eyes and throat as I stand in it day after day. But this year is different — this year I need two separate masks to juggle two separate calamities. When alone, the N95 with a one-way valve is superior for filtering smoke, but when close to others I quickly switch to my cloth mask for the virus, knowing the valve won’t protect them from my potentially deadly exhalations. It’s late summer, 2020, and we’re all still beginners at learning to live with an invisible killer.

Some animals don’t flee when the mixer comes. They hold their ground. Wait for the trouble to pass. But nothing in their evolution has prepared them for an eight-foot-wide drum covered in corkscrewing blades coming straight towards their soft bodies where they hunker in their meadow homes. The rotary mixer penetrates the ground 20 inches deep, turning the hard-packed earth into fluffy, aerated, hydrated soil in tidy rows. It’s a dream machine if you need to turn a lumpy field into the future site of a housing development, but it’s a science-fiction nightmare if you’re a vole or a praying mantis or a king snake; a slender salamander, an earthworm, a deer mouse, or a Jerusalem cricket. The ones who don’t flee will be ground into sausage and mixed evenly into the soil, and sometimes are so pulverized they become more mist than matter. Within an hour of the first pass of the mixer, crows appear by the dozens to peck at the peppered bits of the animals I failed to save. 

My job is not to save any of these animals. But since I’m here, I try. The only reason the development company was forced to hire a biologist, as they are on every housing development being built on the Santa Rosa Plain, is for a small population of a single species of salamander — the federally endangered Sonoma County population of the California tiger salamander — an animal once prolific in this part of Northern California, now almost entirely wiped out. 


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Before European settlers colonized this area, one could scarcely come up with a place more perfectly suited to the unique needs of tiger salamanders than the Santa Rosa Plain — a lush mosaic of lakes, creeks, wetlands, vernal pools, riparian forests, grasslands, and oak savannah. A hummocky world of wet depressions and dry rises — as if the land itself was as amphibious as the salamanders who thrived there. 

Tiger salamanders live a double life — they need both wet and dry places in close proximity. For most of the year, they stay underground in the burrows of other animals, or in large cracks in the adobe soil. But when the rains come, they emerge from their subterranean lairs to migrate in their slow, salamandery way: padding out across the land to a nearby breeding pond, which must be ephemeral to ensure no predatory fish can take up residence in them. After breeding, the adults move upland again, leaving their eggs to hatch into larvae, who metamorphose either quickly or slowly depending on the speed at which their pool is drying up. Once the larvae grow legs, maturing into juveniles who breathe air through lungs instead of gills, they too migrate upland to find an underground home, where they remain for the two to five years it will take them to reach breeding age.

I thought a lot about tiger salamanders during the early weeks of the pandemic, drawing inspiration from these masters of sheltering-in-place. I live in a trailer, which normally suits me just fine — I find small spaces comforting, and too many possessions stressful, so the trailer offers the perfect constraint. But when shelter-in-place began in March, my trailer quickly shrank around me. I morphed into a subterranean animal living in a narrow, aluminum burrow, aestivating during the dry months, waiting for rain. Waiting for a vaccine. Waiting for anyone to tell me anything that felt true or useful. 

Time thickened, then congealed. I hunched over, shuffling around in my sweatpants. One step to the fridge, two to the bathroom, one to the bed, three to the door. This trailer was only meant to be a home base for my life on the move as a field biologist. A way to hack the Bay Area’s obscene rental market — one of the highest in the nation. Not a place to weather a global pandemic. Alone. 

After months of being stuck inside, treating my groceries like hazardous waste until I’d washed them with soap, and growing tired of my own cooking, it was tiger salamanders who finally coaxed me out of my burrow — or at least the possibility of them. A few months into the pandemic, developers had found their way onto the essential worker’s list, and I got the call about 42 new townhouses being built in a vacant lot in Santa Rosa. 

The ones who don’t flee will be ground into sausage and mixed evenly into the soil, and sometimes are so pulverized they become more mist than matter.

“Vacant” being a relative term. Without needing to see it, I knew the site would be home to many living things. And it was. The first day on the job, I saw fence and alligator lizards, a garter snake, western skink, piles of fox shit, many birds. I also found the recent remains of a human encampment, as I always do at the beginning of these projects. Vacant, according to the company preparing to develop the land, meant the lot was empty of any living thing willing to pay money to be there.

What I didn’t find in that lot were any tiger salamanders. And I knew I wouldn’t. They’re endangered for a reason. The needs of tiger salamanders are far too specific for them to be living in a bone-dry, weedy lot like this, penned in by urban sprawl, and nowhere near a breeding pool — long ago amputated from the last life-supporting places of tiger salamanders in Sonoma County. But as the yellow machines stripped the land bare like a swarm of gargantuan locusts, I spent day after day looking for them anyway, filling the pockets of my safety vest with the struggling bodies of all those we aren’t mandated to care about. 

“You’ve been out here every day for two weeks and still haven’t found one of them salamanders?” the foreman said to me one morning, appearing beside me and slapping me on the back while I watched an excavator dig up a waterline.

“Not yet,” I replied, stepping away, his handprint glowing on my shoulder blade like a coronavirus starburst. 

“Then what’s the point of having you out here if there aren’t any?” he asked me, maskless.

“Well, there’s always a chance there are,” I told him, despite knowing there almost certainly wasn’t. “They used to be all over before we dried up the Laguna,” I added.

He looked around at this dusty, flat, unremarkable place, surrounded by houses, a nearby high school, storefronts with blinking neon signs, busy roads. I’m guessing that’s all he saw. I’m guessing he wasn’t imagining what this place used to look like, only a few generations ago, like I was. 

He stepped forward, peering into the eight-foot trench. 

“There’s too much fucking clay in this soil!” he barked, saying it to no one in particular, before walking away.

I wanted to yell at him that there’s too much fucking clay in this soil because it used to be a wetland. There’s too much fucking clay in this soil because this place once teemed with profusions of wet, aquatic life. But I kept quiet, staying in my narrow lane — only here for the nonexistent salamanders. 

Before Europeans settled the Santa Rosa Plain and turned it into cow pasture and high-intensity agricultural land — smearing it with chemicals and shopping centers; bifurcating it with roadways and irrigation canals; before they dried it up, domesticated it, and sucked the green lush life from its spongy soil, turning the land and its grasses the dead-gray of roadside cardboard — the Santa Rosa Plain was dripping and oozing with life, sprinting, squirming, squiggling, crawling, flapping, splashing and growling across its skies and lands and waters.

Grizzly bears were here, wading up to their haunches in cool, clear water never touched by agrochemicals, hormones, antibiotics, or gasoline. Salmon pushed up rushing creeks and rivers, skipping over each other’s backs, beating past the swiping claws of the bears, big as catcher’s mitts. Waterfowl blackened the sky like living, billowing curtains, honking and calling, shitting an even coat of nutrient-rich fertilizer across every inch of the land, sending a chaos of plant life bursting skywards. Pronghorn grazed at the wetland’s edges, stalked by cougar slinking down through the purple manzanita of the foothills, while condors with nine-foot wingspans cast sharp, slicing shadows over the land, searching for bloat, for stink, for blood — of which there was plenty. At night, bats swooped and hunted through a thick, sonic stew of frog chorus, and coyotes curdled the air with their manic songs whenever the silver moon rose in the east. And of course, there were people here then too. The Southern Pomo built tule balsa rafts and lived in tule huts all over the Santa Rosa Plain, fishing for salmon with hooks chipped from chert. Hunting black-tailed deer and pronghorn. Gathering fat acorns in baskets woven from willow branches. Coexisting with all this life.

And amidst the flurry, the tiger salamanders — their dark, stalky bodies splotched in archipelagos of sunlit buttercup as they ambushed spiders in the darkness of gopher burrows. Tiger salamanders, their yellow lips giving them the appearance of a dopey grin, twisting their wet, rubbery bodies around each other in breeding ponds. Tiger salamander larvae boiling in every vernal pool dotting the plain, the external lungs behind their heads swaying like aquatic lion’s manes. Tiger salamanders dragging their heavy tails as they migrate by the thousands on the first big rain of the year: a clumsy procession of yellow speckles moving in slow motion over hills; through tall, swaying grasses; past the brown, humped mountains of sleeping grizzlies. A few getting speared and eaten by herons and egrets along the way, or batted in the air by bobcats, ground up by rapacious badgers, or swallowed whole by snakes. But they kept going, determined to get to their breeding ponds at any cost — determined to make more tiger salamanders. The only ones in the world who can. 

This was not so long ago. This wasn’t the Pleistocene or some other far-flung time in the past. This was less than 200 years ago. Individual koi fish have been known to live longer than that. Only 100 years ago the Santa Rosa Plain was closer to that throng of life than to what it is today — traffic, bad air, car dealerships glinting in the sunlight. Townhouses crammed between townhouses crammed between townhouses. 

Vacant, according to the company preparing to develop the land, meant the lot was empty of any living thing willing to pay money to be there.

The reason tiger salamanders are no longer proliferating as they once did is not for lack of effort. Nowadays, on the first big rain of the year, they are run over by the dozens as they slowly cross busy roads separating their underground homes from breeding ponds, drawn by the strength of a giant magnet born of tens of thousands of years of instinct. Local biologists have learned where some of the busier crossings tend to be and will spend all night standing in the rain escorting salamanders safely from one side to the other, headlights whipping past them at 70 miles per hour. But these efforts are not enough to counteract what we’ve done to the land in Sonoma County. 

In less than a geologic blink of an eye, 95% of the breeding habitat of the Sonoma County population of the California tiger salamander is now gone or under direct threat from development. And it isn’t just the salamanders who are suffering. Some of the largest grizzly bears in the world used to live where I live — the last one shot by white settlers in California in 1922. Gray wolves were also trapped and shot into local extinction in California, though after 90 years of absence, a small pack has recently reentered the Golden State, mounting a quiet comeback — godspeed. Pronghorn, a short-necked relative of the giraffe, left the Santa Rosa Plain long ago, as did the California condor, after nearly going extinct due to lead poisoning from the bullets filling the bodies of the countless animals left to rot across the landscape. 

According to the historical records of the Laguna Foundation in Santa Rosa, an individual hunter killed 6,200 ducks by himself in 1892 to supply markets in San Francisco. One morning I noticed seven Canada geese standing in the center of our project site. When the construction crew arrived, firing up the yellow machines, this anemic flock flew off to look for some other marginal place to scrape out an existence. As I watched them fly away, I didn’t see seven geese in the sky above me — I saw the ghosts of the thousands of birds that were no longer there, replaced instead by a sky toxic with smoke. 

None of this is normal, yet we treat it as if it is. And it isn’t just Northern California that’s changed — the entire planet has. All the way down to the fish in the sea.

As a species, we suffer from a sort of collective amnesia brought on by a phenomenon called “shifting baseline syndrome.” Shifting baselines are what allow each new generation of people to be born into a world that appears “normal” to them, even as their grandparents loudly lament “the way things used to be.” Those lamentations die with the older generation, and the new generation begins the process over, now bemoaning the changes they’ve witnessed in their short lifetimes, while their children and grandchildren are born into worlds that appear perfectly normal to them. And so on. 

A classic example of shifting baseline syndrome was discovered by marine biologist Loren McClenachan when she found a series of historic photographs all taken in the same place on a wharf in Key West, Florida. The photos show people displaying their day’s fishing catch in front of a hanging board throughout the decades, beginning in 1956 up until 2007. As the years slip past, the fish on display get smaller and smaller and smaller. At first, in the 1950s, they are mighty behemoths hanging from hooks, taller than the people who caught them, averaging 43.8 pounds. But by 2007, the average weight of the fish is only five pounds, held proudly in the hands of the anglers with no exertion whatsoever. Yet, what is most striking about these photographs isn’t the shrinking fish, but rather the smiles on the faces of these pleased fisherpeople, which lose none of their brightness throughout the decades, even as their catches become preposterously diminished. This is shifting baseline syndrome. We keep smiling, ignorant to the fact that the natural world, which we rely on for survival, is disappearing beneath our feet, and in our very hands. 

Recently, we’ve reached a point where the ecological changes are happening too fast and are too destructive for us to continue in this ignorance. Shifting baseline syndrome may have helped to bring the Big Bad Wolf to our door, but climate change, habitat loss, and pollution have blown the house down. Or in the case of my home state of California: burned the house down.

Only 100 years ago the Santa Rosa Plain was closer to that throng of life than to what it is today — traffic, bad air, car dealerships glinting in the sunlight. Townhouses crammed between townhouses crammed between townhouses

Growing up in Northern California, I never remember the sky filling with smoke. Not once. Wildfires, if I heard about them at all, were burning “over there” somewhere, out of sight, and nothing for me to fear. Not anymore. 2020 marked the fourth straight year Sonoma County was either on fire itself or smothered by the toxic smoke of other fires — or both — as it became the largest, most destructive fire season in California’s history. 

During a day off from looking for salamanders, I found myself stuck in my trailer again. The air quality outside — measured in PM2.5 — was in the 370s. Anything above 300 is considered by the EPA to be hazardous to human health, and anything above 151 is categorized as unhealthy. The air temperature was 95˚F. I had no choice but to keep every window and door sealed shut because of the smoke, but my trailer sits in direct sunlight, and the indoor temperature quickly outpaced the heat outside. Sweat poured down my body as if in a sauna at full furnace. My chest tightened. I felt squeezed by the hands of some invisible giant. I couldn’t tell if it was claustrophobia or if I was actually running out of breathable air. I paced around my narrow home, leaving wet footprints across the wood floors — the air a hot, toxic porridge both inside and out. Panicked, I went to the window, looking out across the farm where my trailer is parked. Normally I see green hills and old red barns out that window, but on this day, I could barely see the outline of my truck, parked only 15’ away — a vague shape in a brown-gray hellscape. 

My chest squeezed tighter. I had to find some good air to breathe. I held the door handle, ready to burst out of this sweltering aluminum pillbox, but there was nowhere to go. I was trapped. If I opened the door, the air inside my trailer would only get worse. This wasn’t simply the smoke of charred forests, but countless human structures as well, filled with paint, asbestos, burned-out cars, garages full of half-empty gas cans, lacquers, engine oil, cleaning supplies. I remembered two years earlier when the smoke from the fire that destroyed the entire town of Paradise settled over Sonoma County, and I’d wondered if I was breathing dead bodies. If the ash on my truck was someone’s uncle, or mother. 

Black bear, or rattlesnake.

I fell face-first onto my small couch, pressing my nose and mouth into a pillow, trying to calm down. I thought of the salamanders — how they breathe air through both their skin and lungs and how easily polluted their small, squishy bodies are. When the smoke rolls into their cramped burrows, what will this rancid air do to them? Will any tiger salamanders crawl out this winter when the rains finally come? If they come? Or will they all die in there? Smoked. Jerkied. Little golden-flecked mummies, hard as old bubblegum. Will anyone notice? Will tiger salamanders make the news if we kill off the last one? Will people finally realize how cute they were, and wonder why no one had told them earlier, before it was too late? 

According to ancient belief, salamanders have nothing to fear from fire. The Talmud describes salamanders as being born of fire, and that anyone who covered themselves in the blood of salamanders would be immune to burning. In Greek, the name salamander means “fire lizard.” Both Pliny the Elder and Aristotle claimed that salamanders could extinguish fires with their wet, icy skin. Leonardo da Vinci said that salamanders have “no digestive organs, and get no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin.” People also long believed that the fire-proof substance, asbestos, was made from the “fur” of salamanders. It’s thought that these archaic misconceptions arose from the fact that salamanders often burrow beneath, and sometimes inside of, rotting wood, and throughout history, as people placed these logs into their fires, salamanders would crawl out of the flames. 

I found myself wishing the mythology of the fire lizards was true. As the August Complex Fire, California’s first-ever “gigafire”— one that is larger than a million acres — burned to the north of me, and the nearby hillsides around Santa Rosa were an inferno to the east, and the Santa Cruz Mountains to my south were engulfed in flames until they ran straight into the sea,  I wished that somehow, in the charred wake of all this destruction, millions of salamanders would materialize. Slow-motion phoenixes rising from the ashes with their long tails, fat legs, yellow spots, and a knowing look in their wet, protruding eyes that says: We come from where you’re headed, and you’re not going to like it there

But of course, tiger salamanders, like most other lifeforms, will not emerge from these fires, but will instead be destroyed by them. 

And it isn’t just Northern California that’s changed — the entire planet has. All the way down to the fish in the sea.

“Why should I care about some salamander anyway?” 

It’s a question I get from the construction crew on nearly every job site, and you can replace salamander with whatever species I might be there to protect: dusky-footed woodrats, Alameda whipsnakes, red-legged frogs, desert tortoise. 

“We have houses to build for actual human beings; isn’t that more important?”

Well, yes, sure. But also, no. We need tiger salamanders, and all other plants and animals, because what’s killing them is also killing us. A California with a healthy tiger salamander population is a place where we’re all healthier. Tiger salamanders need both undisturbed habitat and enough clean, unpolluted water to fill their breeding pools every year. They don’t have it. It’s the same reason you might not have enough water in your well. It’s the same reason farmers can’t keep their crops from drying out. It’s the same reason cities are fighting over and diverting distant streams to keep the taps flowing. And it’s the reason why California had its first gigafire last year, which will surely not be the last, just as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic will not be the last virus to spill from the bloodstreams of animals into our own, with our endless, violent encroachment into wildlands. 

My job is to protect the disappearing animal species of California. I think of these animals as ambassadors to the apocalypse. Tiger salamanders are trying to tell us something by their very disappearance — if the world isn’t healthy enough for us, it isn’t healthy enough for you either. We would be wise to heed the warnings of those species who are showing us where we’re all headed, because there is no more urgent form of communication than going extinct. 

***

I dream of water. Every day, as I wake to more smoke, more news of another fire ripping through nearby hills, I dream of heavy clouds galloping, gathering, rolling in from the sea — white-gray baskets sloshing with clean rainwater that burst open as they sweep across the West, drenching us, rinsing us, reminding us of what this world could, and should be. So much water that each dimple in the landscape fills up, turns green and writhes with life again. I dream of a world where people don’t simply care about the many creatures we share this planet with, but celebrate them. A world where tiger salamanders migrate by the thousands on the first good rain of the year again — so many they walk over each other’s backs — all of them wet and vigorous, breathing pure air through yellow-speckled skin, while the people come outside to line up and watch. Cheering them on.

***

Sam Keck Scott is a writer and wildlife biologist living in Northern California. His work has appeared in Outside, Orion, and Terrain.org, among others. He can be found at @samkeckscott

Editor: Carolyn Wells 

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Fact checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo