Archive for August, 2008


Elena Newmark, age 13

Elena Newmark, age 13


What is the worth of a Salamander in the Hand?  To a child exploring her world, is a salamander in the hand worth two under the log?  Does holding the fragile creature, as it perilously dries out, reinforce some primal connection to nature that remains stubbornly inert if she just looks at it?  


The theory that hands-on interactions bring benefits unachievable through other means is supported by decades of research on how people learn.  It’s why science classes visit tide pools, it’s why we dissected frogs in high school biology, and it’s why I still remember what volvox look like.


My 7th grade science class, about which I recall little else, collected water from a local pond, looked at drops under the microscope, and then constructed fabulous models of the creatures we found.  Volvox, a type of algae, are pale, ethereal balls, coated in fine translucent hairs, and often filled with smaller brilliant green globes (baby volvoxes).  I thought they were irresistibly wonderful.


I am convinced that kids should get their hands dirty, wade in shin deep mud, climb trees, build forts, and catch frogs.  Yet I have often found it oddly difficult to let my kids live this way.  One problem, of course, is that all this romantic mucking about requires young kids to have unsupervised time in natural places: something most of us are no longer comfortable with.


Carl Newmark, age 10

"Can I keep it Mommy?" Carl Newmark, age 10



But for me there is another problem.  Much of the time my family spends in nature is in areas set aside as protected places, such as state parks and land trust preserves.  The ethic in all these places, if not the actual rule of law, is to disturb the surroundings as little as possible.  In other words, keep your hands off.  At these places I teach my kids to stay on the trail, out of the trees, and off the slow-growing moss.


In our heavily used wilderness areas, an entire school of outdoor recreation has developed known as “leave-no-trace.”  You brush your very footsteps away as you leave your campsite.  This may seem silly here in sparsely populated Maine, but if you’ve ever seen the banks of once pristine alpine streams eroded into mud slides by hundreds of hikers having lunch, you’ll understand where the idea comes from.  Leaving no trace may be okay for adults, but can we teach our children to love and respect nature if we treat it like a museum?


Pondering all this recently, I decided I should let my kids spend some time in natural areas that did not have as many rules as our usual outdoor haunts.  We walked to a small wooded area just a few blocks from our house.  No trails to hike, no peaks to climb, no swimming holes to dive into, no rules.



Within minutes the kids had found five dark, sinuous salamanders, each with a red stripe running down its back.  My six year old cupped one in her hand, her giant finger petted its head.  “I’m snuggling with it!  Isn’t it cute?,” she said.  “Very cute,” I replied.  Meanwhile, alarm bells were clanging in my head: it stopped moving! you’re going to kill it! it’s too dry! you’re petting it too hard!  


She wanted to know if we could keep it.  I told her we needed to find out more about how to care for them, and she reluctantly returned it to its log.  The kids had a great time, but there was no doubt that it was because they held the salamanders, petted them, and snuggled with them.  Looking at them would not have done the trick.  


Back home, I discovered that our new friends, northern redback salamanders, are the most common salamanders in our forests.  Salamanders are a highly successful, ancient species; the modern form differs little from the earliest amphibians of 400 million years ago.  And, if age and wisdom are linked in the wilderness, redbacks are wise indeed for they can live up to 30 years.


As for keeping one as a pet, websites blared warnings at me: salamanders taken from the wild usually die of stress, handling amphibians can give you salmonella, check the regulations in your state before taking any animal home.  As if that weren’t enough, the 2004 Global Amphibian Assessment found that nearly 50% of salamanders species worldwide are at high risk for extinction.  


Hands-on with nature is not quite as simple as it was for prior generations.  With more than 6 billion people on the planet, we do have to be more careful than we used to be and we do have to teach our kids to be more careful.  It’s much easier, as well as infinitely more pleasant, to tell our kids that nature is boundless and they can play with it at will.  It’s also easier to give them a simple message to stay on the trail and keep their hands off.  


However, I fear that neither of these over-simplified messages feeds the curiosity and fascination that allow them to care, while also giving them the respect and knowledge they need to be good caretakers.  


Where does that leave me in deciding if my child can keep a redback salamander as a pet in Brunswick?  This morning I called the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.  They promised to have someone call me back.  If the state biologist says it’s okay, I will let my daughter take home a northern redback salamander; if not, I will be able to explain why not.  I finally realized that it is knowledge that will let me navigate the line between hands-on and hands-off.  

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