Autumn in the North Cemetery.

Sixty miles west of Boston, Massachusetts there is the small New England town of Sturbridge. Located at the junction of I-90 (The Mass Pike), and I-84 it has become known as the "Crossroads of New England". The town was first settled over 300 years ago, and like other small New England towns it has grown just enough over the years to be in a difficult place today. How do we embrace the future without forgetting how we got to our present? How do we attract the right kind of growth, and maintain who we are? And, what about our culture out here in Central Massachusetts?

These pages will cause one to think about how to protect what we have, our future direction, and how to move on in the very best way.

Those thoughts, and other ramblings, will hopefully inspire more thought, conversation, action, and occasionally a smile...

...seems to be working so far

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Every Little Bit Helps

We have a house guest.
About two weeks ago I received a call at work from home. It was from my slightly shaky voiced fiance.


"Hello. We have an animal in the basement."

"A what?"

"An animal in the basement. It could be a snake, but I saw an arm..."

"So, he's not a snake."

"I know that, " she said a little louder, shakier, and very firmly.

"Where is he?", I asked carefully so as not to upset the victim anymore.

"In the basement, over by the treadmill, poking his head and arm out of a crack."

We have an old house, and field stone basement walls. Most of the walls have been covered with concrete in between the old stones, and I have started to add more hydraulic cement to plug some of the leaks. I knew exactly where the "crack" was. It is on the floor where it meets the wall near the treadmill. It's about an inch and a half wide, and maybe an inch long. Salamander size exactly. But, five feet underground? I needed more information.

"OK, " I said, "Is he still there?". I knew as soon as the words fell out of my mouth that they were not well chosen.

"How the heck do I know?! I'm in the attic, and he's in the basement somewhere!!"

"Can you check to see, and tell me exactly what he looks like?"

Why do I do this to myself? No sooner do I mutter one stupid question, I do it again, and not a second had passed from the first question to the second. This is the point where the caring companion splits in two. One half is still the caring companion, but with guys, the other half becomes the 8 year old boy that desperately wants to know what the creature is, and more importantly, will it fit in my pocket?

"You're kidding, right?" she asked.

"Yes. Yeah, I'm kidding. Don't worry. When I get home I'll take a look, and see what I can see." I must have said the right words. She was less shaky, and I felt a sense of security in her voice.

"OK. If you catch him..."

Whoa. "If I catch him"? I'm not planning on catching him I wanted to tell her. I mean, short of using a wet dry vac, there is no way of capturing that serpent from inside that crack. Beside, it's winter. If I catch him, then what? I don't think "catch and release" applies to salamanders in the winter. Build a terrarium? Plug up the hole?

"...if you catch him", she continued, "let him go somewhere, and I don't want to see it."

"OK. No problem. Goodnight"

Well, this will work out well, I thought. I will check out the beast in the morning, and if I don't see it, it will be good. Then I won't have to think of what to do with him.

I went to the basement when I got home and searched all over for any signs of the one-armed snake head thing. Nothing. I admitted to my poor hunting later that day. There was a pause in the conversation as if the next word out of my mouth should be, well there's always tomorrow.

More long pause.

"Well, there's always tomorrow.", I finally said.

Days went by. Nothing. Oh, I looked. I snuck downstairs. I looked in the dark. I used the flashlight. I changed my voice. I tried a lot of different things short of using salamander mating pheromones to find him. Nothing.

"I saw him again.", she taunted me every few days. Still, I had not seen it. I was beginning to suspect that this animal was all in her head. I half suspected she would next tell me that she not only saw him, but he was wearing a pair of Capri's and the prettiest little top, and they had a tea party in the basement together.

On Christmas evening, my loving little friend took some of her family on a tour of the house. They went into the basement.

"Well, we saw it."her niece said when they came back upstairs.

Now there were witnesses.

Funny thing is, that during the past couple of weeks since this animal was first discovered, my fiance has become more comfortable with seeing it. It is always in the same place, and it just looks at her as she uses the treadmill. Last night, she named it. Don't ask. And, tonight, she told me she actually saw more of it, it's black with yellow spots on its back, and they had reached an understanding. He will hang out of his hole no more than an inch or so, and she would use the treadmill. After she is done, he can do what he wants down there.

An agreement. My fiance and the salamander reached an understanding.


OK, here's where we stand now. We have a creature sharing the house with us. No problem. My little friend has become more and more comfortable with him. This is good for a city girl. And, we have tentatively identified him as a Spotted Salamander. Great. So far so good.

Or is it?

As I was reading up on Spotted Salamanders I read that although they are not endangered, they are threatened.

Threatened by Goodyear.

See, once a year, in late winter when the ground is no longer frozen and the temperature hits 45 F these salamanders all get a little lust in their hearts and head out, en masse, to mate. Trouble is they seem to always like to mate on the other side of the road and many are killed on their way. Soooo, the good animal loving folks in the area will arrange to all go out on that particular night, (I wonder if they set up a phone tree, or if they have people hiding in the bushes to sound the alert?) and block roads, hand carry, and guide the little amphibians across the road. Some towns actually build tunnels under the road for the turtles, frogs, and salamanders like in Amherst.

Now, I'm worried. Word will get out about the guy living in my basement, and some March evening my street will inundated with the good volunteers from the Opacum Land Trust. I can see it now. My basement will be designated a vernal pool. The road will be blocked off, some guy in an orange flourescent vest will be directing traffic with red tipped flashlights as if he were parking a 747 as a half dozen Opacumites coach the salamander across Route 148.

That journey could take till morning. And, you know where I'll be??

Not sleeping, that's for sure, but probably serving coffee.

At least I'll be doing my part for the environment.

For more information about salamanders and vernal pools go to:

Opacum Land Trust

Photo Credit: Spotted salamander by Leo Kenney,


  1. Talk about an eye opener - this was better than coffee!

    I must say that I was very surprised to see the yellow-spotted salamander on your blog page, but even more surprised to see the Opacum Land Trust logo on your blog. Be careful - you may be labled as an SOS supporter, or worse, a member!

    What a great story, and very amusing. First, I must say that true to your statements on this blog, you have strived to find balance and harmony with the creature, so kudos to you and your fiance.

    Secondly, the yellow-spotted salamander is not an endangered species, but others from his family are, such as his/her chubby cousin and Opacum's mascot, the marbled salamander (ambystoma opacum).

    These animals go underground in winter, that's why they're commonly called "mole salamanders" and lucky him/her found your basement!

    Thirdly, tell your fiance that he/she will be in your basement eating bugs that also live down there during winter - I view salamanders as the other "spider" with 4 less legs and much, much cuter. They are not slimy either. Let him/her get chubby - it's to your advantage.

    And last, he/she will leave the confines of your basement in spring when he/she will search out the breeding pool in which he/she was born. Have no fear - your basement will not be certified as a vernal pool, nor will anyone try to help the creature across the road. Chances are, his/her breeding pool is up to 1,000' from your house. Also, based on your description, it sounds like a mature salamander; they can live up to 20 years, so probably he/she has avoided the road to become a mature individual.

    Enjoy this relationship over winter. Learn from it. Not that you asked for any advice, but if it were me, I would just let it do its thing; if it cannot survive in your basement, it will leave. If it's trapped, it will die a natural death.

    This is nature at your doorstep! Er, in your basement!

  2. Carol, Thank you. It is good to know that this salamander is not one of the endangered ones. I remember as a kid finding them everywhere in Medfield. I think the only thing endangered would have been me if I had not taken care of the critter. Fortunately, he has found a "buddy", and they are now sharing the space, and won't be evicted anytime soon.



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