Spirit of Nature


What Color is Your Salamander?

By Paul Dayton

Did you ever ask somebody to tell you a story? My kids did and I want to offer you a story I told them about their family history. I repeat it for you as it serves my purpose of introducing the spirit of nature.

When I was about 6 we lived in remote Oregon logging camps where my father struggled to make a very poor living. The camps were basically bunkhouses and dining rooms with almost no families, so often we were placed in shacks away from the camps. Since there were no other families, I had no friends and spent my time wandering in the woods. One day I found a huge yellow-orange salamander that badly scared me. I ran back to the chopping block to get the big axe we used for firewood and was lugging it back to chop the salamander to bits when my mother saw me and persuaded me that the salamander was my friend.

I spent the rest of the summer “playing” with my friend. She came out from under a rotting log about 10 a.m. and wandered around the small swamp buried under skunk cabbage. I would watch her and other wildlife in the bog, but there was a lot I did not see in that single summer; she was probably 20-40 years old when I met her, and I never saw her take a boyfriend or even eat a large meal I could identify. The old loggers told me that long ago the males came over the mountain from a different drainage to breed with the females in my valley (and vise versa), but the other drainage had been logged and dammed, and no more salamanders came over the ridge to visit my friend.

Very sadly, that species is now almost extinct. I doubt that many people know more about the giant salamander than I learned as a child and surely few will ever know as much as those loggers. I tell you this story because I doubt if you’ll ever have a chance to experience it because the salamander is almost extinct.

What are your fantasies of nature? Have you laid back and gazed at the blue sky? I used to do that looking through the tiger lilies that lived with my salamander, and I was able to see clouds that were frogs, whales, and even ghosts. Often in the evening, when they are backlit, we might see thin threads drifting along the sky. These are usually evidence of spiders that use their threads to “balloon” to new habitats. I hope that you have enjoyed such experiences in nature and that you have enjoyed your wonderful ability to fantasize and dream.

I presume like people everywhere you asked where you came from. Your parents probably were able to get you back a few generations. I am lucky because I was able to learn about my roots from my family and can talk about two sets of ancestors who came on the Mayflower or one of the other little boats and my father’s Dutch roots came to New York with Peter Stuyvesant. Perhaps some of you also know a few hundred years of roots in Asia, Europe, or Africa. I hope you are proud of your roots.

But where were your roots 1000 years ago? 10,000 years? 30,000 years? What do you know about the history of your species – Homo sapiens? What makes you proud to be human? What is your relationship to humanity, to nature? What is nature? How do you think nature was involved with the evolution of our own species? Think about the ice age artists of Europe 25-35,000 years ago. Look carefully at the paintings of stalking lions, hulking cave bears, those wonderful horses flying through the millennia with their heads together, legs straining, manes flowing in the wind, mouths open breathing, their eyes looking straight ahead – we can practically smell their sweat.

How about the Australian artists – remember that they came to Australia long before Homo sapiens showed up in Europe. They definitely were there 40,000 years ago and possibly 60,000 years ago. For perspective, remember that Neanderthal may have survived to some 20,000 years overlapping in time the Australians. The ancient x-ray art in Australia shows elaborate understanding of the organ systems of all sorts of animals, even showing the split lengths of snake lungs. Their art details the dreamtime creation stories that have such wonderful detail and spiritual importance. While very very old, in my mind their culture is one of the richest in the world.

Primitive people were spectacularly accomplished naturalists. Surely human beings have evolved a keen sense of curiosity and a sense of wonder about nature. In addition, we have evolved an elaborate ability to fantasize and moralize, and I think that these are some of the assets that make us human.

Unfortunately the enthusiasm to fantasize is trivialized by our hypercritical peers. Wouldn’t it be fun to be familiar with nature and self confident enough to fantasize about value systems of the plants and animals in nature? They all have issues that are important to them such as acquiring nutrients, cross-fertilization, protection from enemies, etc. How do they go about dealing with these issues? What would it be like to be a plant? If a plant could think as you do, what would it be worrying about? Getting light, rain, and nutrients? Perhaps trying to identify the “good” insects that pollinate from the “bad” ones that kill the children (the seeds). Would it think about offering a habitat to snakes that eat the mice that eat the seeds?

Have you ever sat on the beach and contemplated a grain of sand and asked where it came from? What has it been through during its very long life? What type of rock did it come from and where has that rock been? As you learn more about the earth you will learn that the rock has had a fantastic adventure over the last 4.5 billion years! The truth will challenge your ability to fantasize! Ask how your La Jolla rock differs from one along the Texas coast, the Maine or Australian or Asian coasts? How about the sand on a beautiful Pacific atoll? It came from animals of some sort! The fact that a great deal of the beach sand in the tropics comes from animals leads to another series of questions! What was the beach like without any sand? What does sand do for the shore? It dampens the energy of the waves, so without sand it would be a different place.

Now, my normal job is to teach about biology in the ocean. But let’s set the stage with some more fantasy. Imagine a big balloon full of seawater. The balloon is completely porous and the water experiences exactly what the outside water experiences, but because it is in a bag, you can let your mind imagine what has happened to the water over the last hour? How far does it move in an hour? Over the last day, week, month, year? Where was that water 10 years ago? 100 years ago? 1000? What is responsible for its moving about and changing? But how about 100,000 years? Even a million? How about 100 million years ago? Chances are good that at 100 million years ago it was anaerobic. How about a billion years ago? There were biotic organisms even then. What were they like? How did they affect the bag of water? What are the consequences of the production and loss of oxygen? How do these things happen? It is much harder to imagine the ocean in the really big picture but much more important.

Let me finish by returning to your cultural and natural heritage and challenge you to challenge the academic establishment, itself a result of cultural evolution. Unfortunately, as with the rest of society, academe has its share of ideologues that control the curricula we offer the students. The academic establishment is simply a structure devised by a collection of human beings, some wise and some not. Over the last 20-40 years academe has removed almost all efforts to teach you about the very nature that I think you were evolved to love. With very few exceptions, academe has removed all vestiges of natural history, systematics, behavior, etc. Future teachers do not learn it and they cannot teach it to children. I despair because I see this as ripping from your soul a sense of wonder that I consider important to you and to our culture. This narrowness denies interested students the opportunity to learn about nature.

Ask yourself about flying creatures. What can this university teach you about the differences between pterodactyls and pterosaurs and birds? Bats and flying squirrels and flying fish? The origin of birds? Were they dinosaurs? What is a ratite and how did it evolve? Why did penguins lose the ability to fly when ecologically similar murres fly well? How are the very different groups of birds related to each other? What natural selection processes led to their divergences? How about lizards and snakes? Or bees, wasps, flies and the other insects. Why do some insects have totally different ecological niches when they are juveniles and adults? Does that make them more vulnerable to a loss of one of the habitats? How many species of wild mammals live on our campus? How many species of reptiles live on campus? How many species of frogs and salamanders? What is in dirt? Look and see! How does a mite live, a worm, a gopher? These are animals you should know about, but there are over 50 phyla of animals you are mostly unaware of in the ocean! This is the exalted biodiversity, but what do all these species really do? What do they eat? How do they make love, raise their kids? What do the babies do? In most cases they occupy very different niches? Is there a limit to how many niches are out there? How would you evaluate that question?

Think back to my salamander. At this university there is a small group of ecologists, and a few of them are excellent naturalists who even take students into the nature. But mostly the closest you will come to your salamander would be a chunk of her DNA. So before you are even introduced to her, somebody would have stuffed her into a blender and extracted chemically interesting pieces you study instead of the animal. As you biologists struggle through the knowledge that you are fed in the university, ask yourself what color your salamander is, what does it eat and love? Does it crawl over mountains to find mates? Do salamanders take care of their kids?

Because of the award system in academe, most of the professors are specialists who deride the natural history I think is important to your soul. Please fight this as hard as you can. Don’t give up on nature! She is badly battered, but still beautiful and fascinating. Don’t allow the biologists to grind up all your salamanders! Try very hard to find an institution that gives you the material you really want.


Last revised 17-Aug-13