Slow Flame

by Nick Neely

Once, in Northern California, she and I were walking through a redwood park with old growth trees, when we heard something up a side canyon, a kind of whispering. Curious, we walked up the draw along a deer trail and discovered a wildfire burning unannounced in the forest, a line of flame hardly wider than my hand. It was windless and quiet—not even the sound of wrens—and the fire was moving a few inches at a time. You could stand there and watch it come forward as if it were creeping on its belly, and I remember thinking: Even a newt could outrun this.

There is canyon next to my old home south of San Francisco, one among many, and as in most canyons, the legacy redwoods were cut a century ago. The massive stumps remind of wrecked ships. But a few great trees remain higher up, still clinging to the steepest ground, the most difficult to cut. Almost all of them are fire-scarred: their fibrous bark singed, or their hearts fully hollowed and charred. Redwoods survive fires because their wood is saturated with tannins, a fire retardant and also a mild poison, which gives them their sunset interior.

In this forest and the surrounding oak woodlands, during most times of the year, one can find California newts, Taricha torosa, ambling carelessly, it seems, in all directions. They are the color of decaying needle: deep brown on top, their underbellies a brilliant orange. They hatch in cold creeks and ponds, where for a time they have feathery external gills, but they become terrestrial during the late summer, walking off into the duff in search of bloodworms and sowbugs. At the first hard rain, they return to their natal waters to spawn and, each winter, a few adults returned to our concrete basement, to the flooded drain where they were born.

When threatened by a prodding finger, Taricha newts curl their tails over their granular backs in an arch, an act as sensual as it is intimidating. When I was young, I wondered why I never found their bones in the pellets of the great horned owls roosting in the shadows of certain trees, but it’s not because they seem to have none: their skin carries a poison, tetrodotoxin, hundreds of times more potent than cyanide. Easily enough to kill a grown human, if you were to swallow one and keep it from wriggling back up into the light. So they flash their golden undersides as if to say, Wash your hands, wash your hands. Only garter snakes, with a red stripe down their backs, have evolved immunity. They strangle and gulp newts whole.

Newts belong to the family Salamandridae, and in the occult, the salamander is believed to have a unique connection to fire and, thus, medicinal properties. Aristotle wrote, “And the Salamander shows that it is possible for some animal substances to exist in the fire, for they say fire is extinguished when this animal walks over it.” Pliny the Elder concurred: “This animal is so intensely cold as to extinguish fire by its contact, in the same way that ice does.” Their glistening skin does suggest an immense wetness. And as newts and salamanders often hide or hibernate in logs, probably they are sometimes found near or among the ashes of a hearth. I have never seen such a thing, but I have found snakeskin in a woodstove, its broad belly scales glowing like windows.

One year our basement flooded during a heavy December storm. My mother enlisted us to help mop up the rain that was seeping in, somehow, through the walls; the same rain that was also feeding a hidden pool, the perennial source of young newts that would stumble inside and wander the concrete. A thick blue carpet was sopping, as heavy as stone and destined for the dumpster, while the skirt of an old couch wicked water toward its cushions. A mop already leaned against one wall, and when I lifted it, newts came tumbling out of the wooly dreadlocks, plopping quietly. But not all of them: We had to shake out others that clung to these coils of moisture like children to a mother’s hair.

When they landed squirming on the concrete, they turned over so lazily, almost reluctantly, and returned to their feet. Began to pace. Over the years, I would carry them outside by the handful, most of them first-year newts, about two-inches long. As a child, to hold one in your hand is to imagine holding a newborn. Even as an adult. The peculiar softness of it, the pinky quality, their slow motions. Momentarily your hand becomes a womb in which you hold a memory or premonition of your own evolution.

Inevitably I would forget to check the basement and some would desiccate. The moisture run out. In a desk drawer in my former room there is a tiny white jewelry box, made of cardboard, that perhaps once belonged to my mother. Inside I gathered the dead like potpourri, this beautiful “rotten” flesh. Through their parchment skin, you can see the bracelet of their spine. Only the faintest of smells, something like the apricot scent of the chanterelle slices we dried each winter. I stole them from the basement and shut them up in my cardboard sarcophagus, occasionally lifting the lid to look in. As if I wanted to see if they were ready to rise and go, back to the redwoods. Taricha in fact means “mummy,” their name likely inspired by their warty appearance in life.

I remember one particular year finding newts squashed by the dozen on the road leading to our house. It was just as I became aware of their existence, and mainly I recall feeling helpless to save them, to stand guard long enough. Pressed to the pavement like oversized worms, their pygmy limbs and jaws were identifiable among the otherwise freeform S of their bodies. There are particular roads in Northern California that, thankfully, close each year to cars during the newt migration, including one famous stretch in Tilden Park of Berkeley from November through April. Yellow “Newt Crossing” signs—a black, curled silhouette floating at center—also go up to caution mountain bikers to slow. But newts know no boundaries, and if the rains come in October, they begin to plod before the cars are outlawed. I’ve read of one man who, at six each morning, would ride his bike, like a boy on an early paper route, to see if he could see the newts shining on the road. To carry them across, in their direction.

Shortly after we met, she and I visited my hometown together. It was early January, and we decided to take a walk one night in the rain. Above the redwoods, we came to a small, lush meadow where the jeep tracks ran with rivulets and newts. Extrapolating from our flashlight beams, thousands lay in the dark wetness. Trying to find each other. Pacing with cinnamon eyes. My approach was to examine the patch where my foot would fall and then move forward confidently. But further up the hill, when I looked back, there she was, frozen, scanning the ground around her as if a newt might dash under her boot and she could never forgive herself. I had to go back and retrieve her, take her hand, convince her that the newts would survive.

More recently, but years ago now, we lived off the grid in the woods of Oregon for several seasons. We were still young in our relationship then, younger. No other lights in the valley, few visitors. She painted each day and I made attempts at writing, often staying up late into the night by the thrumming woodstove. Not far up the hill from our meadow was an artificial pond where Taricha newts swam lazily along the weedy edge. These were the California newt’s closest cousin, the rough-skinned, granulosa. When both species enter their breeding waters, their skin becomes smooth, loosing its warty texture. Their tails elongate and grow thin, like butter knives, to serve as a propeller and rudder. They glide in casual circles and dive into the muck ahead of their corkscrewing tails. Looking down from the bank into the pond, we thought them like bathers in a park.

We swam in the pond on the hottest days and, as caretakers, once we waded in and tore out the sharp aquatic grass around its edges. Occasionally we would see a couple in the shallows in amplexus, a word that means “an embrace.” He grasping her from behind, rubbing her snout with a gland below his chin. They drift together untethered. The male develops “nuptial pads,” which look like black thimbles on his sixteen fingers, to improve his chances of holding onto her. For she might squirm away, never to be seen again. We had missed the season, but earlier in the spring, wild clusters of newts can be found, a mass of males all competing for a single female somewhere in the slimy fray.

The pond was decades old and originally subsidized by the Forest Service so that, in case of wildfire, one of their helicopters could dip a massive bucket on a chain and swing up with water. All these years, the water has only ever fed the homestead’s garden; our tomatoes were nurtured by the newt’s algal pool. But last summer, the steep drainages finally burned, over a hundred thousand acres across the river. The river canyon, as we knew and came to admire it, was rewritten in a week’s time. The cabin hillside was spared, but I am left imagining newts by the hundreds raining into the fir below the whirring blades, beside each other: their bellies the color of the conflagration, their movement in free fall a kind of slow flame.

Published on April 22, 2014