Last week, Henry brought home a non-fiction library book from school: U.S. Marine Corps. He’s selected other books in the Fighting Forces series about the Navy and the Army, so I wasn’t really surprised. Last night, he chose to read the first chapter of it for one of his bedtime books. I proudly told him that his Grandpa Kinne was a Marine, to which he replied, “I know, Mom. And Uncle Devon was in the Navy. Can we read now?” Such impatience.

On the first page, the Marines are described as an amphibious force:

The Marines, however, have a special role to play. They are trained to fight on land after arriving by sea. That’s why the Marines are called an amphibious force.1

Henry is pretty on the ball because he asked what amphibious meant. When I flipped to the glossary and read the definition, he still had a confused look on his face. I said “There’s also a group of animals called amphibians that can live both in and out of water, like frogs,” and Henry had his eureka moment. We talked more about frogs because I couldn’t think of any other amphibians, which I readily admitted. Henry said “We’re amphibians because we can swim and walk!” I had to explain that it’s not just being able to be in water and on land, but to actually be able to live on water and land. We chatted about gills and lungs and eventually went back to reading.

Two sentences later, I remembered that salamanders are also amphibians and stopped reading to talk about them. To my dismay, Henry did not know what salamanders or their more colorful cousins, the newts, are. Blasphemy! If six-year-old me could have marched him out to the Pond right now, she would have.

The house I grew up in in South Barnard used to have a beaver pond next door, which is why I feel free to capitalize pond in the previous paragraph – it was simply the Pond to us. It was so close, just down a well-worn path that I think was the original Route 12. If my parents had been able to swing it, they could have bought that land along with the 3 or so acres that they got with the house. Instead, the land sat fallow (basically), owned by the Pearson family, from whom they bought the house, until the late 80s when the Whites bought it, after the beaver dam had burst during a prolonged period of spring rain. The Pond drained, it eventually went back to being a brook running through a meadow.

When I was small, we would walk to the Pond on summer nights, sit at the white picnic pavilion there, and quietly watch the beavers, who could be seen swimming if we were quiet. And if we weren’t quiet, like when we walked over the hill and sat on my Rock (explanation to follow), clomping through the woods, one of the beavers would slap their tails on the water in warning. The rest would dive and head for their lodge. But if we were quiet enough and waited long enough, they would come back out and cavort. I even remember seeing a baby beaver swimming (presumably) with its’ mama.

So about my Rock. Shortly after being given free reign to explore the woods around the house, Devon2

and I both chose rocks to be our hangouts, like a clubhouse but a rock. These were no ordinary rocks; they were big rocks, boulders, much taller than we were. Devon chose a rounded white rock (probably quartzite or dolomite – I’m no geologist so this is a guess) on top of the hill between the house and the pond. It had a view of the house and our driveway and of part of the pond, Route 12 to the south. Now that I think about it, he may have chosen that rock long before Mom would let me roam the woods on my own. Clearly, it was the better choice because of the view.

My rock was the one all four of us would climb up and sit on to watch the beavers. It dark brown and probably basalt or a dark sandstone (again, I’m no geologist but I know it wasn’t shale or slate). It was part of an old foundation, with a very low, 3-sided stone wall cupping the straight back, a bit of a ledge which was where I stored all of my moss, which I loved and collected. The front was scooped out a little on the right, sloped up a bit, and the top was fairly flat with another long rock along the back side. In short, it looked like a giant couch to me.

Devon and I would spend hours hanging out at our Rocks. In the fall, the foundation behind mine would fill up with leaves and I could jump down into them without much effort. In the winter, the beveled part of the front became a slide. Spring and summer brought moss and flower collecting, to be stored on the ledge. I wish I had pictures or knew the names of those mosses, but alas, Wikipedia tells me there are 12,000 species and the last time we went hiking nearby (on Mt. Tom, which has similar mosses), we forgot to charge the camera fully. In all seasons, my Rock became a house, a pioneer’s cabin, a ship, a lonely mountain top – really, whatever I or my friends needed it to be.

The Pond was, of course, a big attraction for Devon and I; it had both frogs and salamanders that we would catch and release, catch and release – the game was in the catching, not in having them. One spring, I figured out where the frogs liked to deposit their eggs and convinced Mom to let me try hatching some at home. She gamely offered up an old casserole dish. I watched as a few of the eggs, which look like eyeballs with a clear white and no iris, morphed into polliwogs and began to swim around in the dish. The jig was up when the survivors, many of whom had grown legs, began to eat the remaining eggs, which were clearly developing into polliwogs themselves, as well as each other (survival of the fittest!) and the whole casserole pond began to smell bad.

The salamanders we caught we slimy and more agile than the orange newts that would come out after rain storms. Unfortunately, as you can see from the previous sentence, for most of my life, I thought these were two separate creatures – the slimy dull salamanders and the pretty newts that were hard to find. They are, in fact, the same creature: the eastern newt or red-spotted newt. The cute orange ones, called red efts, live on land and are juveniles, while the slimy duller ones in the water are adults. I preferred the red efts3

; they were easier to pick up and hang onto, and I remember mounting more than one rescue mission to save them from the perils of Route 12 after a rain storm.

These are some things I miss about Vermont and the way I grew up. Living in the suburbs of DC (really, Leesburg is being swallowed by sprawl) is giving them different opportunities, and there is even a pond on the land behind the house (though I don’t let the kids go there alone and I have to check them for ticks when they come home), I just haven’t taken the opportunity to show them nature as I know it, as I grew up with it.

By the way, Merriam-Webster (11th edition available online) defines amphibian as:

1 : an amphibious organism; especially : any of a class (Amphibia) of cold-blooded vertebrates (as frogs, toads, or salamanders) intermediate in many characters between fishes and reptiles and having gilled aquatic larvae and air-breathing adults

2 : an amphibious vehicle; especially : an airplane designed to take off from and land on either land or water
And, just for good measure, eft is:
: newt; especially : the terrestrial phase of a predominantly aquatic newt

Footnotes! It’s what’s for dinner.

  1. I feel the need to source this properly or as close to properly as I can get without looking in a style guide, so here it goes. “U.S. Marine Corps,” Cooper, Jason. Rourke Publishing LLC, (c) 2004, page 4.
  2. He was Smokey to us all then, named after one of Dad’s Marine buddies who didn’t make it home. My brother has me so well-trained that I can’t call him by that name anymore.
  3. Now I can prefer them for a whole new reason: their name. Red eft makes me think of Ents and The Lord of the Rings.

One thought on “Amphibians

  1. I had a pond too. I can't fathom the absolute freedom we had as children being at all available in this 'new' world to our children, and that makes me sad. We've traded fresh air and adventure for the Internet and video games to some extent.


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