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Salamander Rains

There’s usually a few heavy downpours between January and March. Those chilly rains soak the frozen earth all afternoon and into the night, and the cold, clammy night air begins to warm ever so slightly, the temperature rises above 40 degrees (F), and the first amphibians respond. While we’re snuggling up to the wood stove on a stormy night listening to the cold rain splatter against our window panes, out of the torpid dormancy of winter’s dark depths, they emerge with hormones pumping – crawling and slithering – flowing with the newly moving waters.
We call these the salamander rains. It is during these chilly downpours that the spotted salamanders come a courting. These impressive critters are six to nine inches long, blue-black in color with orange and yellow polka dots. They crawl out of the forest duff and head downhill. They congregate in low swampy areas searching out vernal pools (Vernal pools are pools that are full of water in spring but are usually dry by late summer. Because they dry up part of the year they are free of predatory fish so they provide safe nurseries for tender, young larval salamanders.) Once the adult salamanders arrive at the pools, they enact ancient courtship rituals–and what a thing to witness!

Salamander Rains
Spotted salamander with egg masses. (Todd Elliott photo)

The males arrive first and gather in “congresses”. Sometimes there are just four or five in a group. Other congresses number a hundred or more. They swim madly back and forth over and under each other whipping themselves up into a sexual frenzy lasting several minutes, climaxing with the deposition of little translucent milky sperm globs known to biologists as “spermatophores”. These sperm capsules are attached to sticks and other submerged debris on or near the bottoms of the pool. Shortly after this climax, the congress dissipates/adjourns and the males disperse. Some hide themselves beneath leaves and other waterlogged debris on the bottom of the pool. We saw at least one make its way back up out of the pool onto land and crawl off, giving the impression that it had done what it come to do, now it was going back to where it came from. Where would that be? I wonder. (I have been turning over rocks and logs looking for salamanders and other critters for more than a half a century and I had never seen one of these impressive salamanders in the wild until I was out at night in a salamander rain.)
A short time later (a few minutes or perhaps as long as several days), the females arrive at the sperm littered “congress area”. Each female straddles a spermatophore and lowers herself onto it, taking it into her body, transferring it to her oviducts, pinching it off with the lips of her cloaca. Sometimes in a cold wet swamp at night I think I can almost hear them–the snapping lips of little salamander cloacas (or more properly, cloacae) as they pinch off those spermatophores. What a romantic and beautiful sound!
The next rainy night a week or so later we returned to the same area and saw females in the deeper parts of the pools clinging to sunken twigs depositing eggs. Spotted salamander egg masses are jellylike globs usually about the size of tennis balls, often containing a hundred or more eggs.
Spotted salamander eggs are distinctive because many (but not all) of the egg masses are an opaque milky white, giving the mass a cottony appearance other egg masses are clear and resemble other gelatinous amphibian eggs.
Preparing for the salamander rain
Spotted salamanders range across most of eastern North America from Canada into Georgia (except on the coastal plain where they are replaced by the even larger tiger salamanders, which have almost the same habits.)
Now is the time to get ready for the big event. Put on your rubber boots and scout out your nearby wetlands, look for pools in swampy areas at the headwaters of lakes and wet overflow areas along the flood plains of creeks and rivers. Then when the rain starts one afternoon and continues pouring after dark, and the temperature is in the forties, put on your rain gear. Grab a strong flashlight and head out and join the party. Some say that if the flashlight has a red lens it creates less disturbance to the festivities, though I have not noticed much difference when I tried. Lemmie know what you see.
I’ll be writing more about wood frogs, peepers, and about some wild times we’ve been having in our back yard newtist colony, so stay tuned.

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Interview with New Life Journal

Here is a fun storytelling interview that Maggie Cramer did with me for New Life Journal. It has lots of useful storytelling techniques and philosophy.
“Stories live in your blood and bones, follow the seasons and light candles on the darkest night—every storyteller knows she or he is also a teacher.”—Patti Davis
In the quote above, Patti Davis is talking about the power of stories: that they can teach us something about ourselves and about the world, as well as excite and entertain us at the same time. Local storyteller Doug Elliott knows this to be true. In fact, he’s seen this power expressed on people’s faces across the United States and Canada as well as in his own home. That’s in part because of the power of stories but, of course, also due to his talent as a storyteller. Doug has been a featured storyteller at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN, conducted workshops for the Smithsonian Institution, and lectured and performed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. He’s also a gifted naturalist, herbalist, and musician–elements that all play a part in bringing the stories he tells to life for his audiences of all ages. New life Journal is excited to bring you our interview with Doug. We asked him to share information about his craft as well as some of his secrets for telling great stories so that you can share their power with your children.
You describe yourself as a storyteller. In your view, what exactly is a storyteller? Is anyone who tells a story a storyteller, or is it much more than that?
I think anyone who tells a story is a storyteller and everyone has stories to tell. Some of us put more time and energy into crafting a story so that it will be accessible, meaningful, and entertaining. But storytelling is one of the basic things that makes us human. When someone asks you what you did today, and you tell them, you’re relating a narrative—a story.
When did you first become interested in the craft?
I’ve been performing and telling stories publicly for around thirty years. I’ve spent a lot of my life studying the natural world, and sharing and teaching what I’ve learned. Stories are the best way to convey information. They are the glue that makes information stick. Any teacher will tell you that. Continue reading Interview with New Life Journal

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Swarm Tree: Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life

Come join me on this adventure. It’s sort of a down-to-earth spiritual journey. We’ll be following tracks, messing with bees, chasing butterflies, stalking deer, catching fish, and picking up pawpaws — and hitchhikers. We’ll be learning the lore and natural history of the plants and animals we encounter, but we’ll also be probing Creation, asking the deeper questions, and learning the stories that connect us all.
This book is partially about crossing boundaries—journeying into new realms—gaining new perspectives. Sometimes a boundary is defined by something as tangible as a barbed wire-topped chain link fence, or something as political as a mere dotted line on a map, as legalistic as an interpretation of the law, as mutable as the shoreline of a tidal creek, and sometimes it is as unfathomable as the tender edges of a lover’s heart.
I’ll be introducing you to a number of interesting critters and plants as well as some extraordinary human characters. Along with truckers and Georgia cops, you’ll be meeting old Appalachian mountain folk, young, rowdy good ole boys, hitchhikers with butterfly nets, a renegade PhD, an ancient African-American wise woman, and my own sweet wife and son. These folks have special relationships with nature and share unique perspectives that can help us stretch our own boundaries and more fully realize our multifaceted connections to this wondrous web of life of which we are a part.
At the end of many of the chapters I have included natural history notes with information about some of the plants and animals and their ecological and cultural relationships. These notes bring the background into focus, flesh out the setting, and give a broader and deeper context to the stories being told.
So I welcome you on this adventure. We’ll be exploring the confluence of nature, humanity and spirit — diving deeply into the richness of the natural world and coming back to the surface, and we’ll be climbing high into the tree of life, exploring some of its branches and returning to earth — with amazing stories, hilarious insights, and deep spiritual truths.
$18.00 plus shipping – order from my website:

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Finding Stories in Nature

When I was a little boy about 4 or 5 years old, my dad and I came upon a small patch of wood sorrel at the edge of our yard in Maryland. My dad called it sour grass. He had learned it as a child in Louisiana. “It’s good to eat,” he told me. It was probably the first wild green plant I ever tasted. We nibbled the sour leaves there for quite a while. The intense tartness teased my young palate with a hint of the stimulating piquancy and richness of the natural world.
Wood sorrel (Oxalis sp.) is a distinctive plant. It looks somewhat like a “three-leafed clover” except that each of the three leaflets is heart-shaped. They are joined at their points so that together they form a heart-circle with smoothly scalloped edges. There are various species of wood sorrel all over North America, and in other parts of the world as well. There are at least three species in my yard in North Carolina. It was one of the first wild plants my son, Todd, ever tried. He in turn has shown it to his friends.
Once I was wandering in the North Carolina mountains with Ron Evans, a Chippewa Cree Indian from northern Canada. I was asking him about the various plants we encountered but most of what we were seeing were southern species that were unfamiliar to him. Then I spied a wood sorrel. “How ’bout this one?” I asked. He smiled. Yes, he knew that plant. One like it grows up north, he told me. He used to gather it by the basketful when he was a child. His people often eat it mixed with other greens in salads. The sour flavor works like a salad dressing.
“What do you call it?” I asked. He answered with a softly rolling collection of syllables that sounded like “cah-see-yo-ta-sko-si-ya.” When I asked him how that name might translate, he thought for a moment and said, “It means, ‘It’s all there’.” And then, as if he had never really thought about it before, he said, “I wonder why we call it that?” And we continued on our way. A little while later he stopped and said, “Ah, I know why it has that name. We consider the number six to be a representation of completeness, in the same way the six directions– North, South, East, West, Sky and Earth–represent completeness to my people. When you look at this plant, you can see that each stem has only three leaves (leaflets) so it seems incomplete. But when you look a little closer you will see that each of the three leaves is divided into two lobes. The complete number six is there, after all. So when we see this plant we say, ‘It’s all there.’ This plant teaches us that if we look closely enough within our own selves, we will see that we, too, are complete beings.”
It took my breath away to realize the deep truths that a common weed can provide when viewed from a mythic perspective. (I looked around me. “What does that plant teach, and that one, and that one?” I wondered as I looked at the oak tree, the honeysuckle vine, the wood fern and the goldenrod. ) Wood sorrel’s message is a broader one than just that of personal completeness. It is about the wholeness and completeness of nature as our source. It IS all there — not only food, clothing, and shelter, but personal answers, mythic lessons, profound stories, and deep spiritual truths are there, too; though sometimes it takes a peculiar squint of the eye for us to see and realize all this. Finding stories in nature is about squinting — or about opening our eyes up wide. It is about adjusting our way of looking at the world and trying to rearrange and broaden our perspective in order to see nature with new and different eyes that just might soften our rigid concepts about the way things are as we shed new light on ourselves and the beings that share our world. Continue reading Finding Stories in Nature

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Morel Mushroom Alert

Morels are happening! We’ve had some nice rain the last few weeks. The morels are popping up. This might be a good year and a good season to look for these easily recognizable world class gourmet mushrooms. (Take a field guide with you). It is often said that they emerge about the time the mayapples emerge. Over the years, the first place we usually find them is around our bee hives. Morels are associated around here with tulip poplars, ash, dying elms, and old apple orchards. They are sometimes found in great numbers after a forest fire. Morels are both saprobic (decomposing dead organic matter) and mycorrhizal, meaning they also connect to live plant roots in a more or less symbiotic relationship, where the fungus gets sugars and nutrients from the plant while providing the plants’ roots with a greatly increased absorptive surface area by extending mycelia out into the earth. This enhances the plant’s ability to derive nutrients from the soil.
I first learned about mycorrhizae thirty-some years ago when I was combing the botany library at UNC in Chapel Hill researching roots for my first book (Wild Roots). I was fascinated to learn that almost all healthy plant roots are infected by fungus. (“Mycorrhizae” means fungus-roots.) The plant’s good health is actually dependant on this fungal infection. Apparently even in rich soil that is sterile, without fungus, most plants can barely survive. It’s the fungal connection that allows them to thrive. This fungal connection is why certain mushrooms are found under certain trees

I have been reading (and writing) about mycorrhizae for decades but I had never actually seen them. Last summer my son, Todd, sat in on some graduate level mycology classes at Duke and at the Highlands Biological Station where they did extensive microscope work. So last week, when we were digging holes to plant muscadine grapes, and Todd unearthed a mass of mycorrhizal rootlets, we prevailed upon him to show us how to examine them with the microscopes. First at 70X we looked at the uninfected rootlets that were covered with root hairs. Root hairs are large single cells that form the primary absorptive surface of the plant roots. Then we looked at the engorged mycorrhizal rootlets (that looked like tiny twisted balloon creatures) He cut a tiny section of the rootlet, dyed it, pushed a cover slip on to it and when we looked at it at 700x. We could see the microscopic hyphal strands that penetrate between the cell walls of the rootlet and extend out from the surface. These are the parts that grow out into the soils and become part of the great mycelial web that is a primary component of the “fabric” of the earth– essential strands in the web of life. There’s a lot going on beneath our feet!