A tale of Redback Salamander dismemberment, and how it saved the tails of its brothers.
One spring day, just after the snow had melted, my kindergartners were in the woods for Forest Friday. A younger brother was visiting with a parent and he found a salamander. While passing it from hand to hand the two year old in question accidentally ripped the tail from its owner. Kindergartners were fascinated; the tail was twitching. And the salamander, suddenly released by the youngster, seemed to have darted away. Could it really go on without its tail? Heated discussion ensued. Redback Salamanders are plentiful in our woods space, and children fanned out to find more. Other students asked to consult our nature guide, Naturally Curious, to find out more about the Redback Salamander. Meg helped look up salamanders while a curious student took notes to share with the class.
The next thing I knew a kindergartner had yet another bodiless tail wriggling in his hand. A group of girls gaped and protested.
“You killed it!” they exclaimed.
“No, it can still live with out its tail.” replied the boy, his wide eyes betraying uncertainty.
The girls carried on pretty dramatically, mounting a detailed funeral ceremony, and constructing a memorial site to the missing and presumed dead salamander.
The boy in question felt worse and worse. My inclination was to comfort him, and subdue the girls. But this was the chance for a lasting lesson that would endure longer than any “don’t touch wildlife” or “handle animals gently” rule I could try to enforce. Talking with the young student later I asked if he would need to take the tail off a salamander again, his answer was a resolute, though quiet, no. The suffering of the salamander, and the horror of his classmates, clearly weighed on his shoulders.
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As Meg and I are speaking with other educators about taking children into the woods there are a few common discussions we find ourselves in. One is about how we manage the young childrens’ seeming destruction of the nature to which we’ve brought them. Though we catch ourselves at times reacting harshly, “Put that salamander down! It’s had enough love!” we try our best to let the children experience nature on their own terms, “loving” snails, salamanders, worms and spring ephemerals. The forest is not a place we want to fill with rules about not-touching, staying on the trail, or with sharp castigations for interacting with our space and our company. If we were to do so, all these rules of engagement “no picking! no collecting! take down your forts! leave the rocks in place!” would crowd out the authentic learning of empathy that a natural, if often coarse, handling of the world provides young children.
As a young child myself I have a painfully clear memory of catching a painted turtle laying eggs one hot spring day with my best friend,Cheryl, at her house on the lake in our New Hampshire town. We carefully picked up the leathery egg cupped in our hands, put some water in a five gallon bucket, added some grass and watched the turtle scrape around in the bottom for a bit, before running off to play more at the water’s edge. When we returned we found that the turtle, stuck in the bucket, and likely very agitated to be trapped in plastic in the hot sun, had stepped on, and ripped the egg. I flinch as I write this twenty-five years later. I felt horrible. HORRIBLE. I still do. What a terrible thing I had done to this turtle, to the world.
Just recently, after having my first child myself, my mother passed on a journal she kept while I was growing up. From June 6, 1989: Last night I came in to kiss you goodnight and you were crying in your bed. “The turtle egg got crushed and it’s all my fault.” I tried to tell you it was an accident, that you had taken good care of it as best you could, but you were very upset. “But I killed a living thing.” You’re so hard on yourself!
Imagine the day a differently. My friend and I find the turtle, but a hovering adult shouts at us to leave it alone, “Don’t mess with wildlife!” or even a kinder “Leave the momma turtle alone so her babies are healthy.” Cheryl and I go on our way making mud castles and jumping in the lake. That evening I’m not crying at bedtime, and that day does not sear itself into my memory. That lesson goes, at least for one more day, unlearned. There is a part of me that wishes to relive the day without being responsible for the death of a baby turtle because of the guilt I still carry. But it is that guilt that I recall as I drive at dusk on country roads, and slow down, lest a deer choose to cross my path. It is that empathy I exercise when leaving some of my fields unmowed so that bees have flowers to visit. For that one ugly experience in 1989 it’s hard telling how much wildlife has been spared since. Systematically keeping children from these experiences might do more harm than good.
I don’t advocate encouraging children to hurt animals of course. I can’t help but ask them to take the animal’s perspective, and to consider just watching. But I bite my tongue too; we don’t have any rules against picking up salamanders, worms and beetles, because giving kids the space to have authentic interactions with nature, however scarring for the animal, and the child, is part of building an empathetic adult.
Ken Finch, of the Green Hearts organization wrote an essay on this topic that helped me come to my understanding of this process for children, and helped me to make peace with the possibility of salamander death each year. Read his essay here.
And, in case your interest is piqued, salamanders do “autotomize” their tails in defense, the tails do continue to wriggle as part of this defense mechanism, and Redbacked Salamanders are more than plentiful in the Northeast, in some cases found to number more than 1,000 per acre. This is an example of the kind of research and non-fiction text reading for detail that an authentic experience in the woods can lead a very earnest group of kindergartners to undertake.