My eldest son set me a task as we were driving up to Parry Sound this past Saturday: “Dad, let’s find a salamander.”
This task, I knew, would be harder than he realized. Though my brothers and I regularly found salamanders during the summers we spent on Manitoulin Island and in Blind River, I found the little creatures to be much less common when I went to find them as an adult, even in the same places. We used to keep in a bucket six or eight specimens at a time of what I now think were Redback Salamanders, but I have not seen more than one of these a summer in recent years, though I am unsure whether this is due to a decline in their population or to a decrease in my patience in looking for them.
In any case, I was non-committal about our chances of finding a salamander during our stay at the lake, and my caution proved justified. I turned countless rocks and logs, discovering more ant nests than I thought possible and a precious few worms that went to feed our catch and release fishing sessions from the end of the dock. I also found a toad, a patch of previously unknown blueberry bushes, and several species of beetle, but no salamanders.
On the first day we were there, however, on a whim, I tossed the minnow trap into the water beside the boathouse. It was unbaited, and I did not expect to catch anything much. I may even have forgotten about it entirely if it had not begun to rain on our fishing yesterday afternoon. I caught sight of the trap as we headed for shelter in the boathouse, so I decided to check it as we passed, and there, huddled against the side, was a common mudpuppy.
This was certainly not what my son had meant by a salamander, and certainly not what I had expected to find for him, but it was a very interesting creature nonetheless. The mudpuppy is an aquatic salamander, having external gills and spending its time almost exclusively in the water. It also grows quite large, our specimen being something like ten inches in length. My son was overjoyed, and I was excited as well, since it was the first time I had been able to hold and examine a mudpuppy at such close quarters.
As we were releasing the salamander back into the water, I suddenly remembered a conversation that I once had with Dave Humphrey about seeing. It occurred to me that I had been looking for something in particular, for something that I expected to find only in a certain way and in a certain place, rather than seeing what was actually there, rather than being watchful for what I might actually encounter. Rather than allowing myself to simply explore and see what was there, and I had been looking past my surroundings in search of something that may not have been there at all.
Of course, the act of seeing may still involve rolling stones, or tossing out a minnow trap, for that matter. It just rolls stones differently. It rolls them, not in order to find something in particular, not in expectation, but in order to see what there might be, in wonder. It explores rather than searches. It attends. It approaches. It encounters. It experiences. It allows itself to be surprised.