Mudpuppy

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.

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5 comments
  1. Have I ever told you about the time my dad brought home a bunch of mudpuppies to live in our pool cover during the fall? It was one of the most magical memories of my childhood, that such a thing could exist, that we had them in your yard, and that he’d done this for us. Your children won’t forget, either.

    I also enjoyed your thoughts on seeing: “…the act of seeing may still involve rolling stones” — yes, that’s right. And the rolling of stones is what *this* place requires of me, if I’m to see what it is; but not appropriate in *that* place. The essential activity of seeing is response to what is there.

  2. Dave, Yes, this is very much like what I mean when I talk about being open to what the encounter with other requires of me. I approach what is attentively, openly, seeingly. I am encountered. I am moved to respond.

  3. Curtis said:

    Blind River eh, I just passed through there Thursday night on my way to Nipigon.

    Your tale reminds me of my cousins tormenting creyfish we were far too timid and illequipped to acquire and study. I believe their cottages would be up in the Perry Sound area.

    Now, a question, a little theological; perhaps an observation. It seems to me that your searching was in both realms, that of a specifity, a will, and a notion that is perhaps excessively or necessarily illusive- known without definitions: Like the Kingdom of Heaven. At which point you search out for the definition and find the illusive, in the salamander, that is perhaps the rarist of all, the mudpuppy, and came in a way unimagined, with much more opportunity and potential, an opportunity, which may have been lossed, missed even; if you had not been looking for a salamander at all in all the likely places, perhaps you would have ruined the chance to find a salamander in a place that may not have yielded shelter, safety, or may have prevented its chance to take root. At which point though I think you meant to say your feelings of seeing, were lacking, in fact were successful and fitting with your definition. Or at least that is how I see it.

  4. Curtis, I am not sure that I follow what you are saying entirely, but I would say that I was not really seeing, not in the sense that Dave means, because I was not open to what was right there around me. I was so concerned with salamanders that I could no longer truly see ants, and beetles, and toads and everything else that I encountered along the way. Am I approaching an answer to your question?

  5. Curtis said:

    Yes, but in the midst of that lack of seeing, the mudpuppy was able to find you, and though you had a defined goal, through your lack of seeing, it was able to define itself- I doubt incredibly that in seeing all these other things, in pusuit of your definition, that the mudpuppy would have impressed upon you, or even have been quite as valuable, if you had found what you were intent on, perhaps have even distracted you from finally seeing.

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