Essay: A newt by any other name

Illustration of young girl with a salamander on her arm

When I was a kid, we rented a house in Hemlock Farms, Pennsylvania, which my parents simply called “the country.” After a rainstorm, my brother and I would race into the misty wilderness, our eyes sharp. We were on the lookout for red-spotted newts. We mistakenly called them salamanders—a good indicator of how clueless we were about nature.

Tiptoeing to make sure we didn’t crush one of these adorable amphibians, we would shout to one another as we found and carefully palmed them, one at a time. Rumor had it they fell asleep when you rubbed their soft bellies, and we would sometimes try this. But more often the goal was simply to let them crawl slowly around our hands and arms and then gingerly place them back on the ground. We kept a count and would report back to our parents, who, as former city kids themselves, expressed nearly as much delight as we did. Sure, there were turkeys and deer and the occasional bear, but the real mascot of our summer months in nature was the red-spotted newt.

We never put them in jars; we knew they belonged to the woods. They taught us to care for something fragile, to love it fiercely and release it gently. To this day, while hiking with fellow adults, I will point out every little bright-orange lizard, sometimes gently holding one for my nervous friends to check out or simply counting them as I hike by—still a grateful city kid in nature, still in love with salamanders.

Gabrielle Sierra is the host of the Council on Foreign Relations podcast Why It Matters and has published pieces in Billboard, InStyle, Fansided, Paste, and Gothamist. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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