Saturday, October 16

The venom of the salamander | Catalonia


A common salamander found in Montseny.
A common salamander found in Montseny.

Since I was a child I have a special relationship with salamanders, probably the most elusive and secret creatures of the forest, almost invisible. I find them fascinating beings and although they are difficult to see, hidden in their twilight moss palaces by the river, I have often encountered them. When I find one, I take it carefully and place it in the palm of my hand – which, as we shall see, is not recommended, apart from the fact that it is a protected species – marveling at its striking combination of black and yellow (aposematic coloration, warning ), the rubbery feel of her skin, and the mystery and symbolic quality that emanates from her cold little body.

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They are animals surrounded by legend. The most notable is the one that relates them to fire and maintains that they are immune to flames, like the pyrausta, and even capable of turning them off. Pliny the Elder already pointed out that mythical property and there are ancient rulers (and Pope Alexander III) who wore allegedly fire-retardant tunics made of salamander skins, which should be seen. Another myth propagated by the Roman author is related to its venom: it is said that if a salamander brushes any part of your body, all your hair falls out (“quacumque parte corporis humani contacta toti defluunt pili”, to make us stupendous); that, touching a tree, causes the fruits to become toxic, and also makes the water of a well poisonous if it gets inside, which would have cost the death of a whopping 4,000 soldiers of Alexander the Great’s army. They are all nonsense, of course; I would be bald (and it is not the case), and precisely a salamander is usually an indication of pure, fresh and oxygenated water: they usually give birth to their larvae (the common salamander, Salamander salamander, is ovoviviparous) in very clean streams.

The medieval bestiaries mainly took up the belief that salamanders, described as magical lizards (actually they are urodelos amphibians, with tails, as opposed to anurans, toads and frogs, without), were spirits of fire, living manifestations of this element ; Leonardo da Vinci gave credit to the fact that they fed on fire and the alchemists made them a symbol of fireproof sulfur. King Francisco I of France put a surrounded by fire on his coat of arms with the motto “I live in it and I turn it off”, undoubtedly a more evocative motto in its secrecy than “after God, the house of Quirós.” The most famous character nicknamed Salamander is probably Baron John Cutts, a British military man who conveniently earned the nickname for his coldness under enemy fire at the siege of Namur (1695) and ratified it in front of the Coldstream guards (!) Helping to put out the 1698 fire in Whitehall.

Our amphibians appear in numerous fantasy works (in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury made his book-burning firefighters the insignia of a salamander on their uniforms) and are commonly used as powerful literary metaphors (ie Swift, Ode to a salamander). Javier Marías once gave me a delicious little book, Salamander, with a salamander surrounded by fire engraved on the cover, which is an anthology of uniformed poets, including several from the RAF, installed in Cairo during World War II and who formed a large cultural group, the Salamander Society and published a magazine with the name of the amphibian. Also in songs we find salamanders: Jethro Tull (not to mention Miguel Bosé) has one, Salamader, which summarizes part of the impression they cause: “Born in the flame kissed by the sun, / who lit your fire? / Salamander, burn for me and I’ll burn for you… Salamander, burn for me and I’ll burn for you ”.

Common salamander found in the Viladrau stream, in Montseny.
Common salamander found in the Viladrau stream, in Montseny.

Going out to look for salamanders in Viladrau has always been one of my favorite walks. In spring, as now, I have found the larvae many times, which are aquatic until they metamorphose and become terrestrial. On some occasion I have rescued them from a puddle, where the mother gave birth to them urgently, I imagine that in a hurry or without the alternative of finding a stream of water, and I have raised them in a terrarium until they became beautiful miniatures of adults. and took them back to the forest. He fed them with small insects, slugs or, failing that, pieces of ham that he waved before them pricked with a toothpick to claim their attention. The larvae are ferocious and even prey on their sisters. It is not uncommon for some to lose a limb, which they regenerate.

I used to say that I go for a walk to look for salamanders, but it is more than anything a way to get away from it all and immerse myself in the forest, where I feel at home and sometimes better. Reading these days Biofilia, the beautiful memoir by the great biologist Edward O. Wilson that Errata Naturae has just published and which is a hymn to the love of nature (even poisonous snakes), I have found that he talks about his own walks and reflects on its meaning , coining that word from the title, “biophilia”: the predisposition to pay attention, and esteem, to life and natural processes. “What is it that links us so much to living beings?” Asks the walking naturalist, turned biologist-poet, and suggests that it is an innate tendency that manifests itself from childhood. When we walk immersed in the natural environment, tuning our senses, attentive to any noise, sniffing the air, we return to the primeval world of our origins, to the remote region of our hominid ancestors. “We remain alert and alive in the disappeared forests of the world,” summarizes Wilson.

What would not be my surprise to find a chapter, The right place, which opens with a drawing of a salamander. “The naturalist is a civilized hunter. He goes alone through the field, through a meadow or through a forest, and closes his mind to everything, except for that specific moment and that precise place, so that the life around him permeates his senses and the small details acquire a greater meaning (…). He knows that he does not know what is going to happen ”. I have never seen so well described what I feel on my walks and that Wilson exemplifies with his outings in Alabama in which he found pygmy salamanders Desmognathus and discovered that they climb trees. I have not discovered anything (at the moment, at the time). But reviewing the encyclopedic volume The genus Salamandra, apotheosis of modern salamandrology, by Seidel and Gerhardt (Chimaira, 2016) that I recently acquired in Oryx for a paste (96 euros: worth it), it seems to me that thanks to the experience on the ground of all these years I have learned it almost all of the salamanders; I even know how to sex them. I am the only person I know who has performed an emergency cesarean section with a Swiss army knife on a run-over gravid (and very serious: dead) salamander and saved the larvae.

The venom that salamanders exude, the alkaloids samandarin and samanderon, capable of attacking the nervous system, has never bothered me. Perhaps it is unconsciousness, because they can cause annoying effects if you have a small wound on your hands or touch your mouth or eyes after handling the animal. It has not happened to me.

A salamander on fire, in a print from a book on alchemy.
A salamander on fire, in a print from a book on alchemy.

The other rainy afternoon, I went out for a salamander walk. I left the Vila behind and took the Castanyer de las Nou Branques path, abandoning it to enter the forest. I followed the course of the stream (my particular Tinker Creek of Montseny) getting drunk with the green and thick vegetation that almost phosphored in the witch hour of twilight. As i progressed à la Wilson (with a point also of the melancholic euphoria of The last Mohican), attentive and hunched over, he looked around and listened to the indignant voice of the jays. I found the salamander at the foot of a small waterfall, on a tiny beach next to the roots of a tree. Thick, broad-headed with large parotoid glands. It made a living S in the heart of the forest. I took it delicately and placed it in the palm of my hand where it stood looking at me curiously, wrapped in its black-yellow cloak. I peered into his dark eyes like a well of ink that seemed to flow into the night that was beginning to cover us. Alone she and I in a timeless loneliness, my hand began to burn, and then I as a whole, as we rushed into the glow of all the salamanders that were already lighting their fire in the stars. Salamander, burn for me and I’ll burn for you …


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