Josna Rege

106. Slow: Salamander Crossing

In 1990s, 2000s, Stories, United States on April 22, 2011 at 12:21 am

I have never been able to get used to the sight of the corpses of animals strewn all over the U.S. roadways, callously known as roadkill. There are so many of them, the countless casualties of our automobile culture, that it is hard to believe that some motorists even attempt to avoid hitting these innocent creatures as they make what turns out to be the last, fatal blunder of their short lives.

Some of the larger animals, though, can do serious damage in return. I am thankful that I have never yet had to experience this personally, but a deer dashing out of the woods in front of a speeding car can completely wreck it, even killing the driver. In New England, both state and federal highways as well as many of the smaller rural roads carry signs warning of deer crossing, and it is well to be aware of that possibility at all times. But there are other, rarer, animal encounters. On my drive back and forth from work I pass north of the Quabbin Reservoir, the 1930s Army Corps of Engineers project that ensured Boston’s water supply by evacuating and submerging four small towns in Massachusetts’ Swift River Valley. For a mostly-deserted 7-mile stretch of my drive, parts of the Quabbin watershed lie on either side of me and a sign warns of moose crossing, depicting an ungainly looking horse with shoulder padding that makes it look like an American footballer wearing antlers instead of a helmet.

Moose are one of those animals that are larger than one ever imagined when seen up close. One night on my drive home, I came upon a recently killed moose on Route 202, the sinuous state road on the west side of the Quabbin. A tow truck had just arrived on the scene, but it appeared that it was not large enough to accommodate its awful bulk,  and a second tow truck had to be called out to help hoist and carry away the dead creature. On another night not long afterwards, driving home after teaching my evening class, I had a happier encounter. Two half-grown moose ambled leggily onto Route 202, shoulder to shoulder like teenagers, utterly oblivious of the road or the traffic. Even at that age they were an impressive size. The cars on both sides slowed respectfully to a crawl, as the two buddies took their time, not deigning even to acknowledge them, lumbering for a while in a leisurely fashion right down the middle of the road before finally disappearing into the woods again.

There’s another sign on my commute, on a lonely stretch of road in Petersham with the Quabbin on one side and a swampy part of the Harvard Forest on the other, a homemade-looking sign displaying a dumpy, hump-backed creature. Although I have not yet encountered a turtle on this particular section of road, there are periods during their spring and summer mating and nesting season when they must cross this tarred strip that interrupts their habitual pathways. Andrew and I once came upon a huge snapping turtle, at least two feet long, in the middle of a country road in Vermont. We stopped immediately and, using a stick to keep well clear of its jaws, Andrew gingerly nudged and goaded it until it was safely across.

I used to have an even longer commute home from my old job, driving North-South more than a hundred miles each way along the Connecticut River from the Upper Valley to the Pioneer Valley—The Valley, or the Happy Valley, as residents call it in gentle self-mockery. But as I left the highway, crossed the town line, and finally entered the home stretch at last, I would breathe a sigh of relief, for Amherst has a comfortable quirkiness all its own.

One warm, damp night in early Spring, not two miles from home, I was speeding down an empty stretch of narrow, winding Henry Street, when I saw a line of cars parked along the side of the road and groups of people with flashlights up ahead. I slowed anxiously; was it an accident? A roadblock? Then I remembered: of course, it was the annual migration of Amherst’s salamander population to the vernal pools where they mate and spawn, a night eagerly awaited by the townspeople, who gather to watch, to cheer the tiny travelers on and to protect them from speeding motorists. When we first moved to town, an international collaboration had just built two experimental salamander tunnels under the road to enable them to cross safely. Before these underpasses were installed in 1987, people used to form “bucket brigades” every year to carry them across by hand.

Only in Amherst! Mocked for its self-complacency and its sometimes-exasperating “political correctness,” but truly, in this cruel world, a lovely place to live.

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  1. Josna, I love your Earth Day story! Earth Day is an official recognition that all life on Earth is connected. When I travel on Rt. 78 in NJ, I am impressed that there are a few overpasses that are covered with trees and other foliage built for the sole purpose to allow deer and other animals to cross over the 8-lane highway. Of course this is done to protect the traffic, but at least it also benefits the animals.

    • Thank you for your comment and for linking to this story on Facebook, Anna, and for reminding me that–of course–it is Earth Day, and as important as it has ever been this year. I didn’t know about those green overpasses–what a great idea. If only we had more of those, and for humans as well. Just try to cross Rte. 9 by Stop & Shop on foot–you risk your life to do so. x J

    • That’s great, Peter, and thank you for the link. (Typical of the Amherst smugness I made fun of, to assume that we were unique!) And cameras! I will check it out.

  2. I love the animal crossing signs. When I first moved here from Cambridge, it took a while for my driving to slow down. Realizing that I might hit an animal was the first thought that got me to put a lighter foot on the pedal. Driving Rt. 2 into Cambridge a few years ago in early March, when the snow was melting, it broke my heart to see all the little raccoon bodies pushed up by the snowplows. Where I live now, three deer cross my lawn once in a while, and a flock of 30 turkeys struts around about half a mile down the road. People stop to let them pass, and flash their headlights at oncoming cars as warning to do the same. Nice.

    • I didn’t give enough credit to the many, many motorists who do brake for animals, even at risk to themselves; sometimes it is dangerous to brake suddenly when an animal darts out in front of the car. And, as you remind me, many drivers also take pains to protect animals in the road from being hit by others.

  3. Lovely xx.

  4. Thanks, Cussin! xxo

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