Valley Voices

Beth Linder Carr: Meet my poisonous, fascinating foothill friends, the newts

Beth Linder Carr is documenting the friendly newts she encounters walking to school every day.
Beth Linder Carr is documenting the friendly newts she encounters walking to school every day.

The newts are out.

It’s winter, and the newts are out. Unlike in June, when the prospect of meeting a rattlesnake draws my gaze to the ground as I walk to school, in January, it’s the newts. This wet year, they are out in great numbers, and so I decided to keep a log of my sightings, and to photograph each one.

My path to school passes by a pond, now full, and over two small creeks, running for the first time in years. The newts are here in numbers larger than I have previously witnessed in the 15 years I’ve been traveling this route.

It’s become a joy-filled undertaking, something to look forward to en route to and from school. I’ve given up on photographing every one; there’s no need.

The camera roll on my iPhone already features a healthy series of portraits and short videos. Early in January, the stopping and photographing and logging took long enough to keep me from making it home before dark. Now, though, the days are lengthening, and I can take my time and embrace my wonder.

My first sighting was Jan. 5, and today, Feb. 7, I logged the 196th, all but two alive. I’ve encountered them ambling along the trail, floating and mating in the creek, and there was even one in our pool.

Some quick research settled the question: Are they newts or salamanders? It turns out that all newts fall under the category of salamander, and the little guys I’ve been documenting go by the scientific name Taricha torosa, a newt species endemic to the riparian areas near us. They’re commonly referred to as the California newt, or orange-bellied newt.

There was a time when I was less cautious about interfering with the newts’ business, and so I know from picking up one or the other that this latter moniker is quite accurate: the dark rust tone of the newts’ soft backs gives way to a bright orange underbelly, which, I have also since learned, is poisonous if ingested.

I’m careful now to leave them be, to stay out of their way, to hope that my quick encounters and photos leave no mark. The one exception was the rescue operation from our pool, when we fished it out with a net and I then cupped it gently in my hand as I carried it to the creek running on our property.

The newts provide a reason to slow my pace and take note of the life around me – as do the moments during these walks that bring me flashes of insight, artfully worded phrases that seem to arise out of the movement of my body and the bracing fresh air. I stop to record both the newt sightings and the words.

I wonder sometimes if this logging is just a reflection of my compulsion to keep track of things, to maintain order, to keep myself overbusy and always on alert. It’s a lifelong habit to count things, from laps in the pool, steps with my new Fitbit and, since I’ve been writing, words on the screen.

I was able, though – on one afternoon when I repeated the big loop – to resist the urge to take official note of the little wigglers I saw the second time around, just pausing for a quick hello to those who were most likely repeaters.

Another regular walk takes me down to the school farm. I haven’t seen any newts there yet, but one magical spot on the loop rarely fails to spark an idea so insistent that I have to stop and jot it down in my notes: “I was counting my steps, on a tight schedule, when from above a flurry of dry leaves rained down on me, their trip to the ground cushioned by the gentle breeze that had just freed them, uncountable.”

Though I may be counting newts this year (newt sightings, I must be careful to say, since my unscientific method doesn’t account for repeaters, and my husband teases me about not tagging them somehow), I understand that my wonder and the joy I feel at their resurgence are indeed uncountable.

And the great blue heron taking flight from the pond reminds me to look up at the sky occasionally, too.

Beth Linder Carr of Tollhouse teaches English and drama at Sierra High School.