NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE: September 9, 2007

The Day of the Salamander


It is odd to think that a six-inch-long amphibian could bring bulldozers to a halt and throw my entire extended family into a prolonged two-year crisis, but this is exactly what happened. Up until recently, in the small town of Great Barrington, Mass., there was no greater menace to home construction than the reclusive, insect-eating creature known as Gyrinophilus porphyriticus, or the spring salamander.

The thing that did us in was a nameless mountain stream. My mother, Tamar Halpern, and her husband were driving up a winding country lane in the Berkshires when they stumbled upon a for-sale sign staked at the edge of a brook. As mountains go, the Berkshires are not particularly impressive. From the vantage point of an airplane, they look more like hills than mountains, which is precisely what made this particular stream so unusual. Its scale was breathtaking. The stream snaked its way through a series of massive glacial rocks, and then it dropped down the mountainside along a series of waterfalls that poured from one shady, moss-covered ledge onto another. The land looked primordial, like something out of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and we fell in love with it.

My mother and her husband had been on the lookout for a piece of land on which to build a vacation home — a place where the extended family could gather. Suddenly, here it was. I suppose we should have asked ourselves, Why was this hauntingly beautiful stretch of mountainside undeveloped? It never crossed our minds that it was already inhabited by someone — or something — else.

Our family publicly declared its intention to buy the land in August 2000 and then waited two months for local and state officials to evaluate the proposal. This is common practice in Massachusetts, which has some of the toughest environmental regulations in the nation. No one raised any objections, and in October of that year, the purchase went through. The entire extended family rejoiced. And this, of course, is when everything started to go wrong.

Just days later, an official from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife had bad news for us. In 1988 a spring salamander, which was classified as a “species of special concern” on the state’s endangered species list, was spotted across the road from our property. This salamander had, in effect, made a prior claim to our land; and because spring salamanders can live as long as 15 years, it was quite possible that this very fellow was still poking about in the underbrush. At the very least, his or her offspring or distant relatives could be lurking about. To make matters worse, in 2000, an official from the division spotted a salamander larva in this same spot. In a heartbeat, construction plans ceased. In Massachusetts, only a fool picks a fight with a leatherback sea turtle, a northern red-bellied cooter or any of the other animals on the state’s endangered species list. They’re like the mob — you don’t mess with them.

Looking back, this was the point when we should have given up. True, we had paid for the land. But this is America; surely we could have sued someone. Yet, as it happens, it was also at this point when my mother, my stepfather and virtually everyone else in our extended family, myself included, stopped thinking logically. None of us wanted to be run off the mountain. It was as if we had some old homesteading claim to this parcel and our very identity was wrapped up in it.

And in a way, it was. Two years before, in 1998, my grandmother Norma Plitt sold her summer home in the Hudson River Valley — a modest Norwegian-style cottage that had been in our family for generations. The cottage was part of a summer “bungalow colony” known as Raananah. Raananah, which means “unspoiled” in Hebrew, occupied an idealized place in our family history. It was founded by my great-grandfather Jacob Plitt and two friends. Jacob, a Romanian immigrant who carved a niche for himself in the “shmata,” or rag, business, had by 1937 saved enough to buy a large parcel of hilltop property near Central Valley, N.Y. This land gradually became the site of a small village of sorts — complete with its own town hall that doubled as a synagogue. Once a year, family members converged from all over the country to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and to spend a few days together in the waning heat of summer.

When my grandmother announced in the late 1990s that she was getting too old to maintain her cottage, neither my mother nor my aunt, the two heirs apparent, felt ready to take the helm. Norma stalled for a while, perhaps hoping that a solution would present itself, and then, tired of waiting, she simply sold the place. I don’t think any of us realized what Raananah meant to us until our connection to it was gone. Indeed, that year, as Rosh Hashana drew near, a growing sense of panic began to set in. It was around this time that we discovered the mountain stream in the Berkshires and came to the obvious conclusion that this beautiful piece of unspoiled wilderness was the new Raananah. Thus, when the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife came knocking, we dismissed more sensible options and readied ourselves for a fight.

Our nemesis was the ultimate underdog — a tiny, rare amphibian. To make matters worse, we were a family of composting, recycling, eco-lodge-visiting, Al Gore-loving liberals. How was it that we were readying for battle with the environmentalists? Yet it wasn’t long before some members of the family had turned into the sort of grouchy, libertarian champions of private property that I usually associated with the panhandle of Idaho. On one family outing, when we all walked the land together, I can remember someone saying, “If you see a spring salamander — step on it!” On the street, if I saw a car with an “I Earth” bumper sticker, my gut would tighten. What was happening to us? I soon realized that it was one thing to endorse environmentalism and perhaps even to donate a few hundred tax-deductible dollars in its name but that it was quite another thing to surrender a dream.

The battle for Middle-earth, as it came to be known, came down to the stream and whether it was it was a bona fide spring salamander habitat. My mother, who served as our family’s principal advocate, quickly became a self-taught scholar on small amphibians. She read books, browsed the Web and befriended a herpetologist specializing in the spring salamander who drove a BMW motorcycle, wore a huge white beard and bore a vague resemblance to Charles Darwin. What she learned was this: Spring salamanders are curious creatures who spend the first three or four years of their lives as larvae living in cold mountain streams. Thus, for a stream to serve as a proper spring salamander habitat, it must hold water for three consecutive years. The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife initially asserted that our stream might be perennial, meaning that it ran all year long. But according to recent maps made by the United States Geological Survey, the stream that cut through our property was an “intermittent stream.” In other words, it stopped running in the summer. What’s more, across the road from us — at the spot where both the salamander and the larva had been spotted in the past — our stream converged with another to form a larger stream that ran year round. We argued that this larger stream — unlike ours — was a proper salamander habitat.

The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife conceded that according to the map, our stream was intermittent, but insisted that it contained pools of stagnant water in the summer, thus providing a possible salamander habitat. Both sides made plausible arguments. But there was no way of knowing for sure whether the amphibians actually lived in our stream. Ultimately, the state ruled against us and declared that we could not disturb the stream or its surrounding wetlands, and this, in effect, made our land unbuildable. There was “dry land” higher on the property, but it was impossible to reach this spot without crossing the habitat in question.

For the next two years my family tried to negotiate a compromise. During this time, I married, my wife and I moved to India and then back home, my uncle lost what appeared to be 100 pounds, a cousin of ours came out of the closet and my grandmother Norma passed away. The family gathered infrequently. At long last, just when it seemed as if all hope was lost, my mother, with an engineer she knew, devised a clever solution. The plan involved the construction of slatted wooden bridges — one as long as 76 feet — which would cross the stream and the wetlands, effectively spanning the spring salamander’s habitat. Why were the bridges slatted? This would allow sunlight to reach the marshy ground below, facilitating photosynthesis, the growth of plants and ultimately the birth of insects that would feed our theoretical neighbor, the spring salamander. Miraculously, the state environmental officials approved the plan. The only problem was that the bridges would cost a small fortune. We joked that it would be cheaper to build a chairlift to reach the house. My stepfather suggested installing a tollbooth to defray costs.

At this point, we were well past the point of diminishing returns. Financially, it made absolutely no sense to build these bridges. Yet, somehow, we had convinced ourselves that this impractical bit of land was our home.

In fall 2002, the bridges were built, and they were beautiful. They were two long, slatted wooden runways that soared above the spring salamander’s habitat. When the house was finally completed, almost three years later, my entire family gathered for Rosh Hashana. Almost 40 people came for dinner. One at a time, members of the family — ranging in age from 8 to 87 — took turns describing their joy at having a new family homestead. Everyone lamented that Norma had not lived to see it. In the background, the mountain stream babbled. “You were right to build those bridges,” I told my mother. “It was worth it.”

It wasn’t long after this that the State of Massachusetts announced that it would be taking the spring salamander off its endangered species list, along with the spotted turtle, the elderberry long-horned beetle and the spiny oakworm. I thought my mother would go ballistic, but she didn’t seem to care. She had her home, and we had done what we could to live in ecological harmony with the spring salamander.

One summer day not long ago, I found myself slopping around in the creek looking for flat stones with which to build a small wall in our garden. Eventually, I ventured under one of the two bridges, and there — standing in a rectangular swath of light pouring down between the slats overhead — stood a salamander. I can’t be sure what type of salamander it was, but in my mind it was the one that was spotted back in 1988, our old nemesis. We stared at each other politely for a good long moment, like any two neighbors on a sunny day, and then we parted ways.


 PHOTO: Jake Halpern and his mother, Tammy Halpern, at their home in Great Barrington, MA.