Just after Christmas, my wife and I went for a week to our cottage in Brittany. Our key aim was to begin to prepare the garden for 2017. As usual, we stopped over for a day in Paris. There, the streets had the same tell-tale trappings as at this time every year. Dumped on the broader pavements were the corpses of discarded Christmas trees. With their balding branches and their occasional wisps of tinsel, these once-proud front-room icons, were heaped high and higgledy-piggledy, waiting for an unceremonious disposal.
But while in the city it was business as usual, in the countryside nature’s calendar had adopted a very different rhythm. When we arrived in our cottage, we were greeted by plants and bushes dressed for Spring or even Summer. With the recent unseasonal warmth, in the first week of January the flowers of our Japanese Quince were blooming, as were those of our fuchsia and, strangest of all, so too were the bright orange flowers of the gazanias. And at least one of those animals who should have been hibernating, was on the move, albeit dozily.
I was down by the edge of the orchard re-planting raspberry canes. Something moved in the grass next to the hole I was digging and then slipped into it. There, in front of me, was a most beautiful, 15cm-long, fire salamander with its jet black skin blotched down its length with yellow patches. I gently picked her up in my gloved hands – there is little to help one distinguish between males and females, I have arbitrarily plumped for her being female – and, to my surprise, she had neither severed limbs nor lacerations; digging with the force I had needed to cut through the turf, I had feared the worst. The warm weather had been her downfall, had she stayed still as a self respecting amphibian would do in the cold, she would have remained unseen in the deep grass and under stones.
With great excitement I carried her over to show Rohan, carefully putting my find down in a flower bed. For both of us it was an extraordinary moment. Here was the most beautiful of animals, whose existence in our garden was a complete surprise. As far as I knew, salamanders don’t live in the wild in northern Europe. Certainly, we had never seen her likes before in our garden, despite working on every inch of it umpteen times over the last dozen years.
The last time I had seen and touched a salamander was in my childhood. Sarah, my younger sister, then around seven, was the proud and protective owner of two salamanders who lived in a dry aquarium in the playroom. She adored them, handled them with love and, when they died, mourned them terribly. I had always believed that Sammy and Sally, as they were called, played a role in Sarah’s future career; indeed, in retrospect she says, “their dramatic colours and patterns appealed to my already strong sense of design.” A picture she painted of the two with their beautiful colouring hung for years in its frame in our family home. The finding in our garden of a salamander of the exact same size as those of my childhood brought back memories of Sarah’s treasured pets.
After marvelling at her colours, I returned the salamander to her damp grassy corner.
Over the next days we told neighbours about our find, asking whether they too had seen salamanders locally. The hands-on gardeners amongst them all said how they often see them, after all, they live wild hereabouts. To this, one added, “When you next find one, be wary, they say that if threatened, their skin secretes a powerful poison.” That Brittany was one of their natural habitats was soon confirmed through an Internet search. The warning about its toxin clearly hinged on the word “threatened”, after all, Sammy and Sally, who must have known my sister well and reciprocated her love in their amphibian way, never harmed her!
Finding a salamander living wild in the grass not 100 metres from our Brittany house, was a real treat. Soon, I imagine, we will find others and, when this happens, the same pleasure will be rekindled and, if they need to be returned to their natural habitat, gloves will be de rigueur. Unlike the Christmas trees of Paris, the salamanders of Brittany are a protected species.