So small, huddled behind the

damp paper towel, the slender salamander

does not move until Dan wets his finger,

touches it to life; I can’t see its four toes

past hinged legs, so small. Only

its sideways eyes, copper and black,

shining with fear

in his clear, Tupperware world.


Brian found it under a log

in its damp home, prescribed by four-foot cliffs

it will not plunge past.

He brought it here to show students

its elusive beauty, snakelike, coiled

in on itself, and shows us

its picture, painted in an amphibian book,

his first book bought with his own money

when he was 10 and in love with mud and ’mandering,

catching larval great salamanders

in the heart of San Francisco.


Now, 32 years later,

they are dying, all of them,

from clean rivers in Costa Rica,

to California, where they breathe poison

straight through their skin.


He tells us, they are canaries,

that they have stopped singing,

that we must help bring back

their damp and loamy song

because there’s no escaping this coal mine,

the only home we have,

shared with, blessed by

these living tongues of flame.


by Paul Totah

April 1, 2000

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