There were seven of us altogether, picking a delicate path through the forest duff, lifting stones and peeking under logs. Maybe the passing hikers mentally supplied their own crime-scene tape or something, but nobody asked us what we were up to.

What we were up to was looking for amphibians. There’s not a lot that can cheer me up as reliably as a good salamander, but I’ve gotten out of the habit of looking for them. I used to live back east, where every other rolled log would yield two or three glistening beauties, and when I moved out to this damp paradise I assumed I was entering salamander heaven, but I wasn’t. Not only were they scarce, but the few that were here blended together in my mind.  No bright orange, no speckles, no red cheeks, no yellow dots to be found. Pacific Northwest salamanders run the gamut between dull brown and dull blotchy brown, and they’re shy, too. I gave up even looking.

So when the local Audubon Society advertised a field trip for local amphibians, I signed up. Finally I’d be tagging along with an expert. It seemed challenging. The field guide likes to point out distinctions such as “third toe on hind foot slightly longer.” I figured the best I could do was be in a position to admire our amphibians without exactly knowing what name they answer to. That’s basically what I do with birds, actually.


And it was challenging. All seven of us looked under everything in sight and we came up with only six critters all day long, representing only three species. But instead of having to settle for a marginal level of competence, I discovered that I have those three species totally nailed now. We learned the Dunn’s salamander has no lungs or gills and doesn’t breed in the water, so he was going to be under a flat stone in the mossy damp above the stream but not close enough to be in danger of drowning. We found two, both so hard-won that I won’t forget that the dingy mustard stripe on his back stopped short of the end of his tail, just as advertised. Dunn’s, nailed. And we knew the baby Coastal Giant salamanders are under rocks in the stream and they do have gills, and after we’d Tupperwared a few of them we could definitely see their heads are squarer than other salamanders’. Larval Giants, nailed.  And there was a certain kind of barky, punky log that the Ensatinas favored: the little lovelies with the constrictions at the base of their tails and the orange armpits. Ensatinas, nailed. When you look for these guys this hard, you notice them hard too.

Larval Coastal Giant

So it hasn’t been that long since I learned from my friend Mark Lynch that rock cairns are a scourge. I always liked them. It’s fun to stack rocks into towers. Cairns frequently mark the trail on an otherwise featureless scree-filled expanse. Never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with them. One day we found a gorgeous cairn of perfectly graded stones in the middle of a stream. When we came back an hour later, it had been taken apart. I was appalled. Vandals! I couldn’t imagine who would do that.

Mark explained that every stone used in a cairn is a stone displaced, a bit of habitat destroyed. And it’s gotten so popular to stack stones that in many places the ground is completely cleared. Okay, I thought. I guess, I thought. Seemed a little fussy, though.

Not no more. Now I know that this stone is perfect for a Dunn’s salamander and those in the stream are exactly right for Giants, and our instructor spent all day unsuccessfully looking for Torrent Salamanders under stones right at the edge of the stream, so I know what they like and need. They weren’t just stones any longer. They were homes. So who are the vandals? The cairn builders. Not the cairn destroyers. How would you like it if a giant came and plucked your little home away to stack it on some others? Oh right–that pretty much describes Portland’s hot real estate market. Which is leaving a lot of people homeless.

People who build cairns aren’t trying to produce a homeless salamander population. They think they’re doing something satisfying and artistic. We nudge the thermostat up a bit so we don’t have to put on a sweater, and halfway across the world a coral reef bleaches out. We’re not mean; we’re oblivious.