Salamanders and Fireflies
In the fall of 1987, my wife and I would make the decision to leave the relative ease of a condo for “the country” and a hundred plus year old farmhouse that had been the possession of James Copeland. A retired Methodist minister, Mr. Copeland had bought “The Brammlet Place” in 1956 and along with his “Good Baptist Brethren” had begun a renovation of sorts to the old farmhouse that had sat empty for a decades. Renovation might be stretching what they did. They did add electricity, heat and a bathroom with running water.
One of the challenges of our little “place in the sun” was our water system. Located in the woods, across a wide stream and about a football field’s length from the back of our house was our well. Well not a well exactly, it was a cistern consisting of a brick dyke built into the ground where a spring found its way to the surface from under a very old oak tree. Mr. Copeland and his good Baptist brethren had constructed the system and placed a water tank and pump inside of a brick pump house on top of it all. Smooth river rock had been placed in the bottom of the cistern along with a pot that the pump nozzle sat in. The cistern itself was covered by corrugated metal sheets placed on top of the dyke.
Mr. Copeland bragged about how sweet and pure the water was but we still had to get a chemical analysis to prove it. Just as soon as we had uncovered the well, the young chemist who had been sent to collect water samples exclaimed, “Oh I can tell your water is okay.” I asked if he had undergone some type of divine enlightenment and he explained that we had salamanders. “Salamanders won’t live in anything but good water,” he said as he knowingly nodded his head. I could not help but point out that I was concerned what the salamanders might be adding to the water. The young man assured me that it was okay because the government standards allowed for a certain amount of salamander pooh without it effecting how potable the water was. I guess that is no worse than the allowable amounts of rodent fecal matter in hot dogs and the little red and black amphibians were so cute…and great to fish with.
While being interesting and a conversation starter, the water system was as high maintenance and contrary as Mary, Mary of nursery rhyme fame. If the power went off, the pump had to be primed. For those of you who have no clue, primed meant that water had to be poured down a pipe into the pump to create suction and I kept a pitcher full of water available for just that possibility. It was very inconvenient and a bit scary if it took place in the middle of the night. We have bears and coyotes along with bobcats and “painters.” A painter is a local term for the mountain lions or panthers that live in the area. I have only seen one bobcat and heard one panther. After hearing the panther, I have decided that I only want to see them in photographs. When you are walking down to the cistern in the middle of the night one might imagine that the area around the stream and cistern might be inhabited by ghost, spirts and haints. Hummmmm, vampires, werewolves, zombies and a T Rex might inhabit the area also.
Late one evening, after a spring thunderstorm had knocked off our power just long enough for the pump to lose its prime, I made the trip down to the spring and began the process to prime it. As I bent over and tried to concentrate on the process rather than my fears, I felt rather than saw that I had company. When I looked up I beheld an eerie sight as fireflies began to come out of their winter hideaways and blink their little message “Come here! I am ready for you to find me. It is time for us to propagate the species.” Not very romantic but we are talking about fireflies. What was eerie was that they had risen no higher than three feet off of the ground and were all blinking in sequence with each other. I was amazed and just a bit fearful.
Twenty-eight years later they still make their appearance in early May but I’ve never seen their group emergence since that night. A once in a lifetime occurrence? If it was, it was worth it. We have since done some of our own renovations that included a new underground well. While it needed to have been done it was not replaced on purpose but because a storm had put a huge oak down on the well house. SPLAT! My pump now is just outside my house, one hundred feet below ground. I don’t mind not having to prime the pump but I do miss the fireflies and the salamanders.
Image Tsuneaki Hiramatsu, photograph of flirting fireflies during mating season outside Niimi, in Japan’s Okayama prefecture