A Newt's World


Rough-skinned newt found on the Key Peninsula. Photos: Chris Rurik

It is late fall. Plants have slumped and yellow-brown maple leaves rot where they land like blankets. In homes, lights stay on all day. Warmth takes on a smell: a good, woody, oven-baked smell.

In my ventures into the forest I find that this season is marked by clarity. Cold breaths sharpen perception. I can see farther through the undergrowth than I could have imagined in the profusion of summer.

A movement in the moss catches my attention. In a forest where most animals are flighty, this one displays a fascinating indifference. Its brown skin is naked and moist from its long tail to its shovel head.

It is a rough-skinned newt, Taricha granulosa. At first glance it is a likable creature, even charming.

But not for long. The longer I watch, the more alien it appears. Its knobby skin and unblinking yellow-and-black eyes have a look of poison. It pauses mid-step for no apparent reason, not seeming to care where its translucent feet land, not seeming to care about the large creature above it.

What is it after? What instinct makes the peninsula’s newts so bold this time of year? I become eager to know their world, to see the terrain through their eyes.

Reading up on the rough-skinned newt’s natural history does not help. This adult has already been an egg, a larva that looked like a cross between an eel and a triceratops, and a juvenile that led a “fossorial existence” in subterranean burrows.

The movements of adult newts have been described as breeding migrations, post-metamorphic migrations, seasonal migrations, sporadic movements, and wandering movements — and from California to British Columbia the timing of any of these life events might fall in any quadrant of the calendar. Some populations are largely aquatic. Some become terrestrial in fall, some in spring, some in summer.

Our total knowledge of the newt’s world is a haphazard collection of tidbits. My guesses about its behavior slide off it like raindrops. I shuffle closer and determine to watch for myself. I get too close. The newt freezes. Its right rear foot stays where it is, mid-step, in the air. It stays like that for 10 minutes.

Then, for the next 20 minutes, it climbs off the trail and onto an embankment of loose duff and leaves, a distance of maybe three feet. It snaps at nothing. It never moves faster than a slow-motion crawl. Time moves at about the same pace for me.

As I begin to tell myself that I would have to snorkel a pond to see another behavior, the newt enters an inch-high space under a couple of slicked-together leaves. When only its tail is showing, it stops. I wait and watch for another 10 minutes, trying not to blink, trying to imagine what will happen next. It sits there, unmoving. I stare at the tail until it looks like a brown tendril of detritus less alive than the mosses around it.

The newt stays frozen under the leaves long after I have run out of explanations for its behavior. My patience wanes. My mind wanders.

Philosophers have a word for the world in which an animal moves: umwelt. Loosely translated as “self-centered world,” an umwelt is the collection of signs that holds meaning for an animal. It is the elements in an animal’s environment from which the animal might wring some use, the things of which it must be aware in order to survive.

Each species, therefore, has a unique umwelt. Consider the newt. It must be able to find standing water in order to lay its eggs, so it must be able to pick up on certain sensory clues that tell of nearby pools, maybe the presence of a particular plant or a change in the air’s humidity. Other clues, unknown to me, lead it to food, mates and safe burrows.

If something in an animal’s surroundings has no bearing on its ability to survive, it has no meaning, and the animal will largely ignore it.

More than ignore it, the animal may not even perceive it. Perception is as much about filtering out the noise of what is useless as cueing in on what has meaning.

As humans, we assume we see the world as it exists. But as I rise and take in the dripping forest around me, the innumerable passageways of unseen creatures, I feel my limitations. I get a brief incomplete vision of the forest as a vast arena of overlapping umwelten, and I feel the powerlessness of my senses to understand more than a small fraction of it.

Chris Rurik is a writer, naturalist and historian who lives in Washington and Alaska. This essay is adapted from his book, “Silverbow: Explorations of a Family Farm.”  

   Photo: Chris Rurik