Hand Lens - May 10, 2020

Issue №6: EFT SEASON BABY???

by W.L.


I mean they’re not babies, there’s no real analogue in human maturation for the post-larval stage in which the Eastern Newt spends several years hunting insects on land before fully maturing and returning to semi-aquatic life. It’s an atypical adaptation even among salamanders, most of which transition to their mature form directly from their larval form—and do so much less gregariously than the Red Eft form of the newt, bright orange and active during the (damp) daytime, wandering across the forest floor. And baby, they're out here!!!
Worried that the white spot is a fungus? While amphibians’ obligatorily damp lifestyle puts them at risk of a number of fungal diseases—an increasing number as the global economy moves spores like those of the devastating chytrid fungi far further than the wind could ever carry them—in this case, the white spot is just a drop of water reflecting the cloudy sky efts prefer to be under.
Look at ‘em go!!!! Zoom!!!!
Eft!! Eft!! Eft!!!
The dulling of the orange and the flattening of the tail suggest that this eft is reaching maturity, and its enlarged hind limbs suggest it’s a male.

A colossus’s muddy tennis shoes.
The eft has felt you shake the Earth
And fearing death, serrated or blunt,
Will not move
For, I’d say,
Thirty slow breaths.
Well, for you.
Minuscule pulmonary cavities
With flattened interior topography
Exhaust their oxygen rapidly—
Pliable ribs and an elastic mouth
Heaving vigorously in and out.
The eft will blink with heavy lids
As neck and torso bend towards
Its rudely interrupted path.
It waddles away.

A leech squishes and extends its body to move through a puddle left on a low marsh road after a rainstorm. The basic body plan of the annelid worms is at least 500 million years old, well-established in the Burgess Shale—and a team of UW-Madison researchers suggests that one of the annelid fossils in a 470-million-year-old fossil bed in Wisconsin exhibits proper leech mouthparts.
[Photo courtesy Wikimedia user Kennethgass, under CC-A-SA-4.0 license.]
Fun(?) fact: Researchers reported a density of 10,000 leeches per square meter in a freshwater locale in Illinois.

Imagine how excited Barn Owls were when humans invented barns. --Nate Swick (@N8Swick)

Streams and stone walls cut through Vermont’s Dorand State Forest. Followed against the topography, they lead to the stone foundations of the old Cook Place, a farmhouse and attendant buildings that sat among a few hundred acres of field and pasturage.Most of the buildings exist now as little more than outlines—but those outlines are clear and defined, the bulk of their stones still in place.
Even the walls of the cellar hole—perhaps ten by fifteen feet, cut into the slope of the hill—are still standing, even though the walls have begun to buckle under the weight of the Earth. One can even make out the interruption left in the stone wall for the cellar door, though the prickers have grown thick in the soil at its old sill.
The best entrance now is through an unconsidered patch of daylilies that spreads from the left of the door up the hill along the wall to a spot where one can easily shimmer down a slope in the wall. It strikes me as likely that these daylilies have been growing here, roots weaving ever-denser in the cellar-side soil, ever since this was the cellar of an active farm—the same farm that cut the deep wheel-grooves that still lead out to the fields, forested as they now are.
I find it hard to imagine just how much human life spun around them in those years of industry, invisible to them—perhaps they recognized the annual cut of a spade or layer of fertilizer.
Of course, just as the line between garden and wild is hard to draw for them, it is hard to draw for us—I recognize only now as I write this that the low grass around the foundation must be mowed a few times a summer by the State, and so the lilies keep their sun.

Scapegoating COBOL?
It’s a novel idea for an online publication: rather than farming out the job to some anonymous data farm, the computer that serves Low-tech Magazine’s website is a little last-gen computer sitting in the editor’s house, hooked up to a solar panel and a car battery. It’s not the 99.99%-uptime-guaranteed solution offered by something like Amazon Web Services—they estimate uptime is around 95%, varying in relation to season and weather—and it doesn’t intend to be. Why should we fight thermodynamic reality just to read a magazine? It’s a magazine of provocations: Mist showers! Frost line oranges! Let’s go back to using fires to do everything! There’s an aim here to challenge a certain easy futurism, a futurism that says all we need to do to get right with the world is swap out un-renewables for renewables, a futurism that ignores the costs associated with all power generation, that ignores how wastefully our societies use that power—a futurism that’s really just an eternal present.
The eternally-roiling arguments around ecological topics tend to reduce our options to progress through individual change versus through systemic change—but the individual and the systemic aren’t separable. As much as I believe that escaping the anthropocene will take mass political action, I hold too that it will require a lot of changes in our personal lives, in our personal relationships with the world. I’m glad to read articles that try to imagine what those relationships could look like. They sometimes approach the idyll in their disinterest in considering the downsides—the article on a return to using fire devotes little attention, for example, to the risk of us all burning down our houses—but consider me provoked.
We’ve had a few warm days and a lot of sun, so the long-dormant algaes have begun to grow, multiply, and float to the surface of the vernal pools in large mats. It’s become much more difficult to photograph the small forms of life emerging with the spring.
While some egg cases—as with the stunning variety of eggs on display here—remain unhatched, most of the eggs that were not compromised by fungi or environmental damage have let loose their cargo and now float just below the surface, looking much like the pondscum that surrounds them.
These layers of algae now house all manner of tiny aquatic arthropods—and soon they will be food for they maturing tadpoles.

In the clear water of a small but fast stream, in the basin where it widens as it crosses an unimproved road, we find the adults. These mature Eastern Newts have returned, in a sense, to the water after their adolescent terrestrial wandering. In another sense, though, this is no return at all—the stream would sweep away eggs and the fish would eat the tadpoles. These mature newts are as distant from their larval stage as their eft forms were.
If they survive their larval form, Eastern newts can live a decade or more, much of it spent just like so—perching in some spot with an appropriate level of sun, heat, and moisture, black-circled red spots now barely visible against dark olive skin.Or so I assume. I’m not in their heads, and while I can guess at the causes of their behavior—perhaps these two newts swam to meet each other as they were guided by evolutionary instinct to seek out mates, and then one swam quickly away because it found the other unsuitable—who can say?
A dynamical system only needs three degrees of freedom to begin exhibiting chaos—behavior that no heuristic but the system itself can predict. Salamanders date back to at least the Jurassic—150 million years of evolution selecting for whatever mental system is better-suited to this way of life, a black-box design iterated on 10 million times. Perhaps these basking newts were experiencing something like perfect serenity, or perhaps they were immobilized by anxiety, or perhaps there is no real map between their emotions as they sit in the current and mine as I crouch on the rocks and watch—two N₂ molecules that once moved alongside each other in the air, separated by mere angstroms, falling away from each other as the tugs of Brownian motion, then turbulence, then wind pull them apart until no mind on Earth could reconstruct the connection between them.
Will we get to spend a hundred million years watching them? What about us will prove so stable?
This specific newt was actually at a different locale--a wetlands in the Dorand State Forest, in fact. Note the much more starkly defined spots--a different sub-population?