The chapter opens with a brief scene: Robin is doing something by flashlight on a country road one rainy night, and a car approaches. She gets off the road in time to avoid it and thinks that the car might stop to ask if she needs help, but instead it speeds on past. If the person won’t even brake for a fellow human, she thinks, there is no chance that they will interrupt their drive for any other species of traveler this night.
This chapter opens with a more dynamic scene than most, and it is soon revealed that it takes place when Linden and Larkin are still young and living at home. In her thought process Robin is always considering human beings’ place in the democracy of species.
The narrative shifts to a few hours earlier, as Robin prepares some pea soup in the rainy evening. The news on the television shows bombs falling on Baghdad—it’s 2003, and the start of the U.S.-Iraq War. In describing the destruction, a reporter uses the term “collateral damage,” which Robin knows is a euphemism to keep us at a distance from the real human suffering that is taking place.
The tragedies of violence and oppression are not just in the past, and not just on Turtle Island—humanity’s greed, fear, and hatred continue. In wars like this, even fellow human beings are robbed of their animacy and value, their lives considered commodities to be expended in the name of victory and profits.
As bombs fall on Iraq, the rain falls on the forest outside Robin’s house. She imagines the spotted salamanders, who have been hibernating for six months, hearing the rain and waking up from their long sleep. At this, the first warm spring rain, they will rise up from their burrows en masse and make their way to the nearby Labrador Pond, which is their spring breeding ground. The salamanders move very slowly, however, making them easy victims for cars when they must cross a roadway. This is why Robin and her daughters have driven out into the rainy night: to help ferry the salamanders across the road.
Throughout this chapter, Kimmerer compares and contrasts the global events of a new war with the smaller occurrences of her own immediate environment. She uses this juxtaposition to highlight the importance of every living being and every individual’s choices, even in the face of large and seemingly unstoppable forces. Unusually, the scientific focus of this chapter is not a plant but an animal, the spotted salamander.
Robin walks down the empty road with her flashlight, observing the frogs that quickly hop across to safety, while the salamanders take about two minutes to cross. Soon they start to find salamanders, and Robin and her daughters pick them up one by one and set them on the other side of the road. She observes one female spotted salamander in particular, noting how primitive and alien its shape is, but the salamander doesn’t resist as Robin picks her up and carries her to safety.
The cold, slimy salamanders seem very different from humanity and might be hard for some to empathize with, but they too are citizens of our shared world, and Robin feels a responsibility to mitigate the harm done to them by other human beings.
Kimmerer describes how the salamanders take circuitous routes in their journey because they cannot climb over obstacles, and she compares their internal guidance system to the “smart bombs” currently homing in on specific targets in Iraq. Unlike those bombs, the salamanders use their sense of smell and a sense of the earth’s magnetic field to guide their way.
This is an example of human technology using biomimicry—essentially learning from the wisdom of nature—but for destructive purposes. Unfortunately this is all too often the case, as the most cutting-edge technology is often that used for warfare.
The year before, Robin had taken one of her daughters to follow the salamanders on their migration and see where they ended up. They trailed the salamanders to the edge of Labrador Pond, to a small pool by its main shore, where the amphibians unceremoniously leapt straight into the dark, cold water. Looking closer at the pool, Robin saw that the muddy bottom was covered in salamanders, all whirling around each other. Suddenly the water began to churn as a huge group of them began their mating ritual, in which the swarm dances about each other as individual males break away to deposit sperm and females seek it out.
Robin enjoys doing informal science on her own, and her daughters clearly share her curiosity about the natural world. Here they are able to experience for themselves the salamanders’ unique mating ritual rather than just reading about it.
A few days later, the female salamanders lay their eggs—hundreds at a time—linger until they hatch, and then return to the woods. The newborns will live in the pool and metamorphize through several stages until they too are able to live on land, their gills replaced by lungs. They then wander about for four or five years before reaching sexual maturity and returning to the pond. They may repeat the annual migration for as long as 18 years, Kimmerer says—if they can survive crossing the road. Amphibians are already extremely vulnerable, as their sensitive and porous skin has no resistance to toxins in the water.
Kimmerer describes the entire lifecycle of this intriguing creature to emphasize how tragic it is when their lives are ended so abruptly and randomly by passing cars. The motorists speeding by have no idea the unique and valuable life they are destroying for the sake of their own convenience. Around the world, amphibians are often the first to suffer from pollution because of their sensitive skin.
Kimmerer imagines the drivers speeding past, totally unaware of what’s happening beneath their tires as a “glistening being following magnetic trails toward love is reduced to red pulp on the pavement.” Robin and her daughters work to save as many as they can, but they can only do so much. A truck speeds by and Robin recognizes it as one of her neighbors, whose son is stationed in Iraq. Kimmerer again connects the carnage in that far-off country to the tragedy of the salamanders on the rainy road. Neither the young soldiers nor the salamanders are the real enemy: they are just “collateral damage” to larger forces, like our addiction to the oil that starts wars and then fuels the machinery of war—and also fuels the cars killing salamanders.
Here Kimmerer again makes a poignant connection with the invasion of Iraq. In a capitalist society, profit can, in effect, be more important than human lives, and certainly more than nonhuman ones. The cycle of oil fueling profits, the wars over control of those profits, and the destruction of the environment is like a poisonous version of the cycles of reciprocity that Kimmerer sees in the flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide between plants and people, or the giving and receiving of gifts.
Robin and her daughters pause in their work to eat some of the soup that they’ve brought in a thermos. Suddenly they hear voices and see flashlights, and Robin worries that it is some young men who are drinking and looking for trouble. As they draw closer, however, she realizes that these strangers are also looking for salamanders on the road. Robin greets them and offers them some of her soup as they all share a moment of relief and camaraderie in their united purpose.
Robin’s first instinct is that fellow people out here at night means conflict, so it is a pleasant surprise that they too are here for the salamanders. They find an immediate sense of community in their shared concern for nonhuman beings.
The newcomers are a group of herpetology students from SUNY, and Robin feels embarrassed about her automatic assumption that they were troublemakers. The class is studying the “effects of roads on amphibians,” and they repeat Robin’s own observations about how long it takes frogs and salamanders to cross the road: the salamanders average 88 seconds, during which all the years of their lives are at eminent risk. The class is also working to convince the highway department to install salamander crossings across roads, but to do this they first need to present hard data. Tonight, then, they are recording estimates of how many amphibians are crossing the road.
As Kimmerer has declared before, science experiments should be about having a conversation with the plant or animal, and therefore any experience with nonhuman beings can be a kind of science (for example, the traditional wisdom about the efficacy of harvesting sweetgrass respectfully). This means that Robin has been doing informal science all night in her experience with the salamanders, and her observations are confirmed by these students who are doing hard science.
It’s easy to count the destroyed bodies on the road, to “tally death,” but harder to keep track of which animals survive. To do this, the class has installed temporary fences along the road’s edge, where the salamanders will be temporarily stalled and naturally drift along the fence’s edge as if it were any other obstacle that they could go around. Eventually they fall into pre-placed buckets, where they can be counted and then released to continue their journey.
This is an ingenious scientific solution that takes advantage of the salamander’s traveling instinct to count them without doing any harm to the animals themselves.
The students are performing this study to ultimately benefit the salamanders in the long term, but to remain objective observers they cannot disrupt their experiment by actually saving any of the animals from death. Robin and her daughters’ work has also biased the experiment, decreasing the number of salamanders that would have otherwise been killed. The short-term dead are seen as necessary collateral damage to save more salamanders in the future.
As Robin learned in “A Mother’s Work,” there is always some kind of collateral damage in any choice we make—at some point, we must choose which lives to privilege above others. The students here have made the difficult decision to sacrifice the lives of some salamanders tonight for the sake of hopefully saving many more in the future via the results of their study.
This study is a project run by a well-known conservation biologist named James Gibbs, Kimmerer says. Gibbs himself sometimes can’t sleep on nights when he knows the salamanders are moving, and he comes out to rescue them like Robin is doing. Kimmerer then paraphrases Aldo Leopold, saying that “naturalists live in a world of wounds that only they can see.”
This Aldo Leopold quote applies in many places in Braiding Sweetgrass, as the people who don’t know about the salamanders’ migration (most notably the motorists killing them) also don’t have to grieve over their needless deaths. The study is following the rules of hard science, but it is based in respect and even love for the animals themselves.
By midnight the road is empty of cars and the salamanders can cross in peace, so Robin and her daughters head home. Robin listens to the news as she drives, hearing more about the invasion of Iraq and wondering what is being crushed under the wheels of the tanks, just like the salamanders under the cars’ wheels tonight. She then muses on why she and the others have felt so compelled to come out on this rainy night to save salamanders. It’s not altruism, she believes—rather, it’s a gift to be able to witness a fellow citizen of earth performing such a spectacle as the salamanders’ mass migration.
In this melancholy passage, Robin thinks about what seem like the unstoppable forces of human greed and hatred, grinding down lives before their wheels. In the face of this, the small gift of the salamanders feels especially fragile but also especially precious.
Modern people have been said to suffer from “species loneliness,” Kimmerer says, an “estrangement from the rest of Creation.” On nights like this, however, this loneliness is eased. This is especially emphasized by the alien nature of the salamanders: cold, slimy amphibians totally different from human beings. “Being with salamanders gives honor to otherness,” Kimmerer writes, and “offers an antidote to the poison of xenophobia”—thus connecting our sense of the “otherness” of salamanders to racism among human beings.
We have cut ourselves off from the democracy of species, and the result is an existential loneliness and a broken relationship to the earth. Work like this can ease this loneliness, however. Being humbly mindful of the value of lives different from our own is an important part of restoring our community with the land, but also to restoring human communities divided by fear and hatred of the other. It is the same sentiment, Kimmerer suggests, that drives the invasion of Iraq and that makes people ignore the deaths of creatures that look different from themselves. When any life is “othered,” it is easy to see its loss as just collateral damage for a greater good.
The act of saving salamanders from cars also reminds us of “the covenant of reciprocity,” and how all the citizens of this world have responsibilities to each other. Human beings are the invaders in the war zone of the road, so it is also up to human beings to heal the wounds of that war. Robin feels powerless listening to the news about the Iraq War, but she feels that she does at least have the power to save salamanders—and maybe she is driven to do this out of a desire for absolution.
Much of the work of restoration is also about making amends—doing the dishes after trashing Mother Earth’s kitchen, as Kimmerer has said elsewhere. It is because of humans that the salamanders are being killed, and so it is up to other humans to try and save as many as possible. This is our duty and responsibility as citizens of this earth.
When she arrives home, Robin listens to the calls of the frogs and imagines them crying out in grief, telling humans that “we, the collateral, are your wealth, your teachers, your security, your family. Your strange hunger for ease should not mean a death sentence for the rest of the Creation.” She imagines their cries echoed by the salamanders being crushed on the road, by soldiers sent off to die, and by civilians whose lives have been suddenly violated by war. Unable to sleep, Robin walks up to the pond by her house and continues to listen to the cries of the frogs, feeling overwhelming grief for the world. But “grief can be a doorway to love,” she reminds the reader, so it is proper to grieve for the world “so we can love it back to wholeness again.”
While the previous chapter ended on a note of hope, this one closes with a sense of endless grief. An important part of loving the earth and restoring our relationship to it is mourning all that we have done to it. This means mourning other human beings as well, nonhuman beings like the salamanders, and even nonliving (but still animate) things like the waters of Onondaga Lake. If we are the younger siblings of Creation, then that means that the rest of creation is our literal family, and it is horrifying to treat our siblings as we have for the sake of convenience and immediate gratification. Only when we have fully faced that horror can we move forward.