By Irena Nagler
An equinoctial night in 2016. It’s raining. The injured raptor birds, often used in educational programs, sleep in little wooden houses on the hillside. Community gardens and orchards await spring, leaves poised to unfurl and earth to be turned. It is the night of the salamander survey at Black Pond Woods.
When I first moved to my north Ann Arbor neighborhood, I went for a walk one afternoon with no destination in mind. I wandered through the grounds of what I didn’t know yet was Leslie Science Center.
It was late August 1988. Flowers blazed at the margin of a forest. I was drawn into the woods, up and down slopes of the moraine, until I wound up in a valley near what I realized must be a little pond. It was a summer of drought, and what water remained in the vernal pool was covered with duckweed. But it glowed green, and I knew that I had found a focal point, the heart of the woods.
I returned often to explore. The woods were shrubby near the center, giving way to mature forest on steep slopes and big oak trees along the rim of a golf course. I sometimes took books or drawing paper there and sat reading, sketching, or daydreaming, jumping up to dodge the occasional stray golf ball. The oaks reminded me of the site in one of my first childhood reading experiences, the Hundred Acre Wood from Winnie-the-Pooh. They anchored heaven to earth, deep-rooted and reassuring, hissing gently through fringes of leaves, dreaming both past and future.
On an April evening, friends and I followed the sound of springtime frogs. Soon we were sitting cradled in it by the pond. “Look, look,” I said. A little frog was perched on a wet log near us. We could see the rhythmic puffing of its pale-green throat as it added its note to the hypnotic mesh of sound.
The calls rose, silver-green, a light that grew and grew, entreating mates and touching the pool of answering stars overhead.
In spring, the slopes in the valley near the pond were starred with trillium. Dogwood trees flung up sprays of blossoms that floated on light and shadow. A hawk wheeled above them one afternoon. The atmosphere was medieval, mythic; the bird tracing an invisible snare that bound it all together. From a high ridge, my friends and I could see into a sunlit wetland that cradled another kettle pond, small and potently alluring, with its own ensembles of frogs, their sounds welling up to splash around us.
We explored the trails and dreamed with the oak trees. But none of us knew the name of the woods.
The following summer I experienced some strange things there.
On assignment to create illustrations for the alumni newsletter of the University’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, I wandered with a sketchbook up one of the paths. It was a hot July day. Green fires glimmered around the periphery of my vision. I drew small birds that alighted on branches.
Suddenly there was a rustling sound from behind a stand of trees. Or I thought so. A sense of something large, an animal shifting about on its feet. I stopped drawing, watched and listened. Nothing. I began to draw again.
Once more, that almost-heard movement. An image in my mind: a tall man with the legs of a horse. Two legs, not quite the form of the mythological centaur. I froze, listening, watching. Nothing.
At the third instance, settling into drawing, then startled by the sense of sound and motion in that same spot, I decided to leave.
A month later, I left a trail for a moment and could not find my way out of the woods. A little panicky, though I knew that I couldn’t stray far from human presence here, I began to move fast, with an increasing sense of sentient things throwing projectiles and touching me with electric fingers. When I emerged on the slope above the golf course, my clothes were covered in tiny seeds. I picked them off and sowed them on the ground.
These events only deepened my love for this place and the tenacity of its spirit.
One spring day, I saw signs posted at every entrance to the forest: “HELP SAVE BLACK POND WOODS”, with a telephone number. It was the first time I’d seen the pond or the forest named. That evening, I called the number. Jennifer Hill answered: The woods were owned by a man who lived in Florida. He wanted to sell a portion of them for condominium development. A group, Friends of Black Pond, was forming to save them.
I stood in front of Borders Bookstore with sheaves of petitions. Usually I’m terrible at that. I want people to understand what they’re signing and there isn’t time to go into nuances. But this one was simple. I collected many signatures and attended Council meetings. Though I dreamed one night that a frog in the pond told me to “Speeeek”, I never quite summoned the nerve to do so in Council.
But I met with the group at Leslie Science Center, and collected funds at a biweekly dance party I hosted at the Network on Huron at Third Street. I created in my mind imaginary panthers to guard the woods from development, and set them to work high in the trees of the woods. I sometimes dwelled on them while braver souls took the open mic at Council and Commission meetings. They showed slides of sweet green-lit columns of trees, named rare plants and animals and environmental tests that must legally be conducted, but which are sometimes glossed over in favor of lucrative property rights. We stood up en masse when asked to show support.
Jennifer, a shy person, was a heroine, steadfast and thorough, speaking eloquently, always backed up by research conducted with utmost care. After this adventure, she was invited to join the Parks Department and she served there for several years.
We learned that the kettle ponds were formed from melted ice broken off retreating glaciers. We learned about the salamanders that breed in these vernal pools in the springtime, needing the safe haven of water that dries up in summer and cannot host fish.
A smaller contingent among us asked each other if we would be willing to chain ourselves to trees if the development went ahead. We agreed that we would. We meant it.
We won, helped by the Washtenaw Land Conservancy. The distant owner was persuaded that the site was inappropriate for development. There was a ribbon-cutting party with hikes in the forest where a dream-catcher was attached to a tree overlooking the pond. Great joy, new friendships, the beginning of what became a nature-study area. Controlled burning resulting in vivid flowers among the shrubs. Children were taken to the pond to dip nets and learn about creatures.
After some years, a pontoon bridge was installed at the pond. Some of us hated it, missing the triangular shape of the green-dark heart of the wood, glad the bridge could easily be removed. But we got used to the fun of looking directly from it into golden-brown water, submerged leaves glowing in filtered light. The frogs, which at first seemed to have been scared away by the vibrations of feet and forbidden bikes crossing the bridge, returned in force. We’d hang about on the bridge with the silver sound of them straining through us and rising into treetops.
One winter night, there was another kind of frog on the pond. Cindy Overmyer and I were taking photos in the woods, most of which I hand-altered later to bring out ghostly figures and bear-spirits among the trees. The pond was frozen, and in the center of it we found a snow-sculpture of a frog. Cindy took a photo of me hugging it. Around my neck was a wreath of branches I’d found somewhere and was using now for our little photographic modeling adventure.
On a winter day there with my best friend, Anne Beebe, who was especially fond of frogs, she spoke a spontaneous verse to the ones who might be sleeping in the mud. “Froggies, froggies, fast asleep, tell me froggies, peep peep peep. Getting stranger by the year … Getting...How shall I end it?” “Getting strange, but never fear!” I said.
Anne died in 2003 from complications after chemotherapy for leukemia. My friends Christina Guldi and Marin Perusek and I held a gathering in her honor one evening by the pond. We stood in hollows and under trees and played small musical instruments: a rain stick, a kalimba, a thunder tube, a wooden rainforest frog with a stick drawn over ridges on its back.
I read out loud a story Anne had written that involved frogs jumping through blue rings into other dimensions. When I began, there was a loud and distinct glunk sound. It was soon joined by a few others, and then a rising chorus that continued to call louder and louder, until they reached top volume. The frogs called only during the space of Anne’s story, though we also read other stories of our own.
March 2016. Here I am for the salamander survey on the first rainy night of spring. Normally the frogs would be vocal now, too, but the weather has been erratic, and they’re silent.
We brush off our boots to avoid bringing in tiny hitchhikers, invasive species from outside the woods. Rain hoods shadow faces. Led by Patrick Terry, an educator from Natural Areas Preservation in the Ann Arbor Parks & Recreation Department, we move in single file down uneven, muddy paths, splashing in puddles. Flashlights glow here and there. Usually I prefer darkness and the use of night-adjusted eyes, but there’s so much focus that it’s faerie-like, sentient; the lights are nerves.
People are assigned areas to survey. They are turning over logs, startling red-backed salamanders into abrupt emergence, slither and gleam. And tiny newts, bearing neurotoxins (touch not the newt but with a glove). Many little dragons. These are here year-round, but people almost never see them.
We search layers of leaves near the pond, then move onto the bridge. A light shines on a male salamander, black and gold-spotted, swimming in the water. Patrick scoops him out, and he’s passed from hand to hand. I touch him briefly with a gloved finger.
Patrick explains how the males, who arrive first, deposit spermatophores and dance near them in the water to show the females where they are. There’s a blue-spotted species that is all-female, or unisexual; when they interbreed with males of another species, their offspring might have up to five sets of chromosomes.
We see adult newts in the water, silvery and fish-quick. Lights gleam on the rich, dark leaves at the bottom. The hills of trees behind us are fae and bristly in the dark. Rain dimples and glitters on the water. Lizard-shapes, tails flickering, burrow in submerged leaves and reappear. We see beetle larvae that bristle with tiny hairs.
The creatures are almost liquid; porous skins with the world passing through them. We see more and more of them. In their motion they are one with the water, the rain, and the forest bubbling and glimmering. It’s a salamander party. It’s an underworld turned inside out, glowing deep inside. The forest is pulsing, a pool of life, quantum leaps, doorways opening and closing.
We have slipped out of the world’s electronic grid-net into a realm where ways are spiral and serpentine, tapped into a living web of sustenance and communication. We humans may not be able for long to live merely alongside it in another world of our own devising. Like the bridge over the pond, our world's electronic communication network is a useful, vital tool and often fun, but for many reasons incapable of sustaining itself. It doesn't know how to dream, and it cannot capture the wave-forms of life in a net, though dreams and wave-forms touch and move through it. Our electric world-network is a brief and brilliant journey, born of the yearning to connect, made necessary by imaginary divisions we’ve created; we’re learning a lot. But the heart of the wood is fathomless and the return to it always a homecoming.
The salamander surveys at Black Pond Woods are open to the public by registration. For information about the 2017 survey, go to the events calendar for Natural Areas Preservation at http://www.a2gov.org/departmen ts/Parks-Recreation/NAP/volunt eering/Pages/CurrentVolunteerO pportunities.aspx, or call 734 794-6627.’
IIrena Nagler writes fiction and poetry, teaches environmental movement meditation, and is a visual and performing artist. She has won an award in poetry, completed several novels, and is working toward publishing a novella on tree-free paper. The website for her dance group is www.twofeather.com/nightfire.