Meet the Amazing Sierra Newt

Nature!!!!

I join generations of gobsmacked naturalists in saying O. M. G.

Meet the Sierra newt (Taricha sierrae). I’m a dryland girl and don’t have much acquaintance with the salamander family, though I have spotted these guys over the years during different trips to the mountains. Last week, I was camping in the Southern Sierras and saw several of them around the campground and out in the forest. The area seemed oddly newt-rich. One even waddled right past our fire pit late in the night, braving our head lamps and chair legs. I could tell by the look of them that they liked moist places, but I did not know they also swam. I had never seen them on river banks, only away from the water, in campgrounds and off trails.

So imagine my surprise when, hanging out by a stream (Water! Living water! I hadn’t seen any for months) I found one of these guys coiled up and still on the bottom of the stream bed. It looked so out of place–I thought it might be dead, dropped in there by a predator, perhaps? So I poked it with a stick — a favorite primate tool–and was surprised to see Mr. or Ms. Newt jump up all affronted and wander off under water. He (I’m going to call him he) didn’t swim. He walked. He had no gills. He released no air bubbles. He just wandered around under water like it was no big thing.

Call me naive, but for me, this was shocking. Miraculous. I had no idea these guys were aquatic. It was like seeing a human friend casually take flight and flap away. I watched him for a few minutes with my mouth hanging open, and then, like a good modern citizen, dutifully recorded the moment for the social media.

Back home with the wonder of the Internet, I was able to identify Mr. Newt and find out what was going on with him and his semi-aquatic lifestyle.  This type of newt is born in the water, and at that stage it has gills. When this newt matures, it will leave the water for some kind of amphibious rumspringa in the woods. They are crazy toxic if ingested–they excrete the same neurotoxin as pufferfish– so no one eats them except garter snakes, who are acknowledged bad asses.

(The toxin won’t hurt you if you touch a Sierra newt–which is lucky since I had petted them before bothering to look this up–but don’t lick your fingers afterward. Or the newt.)

Due to this indigestibility, I suppose, Sierra newts waddle around slowly, almost imperiously, right out in the open, like they don’t have a care in the world.  None of that paranoiac lizard-style scurrying from rock to rock for them. Sometimes, though, they get stepped on or run over in busy campgrounds, because evolution did not factor in hiking boots, distracted campers and Subaru Outbacks when designing the defensive systems of the newt.

When they decide it is time to meet a special friend and lay some eggs together, the newt returns to the pool from which they hatched–or tries to, since it might be difficult with all the pools in the Sierras drying up–but my guy found his way to the stream, and perhaps was napping, waiting for his lady newt to come by.

But here’s the best part–he was breathing through his skin. The gills he had as a baby are long gone, traded for fledgling lungs when he left his birth pool. But once back in the water, he dispenses with those clumsy organs altogether and draws oxygen out of the water straight through his skin, in a process called diffusion. That’s right. This handsome orange show-off breathes in three different ways over the course of his life: by gills, by lungs and, call it what you will, by magic, because this diffusion business is obviously pure sorcery. No wonder witches keep newt parts in their spice cupboards!

Organize Those Drip Irrigation Parts!

IMG_0772Behold: an ordered toolbox full of irrigation parts. Now this could be one of those self-aggrandizing homesteady posts were it not for the fact that it took me fifteen years to organize my drip irrigation parts. I spent those previous years fishing for parts in a partially collapsed cardboard box. Take my advice: if you own a house, are an avid gardener and use some kind of timed irrigation, thou shalt organize all those parts.

Maintaining an irrigation system is, unfortunately, not a build it and leave it proposition. Inevitably, a shovel slices through a line or a surprise freeze bursts a pipe. More importantly, a garden changes over time. For instance, a drip line under a tree needs to be expanded as the tree grows or maybe that group of natives you planted has matured and no longer needs irrigation.

“All is change” as Heraclitus once said. And I’m sure that because of his philosophy of impermanence, Heraclitus carefully separated and organized his drip irrigation parts.

Saturday Tweets: Our Insect Friends, Miso Soup and What Your Library Should Look Like

Pet Peeve: Texting at the Gym

texting-in-the-gym

The older I get the more time I seem to have to spend at the gym fixing dumb sports injuries. With that age also comes a crankiness about rude smartphone habits. Lately I’ve found my exercise routine lengthened by having to wait for people just sitting on equipment and texting. I know that this is a “first world problem” and I’ll acknowledge that I’ve probably been guilty of searching for just the right podcast episode between sets. But the gym should be for exercise not sending out texts.

Smartphone use on the gym floor has become an epidemic at my local YMCA. Once the New Years resolution crowd thins out in a month or so it won’t be so bad, but right now you have to wait a long time for some benches and machines due to texting millennials. The solution is simple. If you’ve just got to send that text, please step off the equipment momentarily! And maybe, just maybe, all that texting is distracting you from what you’re supposed to be doing at the gym?

I like my new smartphone and find it useful. But perhaps we all need to agree that in certain spaces and settings we all need to go into airplane mode. My short list of those settings includes sacred spaces, gyms, classrooms, lectures and at meals. And let’s not even get into driving–that should be obvious.

So how do we come to a consensus on phone etiquette? Since blocking or jamming cellphones is pretty much off the table, the only solution may be to “gamify” good behavior. Imagine an app that rewards you for not checking your phone while you’re at the gym. At the end of the month you get a small discount or prize. But that might not be enough. Here’s how the Russian military “gamifies” smartphone etiquette:

056c026d-1c66-4d42-9fae-a8e96df290c5-1020x990

Image via BoingBoing.

Check your phone while on duty and you have to lug around a giant wooden phone.

Convention Report: Natural Products Expo West 2016

wideshotnpe

Every spring I provide a service to you, our dear readers. With my friend Dale, I go to the massive Natural Products Expo West and sample hundreds of new “healthy” snacks so you don’t have to. When the day draws to a close I, inevitably, regret downing all those bizarre gluten-free power bars, matcha-soy lattes, puffed tortilla chips and stevia sodas. Each year I come to the same general conclusion: it’s all just a load of highly processed stuff loaded with sugar. The products in a “health” food store can be just as unhealthy as the aisle of a conventional supermarket.

peanutfree

The so called “natural” food business is cut-throat. At the convention thousands of vendors are competing for extremely limited shelf space while operating on razor-thin margins. Trends come and go just as rapidly as hemlines rise and fall in the fashion world. So what products will you find in your local Whole Foods in the coming year? Here’s what I observed:

  • We’ve passed peak kale. In fact I’d say there’s a full-on kale backlash. The smart folks have moved on to moringa and seaweed.
  • We may also have passed peak kombucha. Matcha is the new kombucha.
  • Gluten is still in jail but is eligible for parole. I think America’s current favorite food villain is going to switch soon to . . .
  • Sugar. Sugar is the new gluten. Since sugar is such a phenomenal preservative it will be interesting to see how these manufacturers can come up with shelf stable sugar free products. Those products, I predict, will be just as unhealthy as the many gluten free snacks out there.
  • The ascendancy of Korean food. There was an entire aisle devoted to Korean products, something I was very pleased to see.

A final note. Let me say how much I appreciate companies that staff their convention booths with knowledgeable employees (such as King Arthur Flour and Gustos Specialty Foods). Lesser companies hire attractive people who don’t know anything about the products they are representing.