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Totems: Salamander

by Cie Simurro, a.k.a. Thunderbird Starwoman

Precious things are many in the natural world. The human expression is, "Precious things are few". There is truth to what you say because my kin are becoming fewer. I AM SALAMANDER. You who live close to the earth, pay attention; you who have just barely begun to discover our attributes, our qualities - there is much that you could feel – even as you watch us wiggle and move along the ground. Let yourselves move your arms and legs as we do. You will re-pattern and bring health back to your bodies. Orient yourselves in the world as we do, by inspecting the environment around you. There are things in your world human, which are attacking the delicacy of you. Open your eyes and see what radiation and chemicals are doing. This we gift you with today as spring surges once again through all our bodies. Aho! Be kind.

Salamanders and newts comprise the order of amphibians known as Caudata (Urodela). One of the great joys of living in the hilltowns of Massachusetts, and walking down forest trails on drizzly summer days has always been counting the number of red efts along the way. They always appear when the Indian pipes lift themselves from the forest floor. Amphibians spend part of their lives in water and part on land. Amphibian literally means "double life". It would be easy for those with this totem to live such a life. Awareness of who you are will reveal the subtlety of your nature to you. Then your double life might refer to the influence of the dreamtime on your everyday life, guiding you and teaching you. The red eft is bright orange. Orange is the color of the second chakra. Its emotional qualities swing between arrogance and compassion, blind ambition or leadership, depending on how evolved the subject is. King Lear coursed through all the challenges of the second chakra, from overbearing pride through tragedy, ultimately to honesty. One with this totem will continuously learn and grow whether it is through formal schooling or life. They might have multiple scholastic degrees, even if as a child they were slow to develop. Consider that the larval land stage of the newt (eft) lasts up to two years. The number two combines the energy of matter and spirit coming together in receptivity. Two is the first movement of oneness into polarity, a defining element of this planet … everything is itself and its opposite.

Of 400 species of salamanders world-wide, over 130 live in North America. In the northeastern U.S. the salamander family is so important to the health of the soil, that some scientists have hypothesized that if you weighed all of them, they would weigh more than all the birds and mammals in their area. That is not to say there are too many salamanders. In fact, they are threatened or endangered in particular places in the U.S. for a variety of reasons, among them general environmental degradation. Amphibians around the world are in a 50–90% decline from acid rain, pollutants and loss of habitat. The significance of this cannot be overestimated. As a sentinel species, they are the first to be hit if something is wrong with the air, water or earth. The Jemez Mountains (NM) and Red Hills (AL) salamanders are threatened by logging. New England has serious acid rain, pesticide, and land development threats to the Marbled and Jefferson salamanders. The Shasta salamander (CA) is threatened by commercial use of its limestone habitat. In addition, species have gone extinct due to climate change; others have been over-used for labs, pet stores, or are in competition for food with exotic species. Salamanders also have many predators in the natural world: herons, raccoons, skunks, turtles, snakes and even other amphibians.

A salamander’s most fragile aspect is its skin, which must never dry out; therefore, temperature and moisture are vital factors in their lives. Imagine how global warming and pollution affect them. Most breathe and drink through their skin. It can take less than an hour for their skin to dry up. In drought or extreme heat, they will enter estivation or dormancy. Salamanders who live in temperate climates must hibernate to survive winter. Folks with this totem would do well to drink lots of water to remain hydrated.

The two greatest threats to salamanders are habitat loss/fragmentation, and being run over while trying to return to breeding areas. Thousands of salamanders are killed migrating at road crossings each year. Some communities put up signs or close roads during migration times. One of the ways to help salamanders survive is to build tunnels under their ancestral crossing areas. In Amherst MA, caring neighbors of the Spotted salamander built a tunnel under Henry Street to protect them as they migrate in spring. How salamanders find their way back to the place where they were born in order to breed is fascinating. Even when separated by other streams and several kilometers, they will arrive back at the stream or pool in which they hatched. Herpetologists have determined that newts use vision and smell to an extent to guide them while migrating. Also, their pineal gland is sensitive to polarized light. Like bees, some salamanders can use the Sun as a compass, and can detect the earth’s magnetic field, using these as directional and positional reference systems. If you are working with this totem, you may keep returning for visits or to settle where you grew up. Here in Massachusetts in early spring, during "mud season" when the permafrost is melting and the soil is soggy, hundreds of miniature dragons slither over, under and through the terrain of the forest, making their way to the streams and ponds where they’ll mate and lay eggs. When the longer, warmer days of spring stir the mating urge, explosive breeding occurs in some species. Within a few hours or days, migration, courting, mating, laying and fertilization can take place.

Do people really know you, or do you lead a secret life? True salamanders are "secretive" living under logs, rocks and leaf debris, except at night or in damp weather. They are masters of the "wiggle". What are you trying to wiggle your way out of, or into? They are also known to conduct long and elaborate courtships. Males may rub their chin, tail or facial glands on the female’s body. Some male salamanders perform a nuptial dance to entice the female. Men with this totem are incredibly romantic and persuasive. In some species, male salamanders clasp the female to them (amplexus). The males deposit sperm packets (spermatophores) in or near the female. With salamanders that do not practice amplexus, the male must stimulate the female with striking colors and patterns, a large crest (females choose the male with the largest crest) and glands which secrete a courtship pheromone. Certain species scratch the female’s skin with special teeth, so the pheromone enters her blood. In one way or another, the female takes the sperm into her body and fertilizes her eggs, laying them in long strings or clusters with clear sticky jelly holding the eggs in place on branches or rocks under water. Marbled and Lungless salamanders remain with their eggs; others abandon their eggs once laid. You will often see caches of algae around eggs in a symbiotic relationship. Algae give oxygen to the eggs and the waste products of the eggs feed the algae. "Green" partnerships for the Earth are favored under salamander’s auspices.

If the birds, raccoons, snakes or fish don’t get them, the larvae will hatch after a few weeks. In the larva stage, baby salamanders have tails and feathery gills. Some salamanders are born with legs on land. Yet, even the ones born in water will develop legs and lungs before crawling onto the land (except for Lungless salamanders). Once metamorphosis is complete, they remain on land. Some salamanders are entirely aquatic. Hellbenders and Giant, the largest group of salamanders, remain in the water their whole lives. Some salamanders are entirely terrestrial. Mole salamanders spend their whole adult life underground, except to reproduce. All metamorphose, involving radical change. People with this totem often undergo drastic change at some point in their childhood or adolescence.

Salamander larvae have a lateral line organ that runs along the length of the body, which can sense vibrations, such as predators approaching. Since salamanders are mute lacking vocal chords and eardrums, sounds are sensed as vibrations through the legs (terrestrial species) or the lower jaw (aquatic species). Folks with this medicine are apt to be the first ones to respond with the greatest sensitivity to shifting environmental factors. Extreme sensitivity can either be advantageous or hard to bear. Sensitivity can create an inspiring environment conducive to "doing". Ask, "What more can I do daily to protect life on Earth?" Healthwise, those with salamander totems must take especial care of their skin, taking measures not to get sunburned, especially redheads. Also learn which energies are yours and which bleed over from others, especially if you are a healer or psychic.

Salamanders keep growing. They shed their old skins, often eating them for the nutrients. They are the only vertebrates with naked skin, that is, no scales, fur or feathers. Because they are cold-blooded or ectothermic, body temperature fluctuates with the heat or cold of their surroundings. People experiencing this totem are adaptable. They enjoy being around diverse groups of people. It brings out different facets of their personality. This adaptability to different environments allows answers and solutions to come from external resources. Ask salamander to help you adjust to a new home or job. Expect longevity with this medicine. Salamanders can live 50 years in captivity. This medicine has a strong protection aspect. Many salamanders exude toxins from glands in their skin when attacked. However, if you are working with this totem, be careful not to retaliate too quickly to a perceived hurt. Another amazing protection is that in some salamanders when the tail is caught, it breaks off, so they can escape danger. The tail will then regenerate. The largest salamander is the Fire Salamander whose skin is shiny black with yellow or orange spots. It can aim and squirt a burning poison over 7 feet. Mole salamanders head-butt their enemies.

In biology, salamanders synergize earth, air, fire and water. Spiritually, salamanders belong to the Fire element. In Arabic, the name salamander means, "lives in fire". It is said, nature spirits in the form of salamanders were the first to befriend man with useful fire in our world. Salamander spirits may appear as tiny balls of light, fiery spheres or tongues of flame. Ancients believed their skin was fireproof, and they could extinguish fire. Perhaps, as they are fond of hibernating in rotting wood, when put on the fire they would excrete a toxic milky substance, initially keeping their skin moist; therefore, they were thought to be able to withstand fire. Early travelers to China were shown garments woven of "salamander hair or wool" reputedly unharmed by fire. Though it was probably asbestos, both Pope Alexander III and the Emperor of India had clothing supposedly "made from a thousand skins". Leonardo Da Vinci and Paracelsus wrote of salamander as the elemental of fire. The Greek, salamandra means fire-lizard. To their credit, Pliny the Elder and Aristotle were both able to distinguish between lizards and salamanders, though biologists only recently have.

Fire always means transformation. Adepts in magic, and mystery schools had to pass Fire initiations. Equivalent would be firewalking. "He who fears fire can never control the fire beings." Kings to blacksmiths to insurance companies to beer - use salamander - as symbol, crest, or emblem, for its fire-lighting attributes. In Appalachia, people used to believe that each spring and well had a particular salamander watching over it, keeping the water clean and healthy. Our water and environment need the protection power of salamander today.

Salamanders and Indian pipes

in the sweet-smelling forest

above the swift moving creek

Cie offers deep shamanic counseling and hands-on Energy & Sound Healing for animals and humans (3-hour session-34 years experience) to bring you full circle for optimum results. Cie’s Salon on the 1st Saturday of the month utilizes various art forms and shamanic experiences to enhance writing. Call ahead at 413 625-0385 cie@ciesimurro.com . Send $22 to PO Box 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370 for Totems for Stewards of the Earth book.

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