Over Christmas break, after the brutal winter storm gave way to unseasonal warmth, my sister and I made a clandestine visit to the property where we lived during our teen years. We were looking for the freshwater spring where, every day, no matter the weather, the two of us filled jugs with cold water and toted them back to the old gray farmhouse where we lived. That was our family’s drinking water. A spring closer to the house provided water for washing.
We parked on the muddy road below the row of black maple trees we used to tap for syrup every spring. Leading up a hill, beside a thin trickle of water, over tussocks of pale winter grass and thickets of multiflora rose, we found a deer trail. Brambles snatched at our clothes and skin. Following the water we found the spring, ringed with hawthornes and silver maples that had not been there when we were young.
It had always been a quiet and secret place, where as a teenager I had sometimes lingered, speculating on my reflection in the water. I’d observe the curious mudpuppy salamanders with their tiny hands and frilled external gills that sometimes emerged from under the rocks at the spring’s bottom, possibly observing me in return to gauge if I was a threat. I was, of course, by virtue of being human, but the mudpuppies and I remained on good terms during the years I collected water from their abode.
On the day of our visit, pushing aside the brambles to look into the spring, I saw no sign of any mudpuppies. Other than their absence and the encroachment of trees and brambles, the place was unchanged.
With a plane to catch later that day and not wanting to risk illness, my sister declined to taste the water. The water had been clean years ago when we lived there but, given decades of development, agriculture, and fracking, it could have become contaminated.
I tasted the water, though. With a hint of moss and limestone, it was as clear and cold as I remembered.
In fairy tales, just one drop of water from an enchanted well can turn one into a deer or a swan, or even send one to sleep for a hundred years. No enchantment befell me, nor did I get sick, so it seemed the water was still clean.
“Was it like going back to Narnia?” our brother asked when we told him we had found the spring.
It was, a little. I thought of the scene in “Prince Caspian” when the Pevensies find the ruins of Cair Paravel, the castle where once they were kings and queens. Just a few years had passed in their world, but centuries had gone by in Narnia. Though it was only decades since my adolescence, given the many changes to the spring’s environment since my sister and I had last drawn water from it, it felt like centuries. Whether one hundred years or five minutes ago, the past is just as past.
I was disappointed, though, not to see the mudpuppies. Wondering whether they had become endangered I searched Google and found that, while these freshwater salamanders are a protected species in some states, their population is overall stable. I also discovered that unlike most amphibians, mudpuppies remain in a state of permanent metamorphosis, never losing their gills or transitioning from a juvenile to an adult stage even though they can live up to 30 years. And unlike other amphibians, mudpuppies live in water their entire lives.
The idea of permanent metamorphosis, always growing but never arriving, sounds exhausting, and with our fixation on endless self-improvement and seeming inability to arrive at completion or satisfaction, a lot like the human condition. In our restlessness, we have plundered our ecosystems and effectively disrupted the lives of everything around us. Climate disasters that halt travel and even take lives, such as the winter storm that swept across the country near the end of 2022, are inevitable outcomes of our own inability to to pause, reflect and be content. Whether we have pushed things too far, or there is a chance to recover equilibrium, remains to be seen.
By contrast, mudpuppy salamanders, never transitioning from juveniles to adults, make permanent metamorphosis look restful. We humans understand that we are supposed to leave adolescence behind us, putting aside childish things, but the mudpuppy salamanders wear their childish gills with flair. The more I read about these odd creatures, the more fascinated I am at the notion of living in that kind of perpetual liminality: integrating youth and age, growing older and wiser but never really growing up. Those of us who are middle-aged but still hope to find portals leading us to Narnia, grown ups who never completely grow up, wear our own kind of metaphysical gills. We hold onto these ideological organs, things we have carried with us from childhood, because they allow us to survive in the murk of the present.
As a new year begins and we discuss the changes we want to make in our lives, it is tempting to fixate on how we will torture ourselves into a perfect, finished product: perfectly fit, perfectly healthy, perfectly ethical. Those of us who are religious fixate on achieving spiritual perfection as well. Though we have failed over and over again, we hope maybe this time we will find the magic well that will change us from our present, imperfect selves into some future, shining excellence.
But I know it is not going to happen. Like the salamanders, we are in a condition of perpetual metamorphosis, and this is something we need to learn to make our peace with. Can we integrate our past with our present, our unfinished childish selves with our unfinished adult ones? Can we learn to rest, suspended in our waters, accepting that the future remains hidden and the past receding out of reach? Can we recognize that the earth we live on needs us to find this tranquility within uncertainty before it is too late?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca Bratten Weiss is a writer and academic residing in rural Ohio. She is the digital editor for U.S. Catholic magazine, and can be found at rebeccabrattenweiss.com.