Torching for Newts

A century ago there were a million ponds in Britain, home to the mighty great crested newt. Now with increasing building work and a hostile government, amphibian life is being squeezed out of its territories. But not entirely. As their first migrations from land to water begin next month, Anita Roy goes into the Somerset night to discover the tiny dragons that live in the liminal spaces of our land and imaginations.
is a writer and editor based in Wellington, Somerset. She is the co-editor of Gifts of Gravity and Light: A Nature Almanac for the 21st century (July 2021) and author of A Year in Kingcombe .
Hannah handed me a torch. It was a serious piece of kit, with a battery-pack the size of a toaster slung on a broad black strap across my shoulder. I strafed the undergrowth enthusiastically until she suggested mildly that I might like to conserve the power until we actually got where we were going. I quickly switched it off, partly to hide my blushes.

I was the only rookie accompanying four ecologists to check for newts in the ponds on the edge of town. Seven years ago, a new housing estate was being built here and the developers had had to create several new ponds in order to relocate a small population of great crested newts. The ecologists I was with – Hannah, Polly, Mark and Paul – had overseen the whole operation and our mission tonight was to check how the newts were faring in their newbuilds. 

We left behind the sodium glow of streetlights, and headed down the slope into the tall grass. The last vestiges of daylight showed as a streak of rose madder beneath clouds as rich as plums. Darkness pooled in dips and ditches and our pupils dilated to drink in what little light lingered. Tattered shadows flitted overhead: bats. 

To be honest, I didn’t hold out much hope of seeing newts, and the first pond we came to – a shallow, muddy bowl edged with nettles and grass – yielded little by way of excitement. 

The pond was one of three that had been created to ‘mitigate’ the effects of the housing estate. Polly – who forged along ahead of me, battery-pack knocking against her hip – was one of the original team who had supervised the gathering up and resettlement of newts before the bulldozers arrived. 

Pond number two was more established and seemed richer with wildlife possibilities. The rushes were fatter and lay in dense beds around the water’s edge. A few passes of the torch through the sepia water and – bingo: newts. ‘Lots of them,’ said Polly. ‘Good.’

These were smooth and palmate newts, the commonest of the UK’s three native species. Slim little creatures, as long as your little finger, they slipped through the water in tiny Chinese brushstrokes, with an elegant economy of movement. With their vertical fish-tails and four legs, they seem not quite fully formed – like adult frogs who have been unable to shake off their tadpoley youth, or an illustration from a children’s encyclopaedia on evolution: your Middle Devonian great-great-great-great-to-the-power-x grandmother, dragging herself out of the primaeval soup and onto the newly formed land. 

Paul caught one in his hand and it lifted its head and glinted up at us. 

Amphibians are well-named: from the Greek ‘amphi’ meaning both, and ‘bios’, life. They live a double life, moving between aquatic and terrestrial realms. Half in the water and half out, creatures of the twilight world between day and night, living on the outskirts of town and the margins of countryside, newts seem most at home in liminal spaces. 

Like all salamanders, newts can re-grow a lost limb or amputated tail. This regenerative ability… is a superpower we are eager to steal, a piece of real animal magic

Like all salamanders, newts can re-grow a lost limb or amputated tail. This regenerative ability has long fascinated humans. It is a superpower we are eager to steal, a piece of real animal magic. The mad scientist eager to exploit the process for their own gains is a familiar figure in popular culture. In the 2012 Amazing Spider-Man movie, Rhys Ifans plays Dr Curt Connors, a scientist obsessed with regenerating his own amputated arm using a serum extracted from lizards. Inevitably, the experiment goes horribly wrong, as the mild-mannered doctor morphs into an evil monster, Lizardman, and goes on the rampage. The eponymous hybrid man-fish of the 1954 horror film Creature from the Black Lagoon also proved hard to kill, recovering/regenerating from each bullet-riddled denouement to rise again in sequel after sequel. The creature is reincarnated in Guillermo del Toro’s Shape of Water in 2017. As in the original movie, it has been captured from deep in the Amazon where it was worshipped as a god and brought to the lab, where it is known only as ‘the Asset’: biological raw material for humans to mine and extract knowledge from, at no matter what cost to the beast.

In 1994, Dr Goro Eguchi of the Shokei Educational Institution, Japan, and Panagiotis Tsonis at the University of Dayton, Ohio, decided to investigate this apparently magical ability for real. In the lab, they cut open the  eye of a live Japanese fire-bellied newt (Cynops pyrrhogaster) and removed the lens to see if it would regenerate. It did, perfectly. And not from residual lens tissue but from epithelial cells in the iris. So they did it again. And again. Over the course of sixteen years, they cut out the newt’s eye no fewer than eighteen times. And each time, the poor newt grew it back, fresh, complete, in fully working order. The eye of a newt half its age. 

Dr Tsonis is quoted in one article as pointing out the ‘good news’ from this study: once we fully understand it, he says, ‘age will not be a problem’ in terms of, for example, wound repair. After all, he says, ‘old people need regeneration, not young ones.’

Perhaps it is no wonder that ‘eye of newt’ is an essential ingredient for the most famous magic potion in history: the hell-broth Macbeth’s witches boil up in order to reveal the future. It is no surprise that the future foretold involves hubris, nemesis and murder most foul. 

*

The palmate newt slithered from Paul’s hand and dropped back into the water with an audible plop. I registered the sound with delight, and a silent prayer of thanks for the miracle of hearing. For many months after returning to England after 20 years living in urban India, my most overused word was ‘sorry’. I wasn’t apologising: with a rising intonation it was shorthand for ‘I didn’t hear that, please could you repeat what you just said?’ It had slowly (surprisingly slowly) dawned on me that I might be going deaf. Words were muffled, mumbled, and people spoke so softly I couldn’t catch them. I stumbled through social situations mostly guessing what they were likely to have said, and I was right often enough to get away with it – just about. 

Mostly, I let it slide. I didn’t want to acknowledge it: and it was far easier to pretend that I was fine. But I wasn’t. 

Walking in the countryside, someone would point out a particular bird’s song, and I would nod and smile, making my eyes go wide in recognition, unable to hear a thing. These situations left me feeling simultaneously helpless, isolated, tearful and stoic. 

In Delhi, I had been – like everyone there is – battered by the constant barrage of noise. Construction machinery, air conditioners, whirring, clanking fans, inverters and power generators, and over and above everything the constant roar and honk and shriek of traffic. You have to raise your voice to be heard at all, everyday conversations are held at a pitch normally reserved for crowded bars, and in crowded bars, you have to yell. The commonest reaction to India for travellers from the West is its sensory overload. The colours, the noise, the tastes, the crowds – love it, or hate it, the experience can be overwhelming. To cope, you have to desensitise, you have to be pretty thick-skinned. 

After a year of living in rural Somerset, Delhi lived on in the space between my ears as a thin, residual whine of tinnitus, and I felt trapped behind the glass wall of my deafness. 

After a year of living in rural Somerset, Delhi lived on in the space between my ears as a thin, residual whine of tinnitus, and I felt trapped behind the glass wall of my deafness. 

I went to a doctor, who referred me to our local hospital, where I was subjected to a barrage of tests, identifying bleeps and blips of varying pitch and intensity in padded rooms. Scanning the results, the audiologist frowned over his half-moon spectacles and asked if I knew why this had happened. 

‘I think it’s because I have spent the last 20 years living in one of the noisiest cities on the planet.’

‘Hmm,’ he said, nodding. ‘For this pattern of hearing loss, that sounds about right.’

I was fitted for a hearing aid, which made everything edgier and worse. I heard the world as a live radio broadcast streamed to the inside of my head. It was horrid. 

Better to leave it out, and fumble my way through the twilight world of best guesses and lip-reading, I decided. Then one day, about a year later, I was standing in a wood in Dorset on my own and I felt a tap-tap-tap in my inner ear and then another, like someone knocking softly. Suddenly I could hear a bird, deep in the wood, singing. 

It was less like someone had just turned the volume up and more like a barrier – that had been gradually weakening – had come down. I kept the news to myself, hardly daring to hope. But three years on, here I was listening without artificial aid to the sound of the English spring night. My ears are by no means perfect, but the armour-plating that I had erected to protect the delicate drums and the tiny vibrating bones of my inner ears against the relentless battering ram of Indian urban life seemed to have finally been dismantled. 

*

‘Over here!’ Polly called from the far side of the third pond, where a shallow culvert entered the mitigation pond from the edge of the housing estate. Paul, Hannah and I made our way over to where she stood, aiming her bright spotlight into the water. 

‘Aha!’ said Paul, grinning, and he waded in and hunkered down, hands cupped. A few moments later, he emerged holding a great crested newt. 

She stood on his palm, all four of her feet pressing down against his skin, lifting her body clear of his hand. Compared to the little smooth and palmate newts, she was a monster – a little bigger than his whole hand. Her skin was knobbly and black, wet from the water it shone as though varnished. Paul expertly flipped her over, and revealed an underside the lurid orange  of construction workers’ hi-vis, patterned with black blotches. Her toes were striped black and orange as though she was wearing matching mittens.  

All the nerve-endings in my skin registered this quiet blaze of alien life. I had the more-than-human world in the palm of my hand

There she was: impossible. It was like being introduced to a fantastic beast and told where to find them. ‘Would you like to hold her?’ said Paul, and before I could answer he had decanted the newt into my hands. As she tested this new and unknown terrain with her toes, all the nerve-endings in my skin registered this quiet blaze of alien life. I had the more-than-human world in the palm of my hand. The newt lifted her head and looked around from this unaccustomed height, and I bent down closer until her bright eyes locked with my dark ones. It was a moment of vertigo – a heart-stopper. 

A newt’s skin, under the microscope, so Richard Kerridge tells us in his love song to amphibians, Cold Blood, looks like netting. ‘Newts have much less keratin than we do – the fibrous protein that makes up the skin’s outer layer, and forms the scales on a reptile’s body and human fingernails … [they] also have surface capillaries, tiny blood vessels whose linings are only a single cell layer thick.’ The urge to return to the pond in the spring, Kerridge muses, may be for an amphibian a whole-body experience: ‘Perhaps the animal feels the chemical all over its skin, since amphibian skin is much more open to airborne and waterborne chemicals than ours. In various ways, the pond summons its toads’ he concludes, and the same goes for newts. 

Their extraordinary sensitivity – their porousness – makes them extraordinarily vulnerable. Loss of habitat is the most obvious cause of their decline, along with climate change and pollution, but with almost Biblical cruelty, another threat has been added to the list: a fungal infection called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or ‘chytrid’ for short. Discovered in 1998, it attacks the epidermis forming ulcers and resulting in hyperkeratosis: it causes the skin to thicken. The delicate permeable membrane between the animal’s inner organs and outer world hardens to become an impenetrable wall. Oxygen cannot be absorbed, nor carbon dioxide expelled, and the animal finally suffocates, trapped on the fortress island of its hermetically-sealed self. 

It’s hard not to see the world allegorically when it does this to you. As my defences came down in the years following my return to the English countryside, my hearing returned. And returned me to a sense of self contiguous with my environment – more connected than disconnected, more affected, more engaged – more vulnerable. Listening better, and so hearing more. Acutely aware of the limited spectrum of our senses, and the vast sensory world that lies beyond, home to creatures that have evolved in perfect synchronicity with their surroundings, and who are being evicted from their wild homes, and have nowhere left to go. 

I lowered the newt back into her pond, and she swam out of the torchlight like a miniature Godzilla with a few swift flicks of her tail. Our maps don’t show this part of town – or rather places like this are shown as blanks. There is nothing so tempting for the hungry human mind than the colonisation of empty space. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but these days, commerce gets in there first. My night-time adventure with newts left me with a different mental map of my home town. Beyond the grid of streets and houses, and away from the running stitch of footpaths across fields, there is a patch of blankness – not empty, far from empty, for Here be Dragons. 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 18 – FABULA

The Autumn 2020 issue is dedicated entirely to fiction, featuring short stories, illustrations and colour artwork
Read more

1 Kerridge, Richard. Cold Blood: Adventures with Reptiles and Amphibians. (London: Chatto & Windus, 2014. Vintage paperback, 2015, p. 41

A short extract from this essay was published in Granta 151, Spring 2020.

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