Sounds like a rock group, but hellbenders are mute, cryptic, and uglier than any band! I imagine some American pioneer naming them after turning over a rock in a mountain stream and recoiling in horror at the sight of something looking like it crawled out of H***. But hellbenders are among nature’s innocents (despite their jaws) and, like the Elephant Man, they should draw our sympathy because we, too, would want to hide under a rock if we had the ugliest mugs in the world.

Credit: Pearson Scott Foresman (Public domain)

A hellbender’s body extends two to three feet behind its slimy head, sprouting two pairs of stumpy legs before reaching the tail. They live in rivers like the Greenbrier and Cheat in West Virginia that drain pristine water from the mountains and harbor the diet of crayfish (“crawdads”). Hellbenders are giant salamanders, and the Appalachian mountain chain is the redoubt of more of their species than anywhere else in the world, over seventy in all, mostly small, dainty, and colorful.

I have never found a Big Sal under a rock, but Nick and Tim grab one on their excursion to West Virginia in this video.  They are slippery characters that are best left alone like other protected species with dwindling numbers.

Elk River, WV. Hellbender homeland

Hellbenders like a quiet life, but their home stretches can quickly change temper after a storm, turning a gentle stream into a raging torrent that tosses slimy torsos against rocks, crushing and tearing their flesh. And yet deep skin wounds almost never go septic in salamanders because they evolved ways of repairing traumas and consequently live for 30 to 50 years, longer than almost every other animal in the forest except some large birds.

A family of small peptides called defensins help to protect them against infection by latching on before bacteria, fungi and viruses snuck into cells. We, too, have defensins for boosting our innate immunity by drinking our mother’s milk during the most vulnerable weeks of our young lives.

There are related peptides encoded in our genome, but they are shams because their pseudogenes have premature stop codons that produce truncated peptides that don’t work for us throughout life. Perhaps they were useful long ago, but we now depend on cells in the immune system to guard against microbes, and for the past eighty years have counted on the penicillin family when needed. I say “past” because overuse of these drugs is creating microbial resistance that could turn us back to the pre-antibiotic era. If defensins help to preserve salamanders in a turbulent environment perhaps we can synthesize analogous molecules as backups for penicillin.

These four-legged aquatic animals with a long tail look too alien to inform medical science, but their body plan and tissue architecture are not so foreign to our own. There is one huge, enviable difference. They have an amazing ability to regenerate amputated limbs that we lost way back in evolution along with the services of some defensins. If we could mimic their biology millions of patients could throw away prosthetic hands, arms and legs, and repair damaged internal organs by drawing on the regenerative potency that rests unbidden inside our bodies.

When part of a salamander’s body is lost a blastema forms at the site of injury containing stem cells and other cells that lose their specialized character as they ready themselves for a reconstruction job. Careful anatomical studies have shown that when limbs are regrown they become perfect copies of the originals. This process fails in us because of an absence of blastemas and scar tissue getting in the way.

But we are getting accustomed to surprises in biology, and there are grounds for hoping that the plasticity of cells can be harnessed one day for regenerating our bodies. If you see a salamander squatting in a glass tank in a lab you may think it is a scientist’s pet or a grotesque throw-back to the Cretaceous Era, but perhaps you are looking at the future, at something that will help to improve human lives, and revise your judgment of the beasts from Hell.

Next Post: Cover Crop and No Till

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Autumn Leaves have Fallen

I remember leaves falling precipitously in Quebec during September when the sugar maples create a blazing mosaic of gold and ruby on forest floors.  But the first snow blots over the colors as it quietly descends layer on layer with few melts over the next months. But here in south-east Virginia fall doesn’t arrive until late October, and then comes on hesitantly, one tree species shedding after another until Christmas, and snow is a stranger.


Fall is the first love of Quebecoises, but they have more passionate ardor for the first cold kiss of winter when their skis are brought down from attics to wax for the slopes and forest trails. Virginians love their long colorful season, although if you ask gardeners you might hear them groaning.

Lawns turn from greens to browns, and flower borders from dainty asters to crinkly blankets. It is the time to pull rakes out of garden sheds and turn on leaf blowers, which will roar for weeks around the neighborhoods. The red oaks keep their canopies until shortly before Christmas, and if I go outdoors after a windy night I have to tramp through leaves deep and crisp as cornflakes after a tremendous dump. Then the rake comes out again.

I estimate over 50 million leaves fall on our property. Only beech stays covered until spring buds nudge them off. Every species has its reason, except the human kind which has a perverse attitude to leaf fall.

Although the season is now long past, serried ranks of 40 gallon plastic bags still wait at the end of driveways to be carted off to the county dump. Trash to most people, they are bags of treasure to me.

The first neighbor looked puzzled when I asked for his bags, and then curled a smile. “Why sure. Go ahead and take my other trash and a dead animal too.” I didn’t ask others after that. I just threw their bags on the back of the truck, hoping they would be pleased to see an empty driveway.

The leaf thief

The leaf thief

I brought home 75 bags of dry leaves which, on average, weighed 40 lb (18 kg) for a total of some 3,000 lb or 1.5 short/ US tons (slightly less in Imperial tons). Wondering how many leaves I collected, I counted a sample of 1,000, which weighed about 1 lb. According to rough estimates, my haul rounded up to 3 million leaves, but that didn’t include the countless number I raked in the yard. According to an agronomic library used by the Druid’s Garden to estimate chemical composition, I brought home 1,500 lb carbon, 48 lb calcium, 30 lb nitrogen, 7 lb magnesium, and 3 lb each of sulfur, potassium, and phosphorus. Why, you might ask would a leaf millionaire want more? And what makes him a scavenger?

Taking away leaves has the same impact as cropping. It depletes the topsoil of precious minerals and removes carbon captured by trees during the warm months. Returning their goodness replenishes the soil by making chocolate humus. It avoids the need to buy chemical fertilizers to feed the ground and mulch to protect flower beds because dry leaves look attractive, and of course natural, in a woodland garden.

In the right places they are beneficial in every way, and over time they restore soil fertility where it was impoverished by hungry crops, like tobacco which was grown here as a former plantation. Leaves that are not spread around are pressed into leaf bins and baskets to make leaf mold, but they are placed far from tree roots that would try to suck out the nutrients. Black walnut is the only unwelcome species because every part contains toxic juglone.

If practical arguments leave you cold then consider picking a leaf for meditation. To paraphrase William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence: “To see a world in a bunch of leaves, And heaven in a green leaf…” Leaves capture carbon, exhale oxygen, transpire water, recycle minerals, provide food and shelter for the “little creatures who run the world” (E.O. Wilson), and of course they feed nations with nutritious chow and inspire us with color.

Next Post: My Hunt for a Hellbender

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Look like a Wild Turkey

I want to look like a turkey. Don’t misread me. I want to look like one, not look like a turkey. The eyesight of wild turkeys is superior to every other inhabitant of eastern forests with the exception of raptors and vultures, and probably three times as acute as a human hunter with 20/20 vision.

Little details that don’t get our attention matter to turkeys. They notice a trivial silhouette that might betray the ears of a lurking coyote, or the metallic ring pointing out of shrubbery 100 yards away that could be a shotgun barrel. They might even notice an unfamiliar blue flash on a hunter’s camouflaged jacket who didn’t realize that detergent containing optical brighteners leaves fluorescent traces that are noticed by quarry with sharp eyes at the blue end of the spectrum.

Where Wild Turkeys safely graze

Where Wild Turkeys safely graze

But when I look peep through a window to watch a gang of turkeys feeding at our sanctuary area it’s not only their visual supremacy I admire but how acutely they take in their surroundings, as of course they must. If we were a prey species we would not last long in the woods, having lost or forgotten the craft of “looking out.” When I saunter along a trail I have less than half a mind on my surroundings, being either engaged in conversation with another hiker or lost in private thoughts. If this is true of a naturalist I guess it must be general. What do I miss on a hike—a rare bird or butterfly, a glistening stone or weird mushroom, a trail of beaten grass or an intriguing dollop of scat? How much richer the experience if I looked harder, saw more, mentally engaged my surroundings; how many more critters and stories could I bring home if I saw the signs? My eyes focus on the next footfalls and anything beyond a few yards is a forgotten blur. I might notice more if I were a blind man accustomed to using sharp ears.


This lack of attention is even more wretched in town than in the woods. Some writers break from their desk to have a smoke: I go out for a walk to mentally work through a tricky paragraph or overcome writer’s block. Without a dog guiding me on a leash I might bump into a post from somnolently gazing at my feet pacing the sidewalk.  There is an element of courtesy in this dream-walking because I can’t be accused of looking nosily in the windows of houses or at people on their porches. But I wonder how much interesting stuff I miss by not looking out, stuff that might feed a writer’s fancy, and there was never a better opportunity for spying on eccentricity than when I walked to work along First Avenue in NYC where so many strange birds make their nest.

This musing threw me back to memories of when I was a Boy Scout. The scouting motto is Be Prepared, but there is another—Look Wide. Even after all these years it is hard to keep a lookout, requiring a disciplined act of concentration like keeping a stiff back instead of slouching like many other tall people.

The founder of the scouting movement Lord Robert Baden-Powell wrote: “Look wide, and even when you think you are looking wide—look wider still.” Our favorite scout activity was the Wide Game in which half the troop was sent into the woods as hiders while the rest waited fifteen minutes to go after them as seekers. It honed our powers of observation, skills that Baden-Powell brought home as a colonial army officer from the Matabele and Boer Wars.  They are not so much valued today except by hunters and search-and-rescue squads, and society might be approaching a nadir as we focus on smartphones and tablets, seldom casting aside to everyone and everything around. We look narrow.

I suspect professional artists look differently. I never looked as carefully at objects than when I dabbled in painting. In a Norwegian study tiny cameras were used to track eye movements in trained artists to compare with a group of non-artists (Perception 2007; 36:91-100). They were asked to look at a scene or a picture and then look again more intently to remember it. The non-artists quickly focused on the chief features—a house, a person, an animal—and their attention didn’t wander far for long. The eyes of artists, however, tracked back and forth, up and down, scanning the entire field and following the shapes, forms, and colors. Their look was not strongly focused on the main subject, and they remembered details better. They look wide.

We expect artists to be better observers of nature, but I was surprised when I read that minor visual disabilities are more common among art students. Stranger still, Rembrandt’s self-portraits seem to depict a man with cross eyes (strabismus), which would have impaired his depth perception. Perhaps I now understand why I was taught in art classes to close one eye when drafting a picture. It helps pay attention to the details of the subject as well as frame a picture with two-dimensions from three.

That brings me round to wild turkeys. They are strabismotic because their eyes are on the sides of their head, and they gain a penetrating impression of their surroundings by constantly rotating their heads through 360 degrees. Turkeys teach me to look, but I stop at rubbernecking.

Next Post: Last of the Autumn Leaves

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Lady Marion Fraser

A light went out in Scotland on Christmas Day. Marion Fraser passed away. In a cynical age we have low expectations of “virtue” in our public figures whose ranks often seem unattainable except to those with the privileges that come from wealth and connections. We put more faith in the life stories of humble achievers like Dorothea of Middlemarch, the “invisible” heroine of George Eliot’s novel which closes with the most moving and beautiful tribute in Victorian literature. Marion had the same pure qualities and desire to make the world a better place, but without Dorothea’s disadvantages in marriage because she wedded one of the finest men in Scotland. It was inevitable that she would rise from her middle class roots in Glasgow to VIP status.

Marion Anne Fraser, LT (1932-2016)

Marion Anne Fraser, LT (1932-2016)

I first met her thirty years ago when she joined a subcommittee of the Kirk’s Church & Nation committee, which then had a greater voice in public affairs before the Scottish Parliament opened for business in 1999. We had an interesting membership from across Scotland. There were many good men in the group (few women), a few activists who tried to turn the subcommittee into a political pulpit, and I suspect one or two from remote parts of the Highlands who came for the shopping opportunities on Princes Street after meetings. I was the convener not because I was qualified in any way (I was a physiology lecturer at the University), but chosen by default because no one else volunteered. I thought Lady Marion was appointed as a decoration because of her title and marriage to the man who then ran the Scottish Office of government. I was never more mistaken.

We were commissioned to publish reports on the state of Scotland’s housing and prison service. She was one of the few who joined us on field research around the country, including the infamous Gorbals slum in Glasgow and maximum security prisons where we met with officers and notorious inmates. For someone with the genteel background of a music teacher she was amazingly at ease in every type of company, but underneath we saw a steely determination to improve the lives of ordinary folk.

Her wisdom and energy didn’t go unnoticed elsewhere. She was in demand as a director of numerous organizations, institutions and charities across Scotland, even representing the Queen on one occasion, and came to international notice as chair of the board for Christian Aid, which took her on arduous foreign tours to see the charity in action. The Queen appointed her in 1996 to Scotland’s Order of the Thistle after the Queen Mother and as the first non-royal lady of that ancient and noble Order. But she was still the same modest Marion after a meteoric rise in public esteem and attention. If you bumped into her you might assume she was a kindly older lady like any Mrs. Smith or MacDonald you might meet in the street.

She would laugh if I told her she reminded me of a bearded wizard. The Shire looked up to Gandalf who cast a wise and caring eye over the hobbits, and although he went away on a journey they never felt he was really gone. Marion left us in her 84th year, a ripe age for anyone but too soon to lose a precious soul in unsettled times.

Next Post: Autumn Leaves have Fallen

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How British Dentists Created Heavy Metal Generation

At my first dental examination in North America the Montrealer with a deep knowledge of the ethnography of decay leaned back from my chair and holding his pick aloft declared, “You have British teeth.” His tone was grave, like a race horse owner looking an old nag in the mouth. My heart dropped because I expected the consultation would confirm my pearly whites were pristine, and when he saw my puzzled look he shook his head. “You were unlucky to grow up in the nadir of British dentistry.” Ugh, he spoilt my day.

After I left his office I cast back to the medical and dental services of my schooldays in the London Borough of Bromley. I rarely visited those halls of humiliation and horror. Boys took off their shirts to line up in the gymnasium for a stethoscope and vaccination. Finally, the school nurse tugged at the waistband above our fly for a cold hand to reach down to check our pinkness, leaving us wondering if her scribbled notes would reach the headmaster if she found something amiss. But our greatest dread was the dental checkup which came round every six months, but mercifully that interval was much longer in childhood than it seems now. Our parents never understood our hostility to these appointments because they grew up before the National Health Service was founded in 1948 and were treated, if at all, in  private clinics. Most people in those days opted for extraction as the cheap option for toothache.

Dental caries was prevalent even in prehistoric times, and a rough diet rapidly wore teeth down until softer foods were eaten in the modern age. But at the end of the Victorian Era caries exploded five-fold after refined sugar entered the diet, including Her Majesty’s whose very sweet tooth enjoyed Battenberg cake, Victoria sponge and Osborne pudding at tea time. Toothache was just a fact of life that had to be shrugged off, and dentists kept their pliers handy like carpenters pulling nails.

I remember family members from that generation leaving their dentures in a fizzy glass of Steradent when they retired to bed. One of my “aunties” had all her teeth extracted by age 16 because she was terrified of the slow, wobbly drill operated by a foot treadle. She had a wonderful smile that was credited to an old Vulcanite denture she had worn for decades. There were no X-ray machines in dental surgeries, nor were surgical gloves worn, nor did boiling sterilizers sterilize, and nothing droll about treatment except the chuckles from laughing gas. A dentist who worked in Glasgow in the early 20th century recalled half his patients over twenty didn’t have any natural teeth, and fathers sent daughters to him before their weddings to have teeth replaced with dentures “so their future dental healthcare needs wouldn’t be a burden on their husbands.”

After 1948 my boomer generation faced a new breed of dentist that was transitioning to the challenges of a nation whose dental care had been neglected except for the few who could afford private treatment. In the first 9 months of the NHS they were swamped with requests for 4.5 million extractions and the million full sets of dentures ordered ran the national supply dry. Restorative dental work suddenly came into its own, but conservative dentistry was not yet in our vocabulary, and we never heard of teeth magically whitened with paste or straightened with a brace, and anyway they would never look cool in my class.

This won't hurt, I'm a British dentist

This won’t hurt, I’m a British dentist

There was no shortage of dental work, but a national shortage of practitioners lasted for years. In 1958 the teeth of only 5% of 12-year-olds were free of decay, a record low point and down by three-quarters on the war years when sweets were scarce and it took a generation to reverse the statistics.  Matters would have been better if we had fluoride in toothpaste or in drinking water in some of our cities, and I don’t ever recall advice about dental hygiene and cutting down on sticky foods and sweets except from mother. But a dentist needs tooth decay for work, like his carpenter friend who needs rotting boards.

We were told we lived in a golden age of dental care, and the mantra rang musically over and over “drill and fill.” Dental surgeries had high-speed drills, mercury amalgam and novocaine. It was, however, tricky for a boy to accept analgesia in case a limp lip betrayed a lack of courage to classmates who would taunt him mercilessly. And no matter how heavy the treatment we couldn’t expect to be mollycoddled with sympathy from our parents and grandparents who had lived through greater tortures in world wars.

The two certainties in our lives were corporal punishment and dental care, and it is hard to say which was the crueler. Dentists were sharp-eyed like woodpeckers and always found something to drill, if not two or three cavities, and filled them as fast as we could jump over a horse in the gymnasium. I am talking of either high skill or reckless driving, perhaps because the man was impatient for the next case trembling outside in the waiting room. He often shouted at me “Keep still, boy!” while leaning over my squirming body in his electric chair with his drill whining like a mad hornet inside my quaking mouth. I didn’t have to wait long holding my breath until he paused to suck out the gritty dentine with a long tube like a lamprey.

Dentists complained they were overworked but in truth it was in their interest because the NHS paid them a piece rate (per procedure), which they claimed was a pittance. A dentist had to be productive to make a good living (mine drove a sexy Jensen), but it was a miserable occupation to work on boys like me, only relieved by thoughts of the happy hour with the carpenter over a pint in the George and Dragon. While British shipbuilding, mining and car manufacturing were heading for extinction, dentistry continued to hum and sales of mercury had never done better since Victorian times. With so much heavy metal in our heads it is a wonder that our jaws didn’t fall slack under the extra weight.

While he was drilling we saw out of the corner of an eye an assistant pouring liquid mercury into a pot of powdered metals to make amalgam to fill the holes. I once asked him if the mercury would harm me because we stopped rolling beads of mercury in our palms from broken thermometers when we learned the Mad Hatter’s story.


The dentist replied memorably with total silence. Perhaps he meant “You insolent boy!” or “He’s an idiot.”

How times have changed. The Day of the Dentist is no longer dreaded and my amiable provider in Virginia takes time to discuss conservation, crowns and cosmetics. Many people reach adulthood today without any cavities thanks to fluoride and dental hygiene. Surely British teeth can now be redeemed from their blackened reputation?

I was musing how dentists have navigated progress towards the perfection of national dentition without making themselves redundant. They shrewdly responded to the growing public pride in a perfect smile, and as British dentists migrated into the private sector like their American cousins they have shown greater business acumen than physicians or surgeons. No matter if caries becomes extinct or if stem cells are used to regenerate new sets of teeth they will always find a reason to be needed. I knew a Scottish farmer whose friend desperately wanted to save his pet sheep that was getting weak when its teeth wore down and could no longer eat a natural diet. The vet had no answer, but his dentist offered to make a set of dentures for the animal. Dentists are an enterprising bunch.

One legacy hangs over from the bad old days—mercury. My dentist is itching to drill and replace it with a modern resin. It’s nice work for him to brush off his old drill, and ought to please the patient, but this one is stalling with questions. Is the replacement less durable? Will I absorb more mercury vapor from drilling than if good amalgam is left alone? By keeping mercury in my head am I saving the environment, at least until the day when it blows off the smoke stack at the crem?  While I continue to ponder an answer I remain one of the heavy metal generation.

Next Post: Autumn Leaves have Fallen

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