Written by Emily Mullins
How did the salamander cross the road? With the help of Robert Grabill and a group of high school students from the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College UCC. On a warm, damp night in April, the group from Hanover, N.H., equipped with reflective vests, headlamps and flashlights, stood watch on a wooded, rural road waiting for the salamanders to begin their dangerous migration from the vernal pools on one side to the safety of the forest on the other.
"It's a very tricky thing – it's like trying to hit a hole-in-one," Grabill, director of religious education, said of seeing the salamanders. "You need the right combination of rain and temperature, and then you need to find a vernal pool. But when you do it right, you find hundreds of these little guys scurrying around."
The local nature center had designated the day as "yellow," as opposed to a "green" day when conditions are good and a migration is a sure thing or a "red" day when day when there is no chance, so the possibility of a migration was hit or miss. But the group was ready to help the tiny creatures reach their destination by protecting them from the deadly wheels of oncoming traffic.
As part of its Mission 4/1 Earth efforts, the congregation has set aside multiple evenings to help with the salamander migrations, part of an annual breeding ritual involving hundreds or even thousands of the amphibians. A telltale sign of spring in New Hampshire, Grabill thinks it's important for the youth to experience these types of natural phenomena that occur in their own backyard. Salamanders are an important component of the natural food chain and good indicators of a healthy environment, so a successful salamander migration is necessary to keep the species populous and thriving, he adds.
"The parents won't let me take them to Washington and chain them to a fence," jokes Grabill, a self-proclaimed "big-time tree hugger." "But it really is in our service to do this, to care for creatures that are otherwise unable to help themselves in the face of traffic. It's a great educational process to be aware of some of the forces of nature."
During this time of year, salamanders lay their eggs in vernal pools, or temporary ponds created by melting snow and rain, to protect them from being eaten by fish and other creatures. To do so, they have to leave the security of the murky rocks and logs they hide under for the majority of the year and often have to cross busy roads and streets in the process. The ideal conditions for a migration are warm, damp evenings after midnight, when salamanders come out of hiding to feed on insects, but on school nights, the group heads out at about 9 p.m. With their safety equipment in tow, they direct traffic while the salamanders make the journey, and even pick them up and place them into safety to help speed up the process.
"You don't see salamanders very often, but they're there," Grabill said. "Their mortality rate is pretty high, so if you can help them across the street, you've done a lot to perpetuate their species."
In addition to the salamander migrations, the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College also has an array of other Mission 4/1 Earth activities planned. They will plant trees, have environmentally-themed Sunday school classes, and write advocacy letters protesting the Keystone Pipeline. Grabill recently preached about the importance of divesting from fossil fuels, and will preach again about climate change in a few weeks. On April 27, a group will travel to Boston to attend Climate Revival 2013, an ecumenical festival to embolden the renewal of creation, featuring guest preacher the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president.
"Mission 4/1 Earth is right in our wheelhouse," said Grabill. "We're trying to do all the things that hopefully change behaviors, and if it gives people ideas of different ways to care for creation, so much the better."
To count your efforts on the Mission 4/1 Earth tally board, report your earth care hours, trees planting and letters written, report in as often as you like here.
Share the goals of Mission 4/1 Earth with your family and friends and invite them to join the movement.