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Old 12th September 2006   #1
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<u>NEWS-PRESS</u> (Fort Myers, Florida) 10 September 06 Fine weather for amphiumas
It seemed I'd just finished kissing, finger-combing and shooing D.P. out the door — my husband, Roger, and our 4-year-old, Nash, were driving him to school that day — when the phone rang. It was Roger. "There's a huge eel right at the end of the driveway."
"Huh?" I gaped. "An eel?"
"Yep, big and black," he said. "Come take a look."
Grabbing an old Winn-Dixie bag, I stepped into my still-damp-inside white boots and pounded down the first three stairs. Two from the end, I had to stop. Instead of stepping into my yard, I was about to wade into a pond.
Boots sinking into fudgy slime beneath a couple feet of coffee-colored water, I made my way to the top of the driveway, one of the few parts of our new Alva place that wasn't utterly swamped. Squelch, swish, squelch, swish, squelch, swish.
The car idling empty, Roger and the boys were bent over a still, dark shape in the mud. About the length of a baseball bat, it was thick as my wrist and patent-leather sleek. Assuming it was dead, I bent to pick the critter up (hand sheathed in the bag) so we could get a better look. But when my fingers closed behind its head, the thing convulsed, coiling back on itself, slipping through my plastic-coated grip as if oiled before whiplashing back to the ground, where it lay, sides heaving.
Whatever it was, it was powerful; it felt like I'd picked up a greased length of solid muscle. Changing tactics, I closed the bag over the length of the creature, leaving the head exposed long enough for us to see its glittery map-pin eyes, its wraparound smile and two translucent legs no bigger than matchsticks. It vaguely reminded me of the salamander I'd had as a kid, then the mental tumblers clicked into place. This was no eel; it was a native amphibian of some sort, and lively.
We gently twisted the bag shut and Roger and the boys set off to release the flood-stranded beast in a canal down the road. (I didn't want to think about how late D.P. was for school at that point.)
Later, we learned our driveway visitor was indeed a giant salamander —an amphiuma, a rarely seen creature that hides deep in wetlands, emerging at dark to feed on snails, worms, frogs and other wrigglies. Armed with two rows of knife-sharp teeth, it isn't to be trifled with, say experts, one of whom called its bite "savage."
Looking back, the amphiuma's appearance was a harbinger of what has followed, as our place has turned from high-and-dry oak hammock to inland bayou. For the past week, we've been flooded, from the clogged, road-front canals nearest Bedman Creek to the pole barn in back, almost two football fields in length — and the day the amphiuma turned up was just the beginning, when the whole thing was still a grand adventure.
The kids, of course, wanted to splash and thrash, but Roger and I forbade any unnecessary contact with floodwater, shuddering at the idea of the microbial pestilence they'd be slinging at each other.
Since then, the water has risen and receded, but never left, turning from tannic tea to murky broth, the mud bottom veined with pale corpses of drowned worms, waving gently like anemones in the faint current.
Though there's usually just enough space to line the cars up at the top of the driveway, even that has disappeared a time or two, and we've been forced to leave them at a neighbor's and wade in.
We street mates meet around dusk in the crown of the road for hasty briefings, exchanging news ("My a.c. shorted out yesterday; I think my well pump's next."), advice ("Get two pairs of boots and keep one in your car.") and sympathy. Conspiracy theories abound, understandably, since none of the cheerful bureaucrats I've talked to have offered credible explanations — or any help.
Now, I'm all for allowing nature to take its course, but I assume the plentiful upland trees on our place and the word of the local old-timers means that this is not the course she normally takes. Yet I'm a chronic bright-sider. I know as floods go, this is nothing. The house is fine. The horse and donkey have a lone dry patch — just enough to save their hooves. Sure they've grazed it down to the dirt, but we bring them food.
From the deck, as long as the mosquito spray holds, I can survey the toxic moat that surrounds us, watch the gas bubbles rise and pop on the pollen- and petrol-smeared surface and think to myself: Well, whatever else, it is all sort of interesting ... if you're an amphiuma.

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amphiumas, fine, press, weather

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