Vernal pool. Close your eyes and say it and it sounds like it might be the name for a British detective. But it isn’t and unless your childhood was spent playing in the fields and woods, it’s unlikely you’ve ever seen a vernal pool.

I hear that they’ve become “protected” now and I foresee all kinds of regulations about land development around them. Given the history of this kind of an issue, I imagine there will be highly paid people defending those little critters who live in vernal pools – cute little salamanders and fairy shrimp, the loss of which would forever upset the food chain of nature. Maybe we could protect the black flies and wood ticks, too. They must serve some kind of purpose.

The big problem with vernal pools is that they are only in existence, that is, visible, for a short length of time. Otherwise they cannot be detected, which will make surveying them difficult.

Protecting them with a law reminds me of closing the barn door after the horse has been stolen. Now that we’ve managed to cut down every tree that was in the way and bulldoze naturally occuring little rises in the landscape, and filled in naturally occuring wet areas to make things “look rural,” it’s a little late to worry about vernal pools and the actual good these wetlands provide. We’ve destroyed the habitat for deer and moose and many other species, but we’re going to have a law to save fairy shrimp.

Children who lived in Windham when it was truly rural, never knew about vernal pools, but just mucked through them in the spring and captured the wildlife in mayonnaise jars to take home for the earliest version of “show and tell.” I can remember a windowsill filled with glass jars of varying size, each with a little greenish tinted water and floating insects or polliwogs. We’d add a few twigs and leaves (for food, we thought). Sometimes these specimens would last a few days and in a few cases a tiny frog head would appear on a polliwog. Salamanders we caught got their own special enclosure to which we’d add dirt and a few rocks.

Little did we know that in our efforts to create a nature study display, we were upsetting the balance of nature. Soon enough, the water in the display jars began to evaporate, our specimens flipped over and sometimes floated on the top. This was a sure sign that our experiment had failed – again. Mother would issue the decree: get those jars out of here. And we’d scurry back to the woods for another collection. Mom had a lot of patience.

The years went by, I left Windham for a number of years. When I returned to my hometown with my toddling son, I took him to the same places I remembered as being a rich source of live nature. We started saving jars, punching holes in the covers. Again we collected tiny bugs and salamanders and even wee little critters that looked like miniature lobsters, a kind of crayfish. Remembering the mayonnaise jars of old, and the accompanying odor of fermenting nature, I made a new rule: we could only keep “nature” overnight. Every little creature that “slept over” had to go home the next day. Kind of a catch and release policy. This worked out well, as it meant more trips to the brooks and streams and those special places – vernal pools – until they dried up.

Efforts are underway to protect these nurseries of nature. Does this mean that the generations of country children and their collective capture of woodland wildlife, has caused a shortage of salamanders or polliwogs? I know that the noise produced by spring peepers (tiny little frog things with suction cups on their feet) has upset some residents.

Could a concerned animal rights group be working right now to produce legislation to protect the dwellers of vernal pools? I can see the headlines: Save the Salamander; Protect the Peepers.

See you next week.

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