The Salamander Room

Nature and children seem appropriate subjects for summertime musings, and writing about Diary of an Earthworm made me think of another picture book I liked so much I got a copy for myself as well as my nephew.

salamander roomThe Salamander Room is a gorgeously illustrated tale of a little boy, Brian, who finds a “little orange salamander” in the woods and takes it home. Instead of outright denying him his new pet, Brian’s mother instead asks some practical questions—“Where will he sleep?” “When he wakes up, where will he play?”—and then observes, “He will miss his friends in the forest.”

The mother’s responses demonstrate a perceptive compassion that extends to the salamander itself, a gentle reminder to her son Brian that the salamander is not a pretty toy from the store, a plaything made for his own devices, but a wild creature with its own needs, desires, and concerns. By phrasing her observations as questions and statements that demand Brian’s response, she (and the author) avoid accusatory, didactic diatribes on humans and nature, inviting Brian instead to think through the consequences of his action, both for himself and the fellow creature he has taken from its native environment.

Brian’s responses to his mother’s questions and observations (which continue on to the subject of food, and the consequent creation of an entire ecological foodchain) create the magic of the book as the boy envisions how he will transform his room to suit the salamander’s needs. The illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher show the gradual transformation of Brian’s bedroom to a virtual forest, a complete habitat for the salamander and its food and friends, lush and verdant, lovingly depicted.

The story, by Anne Mazer, is a wise and wonderful tale that creates its own magic. I’m so glad I stumbled on it.

Here there be Dragons: Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (another Eco Story)

I’ve always loved dragons and snakes, and been disturbed that Christian iconography typically portrays them as agents of evil, so I was especially delighted to discover a positive portrayal in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

rime of ancient mIt’s a poem I’m rather ashamed to admit I’ve never read before, and I owe my final acquaintance to one of the delightful Gothic literature groups I recently joined on Goodreads. I was especially struck by the moral of the poem: “He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small.” Certainly an ecological theme! The basic story of the poem is that the Ancient Mariner of the title comes under Heaven’s curse for wantonly killing a friendly Albatross that had landed on his ship, a bird which the other sailors had taken as a fortunate omen.

Even more striking is that the Mariner’s redemption arises from the most unlikely of creatures: a band of water-snakes:

“They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elflish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare.
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind Saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.”

(Text from The New Oxford Book of English Verse, c1972, p. 534.)

Illustration by Willy Pogany from the 1910 edition, published by Doran. Image scanned by George P. Landow, from the Victorian Web.

Illustration by Willy Pogany from the 1910 edition, published by Doran. Image from The Victorian Web, scanned by George P. Landow.

I know nothing of Coleridge’s life beyond the bare bones, but I’m curious to know whether he knew anything of Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis, who was officially declared patron saint of ecologists by Pope John Paul II in 1979, is well known for his love of all living creatures. While I’ve never heard any anecdotes that specifically mentioned snakes, there is a story that “he lifted worms from the road for fear they might be trampled underfoot by passersby.” (I was especially gratified to read this, because I often do the same for earthworms when they’ve crawled onto the sidewalks after a hard rain.)

Of course, without further research, there is no way to know whether or not Coleridge was familiar with such stories about Saint Francis. He may merely have soaked up the Romantic movement’s love of nature from his friend and fellow poet William Wordsworth—or he may have loved such creatures from boyhood and needed no model or excuse to sing their praise. Though I have no idea what inspired Coleridge to give his character such unlikely saviors, I’m glad that he did.

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