Friday, May 16, 2014

Part V: The Conclusion of Natural Springs, Brownback Salamanders, and the Good Folks of St. Clair County

By Sean Graham

Make sure to start at Part I.

Part V: Disaster, and Triumph

    I have only one recurring dream. It always follows the same formula. I am usually in a car driving across some open landscape when the weather suddenly brews dark clouds. I look out across the fields and a funnel cloud forms. The part of the dream that’s always the same is that I then think to myself (in the dream) that I’m finally going to see a real tornado, and not just dream about it. At first the dreams were exciting, even exhilarating. I would reach for my camera to try and take pictures. But they have progressively gotten much worse and can now be considered recurring nightmares.

    I was in Funchess Hall on
 the campus of Auburn University on April 27 2011 when news reports appeared all over the web about a massive tornado touching down to the northwest over in Tuscaloosa. A web cam somewhere on the campus of the University of Alabama caught the monster in broad daylight. It was so big you couldn’t make out a narrow funnel cloud; instead it was a massive, rotating black wall. I decided not to go home that night and slept on the couch in the Guyer lab. Funchess Hall is an ugly, rectangular brick building with few windows, but it’s a designated fallout shelter. I spoke on the phone that night with my then girlfriend Crystal (now my wife) who at the time was in Australia. She gave me a hard time and said I was being too alarmist. They don’t have tornadoes very often in Australia. 

    From Tuscaloosa the tornado tore a path through north central Alabama to Birmingham before dissipating northeast of town. It reformed and rolled into the Shoal Creek Valley east of the city like some horrible gutter ball. It made it all the way into Georgia before it lost strength. The next morning I told my girlfriend in an “I told you so” way that over 300 people were killed. It was the worst tornado outbreak since the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 killed twice as many people. 


    Before arriving at Buford’s House I stopped by the florist in Ashville to get flowers. I waited a few minutes for them to make the bouquet. Without any better word to describe it, this would surely be an awkward visit. I really needed to visit the spring for this study, but I didn’t want to seem insensitive. But I definitely didn’t want to just show up and play dumb, as if I didn’t know what had happened. So I thought flowers would be a nice gesture. I sorely wished I had Shannon or Jenn along with me. I was breaking the cardinal rule: asking permission from a landowner without a lady. For this I definitely needed a woman’s touch. 

The Shoal Creek Valley in early spring 2012.
    I drove down the Shoal Creek Valley and could barely recognize the place. The trees of the Shoal Creek Mountains lay down in one direction like thousands of dominoes. The Beaver Creek Mountains were untouched—the tornado hugged the south side of the valley. It would have been a half mile wide to reach the Valley slope and the Sanders home. It looked like a bomb had gone off. I drove past houses that were reduced to their cement front stairs. I drove past the Sanders place twice before I recognized it. Both houses were gone. Gone. The spring house was gone. Mangled slabs of siding were wrapped around snapped trees. The copse of willows that used to line the spring run next to the holding ponds was now three dead snags.

    I pulled into the driveway and saw a small new house a block or two away from the old home sites. Buford came out to meet me and seemed to truly appreciate the flowers, which he handed off to Margaret. It wasn’t long before he told me the story of what happened. 

    It was getting dark when the tornado warning was issued for their valley. Angie had put in some brownies after dinner down at Al’s house. Buford called down to Al and told him this warning was no joke and he needed to get Angie and the girls—Al had three daughters aged 14 and up—into the center room of the house. Buford and Margaret got into a central closet as the tornado rounded up the valley right at dusk. The house shook and he clutched his wife and closed his eyes, then it seemed like all suddenly became lighter. He looked up to discover his house no longer had a roof. They never found it. 

    After the tornado passed, Buford went to check on this son’s family. Al’s house was gone. For that matter, so was Buford’s. They found Angie nearly a hundred yards from the house. She was already dead. They found all three of the girls, some of whom were severely injured but all of whom were alive. 

    Buford became visibly emotional and his finger shook when he pointed out the spot where they found Al. 

    Al was still alive but a stick had punctured his lung. One of his daughters called 911 but the dispatchers said they were having a hard time getting to people because of all the downed trees. She told them her daddy was dying and that they should send a helicopter—it could land in a clearing across the street. They never came. 

    Buford held his boy all night. 

    Hours later, Al said, “Daddy I’m dying.” 

    With tears now streaking down his weathered face, Buford told me he replied, “No son, you can’t die. I love you too much.” 

    He looked away from the spot where his son died and back at me. “You know how hard that is to say.” I nodded yes. “It was especially hard for me and my boy.” 

    Al said “I love you too,” and died. 

    It was dawn before the paramedics arrived. Al Sanders survived most of the night with a massive injury that he could very well have survived if help had come sooner.

    Buford and I stood there in silence for a moment out there in that blasted valley, the both of us now crying quite openly. I was thinking about my own father. He looked off toward the Shoal Creek Mountains. “We still see lots of bluebirds. I love the bluebirds.” 

Buford Sanders demonstrating the power of
the tornado: he found this piece of metal
protruding from a log after the storm.
    I told him I thought there would be thousands of bluebirds and woodpeckers nesting in snags along the ridge after the tornado, if he left them. He said he probably would. “I love this valley, and I think I’m gonna stay.” 

    After a few minutes Buford broke our silence with some wisecrack. Soon we were smiling again. 

    I told him, “Sir, you’re a miracle.” 

    I spent the next few hours collecting salamanders in their spring. The potted plants were mostly gone or sunk into the mud but there were still several nests and plenty of Brownback Salamanders. 


    Five days later I staged two encounters between male Brownback Salamanders with females and intruders and nothing happened. I was swearing, hoping for any activity. They just sat there. Then I set up SS-03 and a female. SS-06, the intruder, approached the female tentatively and slowly. He started rubbing the back of the female with his snout. Male SS-03 broke off from the female and nudged the intruder. They seemed to pause for a moment, then all hell broke loose. 

Evidence of aggression in Brownback Salamanders:
the circular wound on the side of the salamander
was inflicted by another male during a battle.
    SS-03 snapped vigorously, flinging himself a few centimeters away from the intruder. He quickly recovered his footing then rapidly walked directly toward the intruder. They nudged each other with their snouts, and started pushing each other. They were facing opposite with their heads pushing each other’s waists, so they spun around wildly like a yin-yang. Then SS-03 latched on to the intruder’s side and twisted his whole body in an athletic somersault. After watching the salamanders fight for 15 minutes I was breathless. I separated them, and upon inspection SS-06 had a big chunk taken out of his side.

Oh they fight alright.

    The video ended shortly after the big bite was taken from the intruder. I had my laptop out and was excitedly explaining to the Sanders—Buford, Margaret, and their granddaughter Cassie—what I’d found after I returned all of my test subjects to the spring. I showed them the best videos of the fights. Several of the males fought when I introduced an intruder. None of the Two-lined Salamanders did. There would be no trouble finding statistical support for the behavioral differences between these salamanders. The study had been a complete success, and I finally had a good explanation for the range of variation displayed by the salamanders. Buford seemed to enjoy watching the videos and had a good smile going. He was probably being polite and just responding to my enthusiasm. I think Margaret was unsure of what she was looking at. Cassie seemed unimpressed. 

    “You sound like my biology teacher.” 

    “Is that a bad thing?” 

    “What good are salamanders, anyway?” 


     I’m not sure if the Brownback Salamander needs to be a protected species like the rare darters they share the springs with. On one hand, the springs are being heavily modified, destroyed, or capped for human consumption one by one. We don’t know how many of the springs are still in a natural state. And I’m not so sure if protection by government agencies would even help; the impoundment at Roebuck Spring—one of the only sites where Watercress Darters are knownwas accidentally dismantled by the City of Birmingham soon after we collected our Brownback Salamander larva there. Hundreds of the dead, desiccated bodies of darters were found in the muddy pond bed.

A capped spring in Walker Co., Georgia. To
my knowledge, this site no longer supports
Brownback Salamanders.
    On the other hand, the salamander is more widespread than I’ve led you to believe. We don’t know where the distribution stops; I’ve found several springs in Tennessee with big-headed aquatica types. They may occupy the entire Great Valley from Alabama to Pennsylvania. We found them well into northern Alabama and sometimes quite far from springs. The Brownback Salamander is still locally common, but the pure water springs they breed in are certainly under threat. Demand for clean water will become desperate in the future. The privately owned springs will likely become goldmines for property owners as world freshwater supplies begin to run out during the next century. Then the choice of whether to preserve the springs or cap them for consumption will be obvious.

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