SalamanderAt first glance, it looks like a whiskerless catfish, its blunt head jutting from a space beneath the rocks.  But then it inches out, revealing not just legs, but also three pair of feathery gills that protrude from its head like horns. It is a neotenic tiger salamander—that is, a salamander that will mature and live its entire life in its aquatic larval form.

This high mountain pool is full of the odd-looking creatures, some just a few inches long and others measuring at least a foot in length. How, I wonder, did they get here? How, I wonder, do they find enough to eat? With no inlet and no outlet, this abandoned quarry must rely on snowmelt and scanty rains to replenish its stock of water. It seems a precarious place to live.

And yet, as the literature tells me, this is exactly where Ambystoma mavortiumto needs be. According to Caudata Culture, a Web site devoted to “newt and salamander enthusiasts,” these amphibians are “usually found near their breeding sites, which may consist of ditches, slow-moving streams, cattle tanks, quarry ponds, spring-fed pools, and subalpine lakes. Rarely will they use any of these water sources if predatory fish are present.”

In short, salamanders favor the seclusion and safety that these less than pristine settings afford them. Here they can grow to maturity, reproduce, and, perhaps ironically, even thrive.

How do we find the place where we belong? Must we wait for the “perfect” environment, the storybook life we’ve been told we’re supposed to achieve? Or does our niche lie instead in some out-of-the-way milieu, a setting that speaks to our individual talents and needs?

In a long-abandoned quarry, by the side of a high-mountain road, the western tiger salamander, or “waterdog,” has made itself at home. With the entire world at our feet, and the wits to make our way through it, may we also have the wisdom to claim our own place when we see it.