It is odd to think that a six-inch-long amphibian could bring bulldozers to a halt and throw my entire extended family into a prolonged two-year crisis, but this is exactly what happened. Up until recently, in the small town of Great Barrington, Mass., there was no greater menace to home construction than the reclusive, insect-eating creature known as Gyrinophilus porphyriticus, or the spring salamander.
The thing that did us in was a nameless mountain stream. My mother, Tamar Halpern, and her husband were driving up a winding country lane in the Berkshires when they stumbled upon a for-sale sign staked at the edge of a brook. As mountains go, the Berkshires are not particularly impressive. From the vantage point of an airplane, they look more like hills than mountains, which is precisely what made this particular stream so unusual. Its scale was breathtaking. The stream snaked its way through a series of massive glacial rocks, and then it dropped down the mountainside along a series of waterfalls that poured from one shady, moss-covered ledge onto another. The land looked primordial, like something out of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and we fell in love with it.
My mother and her husband had been on the lookout for a piece of land on which to build a vacation home—a place where the extended family could gather. Suddenly, here it was. I suppose we should have asked ourselves, Why was this hauntingly beautiful stretch of mountainside undeveloped? It never crossed our min...