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Co-host of the Episode Party podcast, author of Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-rock, editor at ATTN:Magazine.
Otherwise known as the Mexican salamander, the axolotl is a creature with near-mythic properties. It retains several larval features throughout its life – tadpole-like fins, feathery gills – giving it the impression of eternal youth. It can regenerate entire body parts perfectly, including its own spine. Its name derives from the Aztec god, Xolotl: god of heavenly fire, lightning and the underworld. Yet no amount of divine reverie has managed to save the axolotl from the brutish practices of large-scale agriculture, which have pushed it toward extinction over the past few centuries.
The decline of the axolotl is recounted by NHPR’s Outside/In podcast, which follows the attempts of ecologist Luis Zambrano to resurrect an ancient style of agriculture called “chinampería”: a co-operative practice that centres on the creation of floating gardens called “chinampas”. These gardens proliferated when Mexico City was under Aztec rule and the axolotls thrived accordingly. Yet due to the colonial overhaul of the water management systems in the 16th century, along with the increased urbanisation of Mexico City over the past hundred years, the axolotl has lost vast swathes of its former habitat. Where thousands of these creatures used to occupy Lake Xochimilco, a census performed by Zambrano and his team in 2014 found only one axolotl during four months of relentless searching.
This isn’t just the tale of how an amphibious reptile was pushed toward extinction. While the podcast never makes the analogy explicit, this story is about one population becoming displaced by the domineering practices of an invading party. And even if the story of the axolotl ends in promise, with the hard-fought revival of those ancient techniques heralding an increase in numbers, the advancement of these forces in other domains (the gentrification of our capital cities, for example) invariably occurs without resistance.