The small frog waited silently, blinking slowly, breathing. It simply existed, with damp and leathery skin, a speckled, curious-looking creature. I watched it for a long time, waiting for something to happen. Hey! It sprang away as if a trigger had been released and sent it awkwardly up, out and then splashing down into the swamp water beside its soggy dirt-clod perch.
I heard the frogs stop creak-croaking, all at once, when my shoes shushed and swished in the grasses and sucking mud at the marsh bank, their silence resounding in contrast to the wide chorus they formed throughout the rushes and soggy grasses. I set my lunch box down, walked with slow exaggerated steps on tuffets of grass in the seeping drain water, looking for more frogs. They held their voices and sat stock still, hidden.
The frogs who were not close by, the distant ones in the marshy swamp, continued their creaking frog calls. Their long strings of eggs were suspended in slimy ropes attached to the mud banks and trailed in the drain water like iridescent bubbled ribbons. Tadpoles, eggs, frogs, slime, moss, water and mud intermingled, a rich earthy soup of frogs, insects, and microscopic life. I squatted down and looked for the tadpole gangs wriggling in masses, dark and simple looking with two eyes and a lashing tail. The trailing sinuous moss swept in the stream's current looked like dark-green, wet hair. It was repulsive, more so than frogs were.
I uncapped a jelly jar and scooped a good measure of muddy water, tadpoles and some grass and held it up. Yes, six or eight tadpoles had slithered inside and I was their master now.
I stood still and waited for the chorus to resume, and it did when the frogs had heard no movement for a time. First one, then two or three frogs who were at scattered distances, one from another, hesitantly began to call. In a spreading ease, frog voices called to one another, high pitched and droning pleasantly. These were small frogs mostly, but some had deeper voices that held to a lower register of sound.
This marshy swamp we called The Polliwog Pong was a bog of runoff water. I could trace it upstream to a rivulet that bordered our school tennis courts to the northeast and before that from a neighborhood and low hills further east. The swampy field southwest of our school where the frogs sang was open and free of human intrusion because it was boggy, of uncertain footing most of the time, and consisted of repulsive slime and unwanted creatures, rude and homely little things with no known friends.
At twilight and early evening, crickets and singing frogs croaked, buzzed and buggrummmed. We always heard them in our rural community, making that combined single-note chirring chorus that is now nearly totally silenced, forever. It was sweet and steady and was the sound dimension of the night world, joined by screech owls, the hesitant soft crunch of deer hooves on crisp leaves in the yard after the moon rose, the needling squeak of bats, and the whispering breeze in the darkened trees.
I walked home with my jelly jar of tadpoles and intended to watch their back legs grow, then their front legs as their tails shrank down and they became frogs, but, as usual, they eventually died. I didn't know enough about them to give them good frog food or plenty of frog room to grow or to just simply let them alone.
The bog was so plentiful a frog marsh that it seemed the amphibians' slimy numbers were infinite. Most children disdained them, playing with them like toys, teasing them, shrieking with hilarity, entertained at their expense. Our ignorance ruined them, all the frogs science now regards as bellwethers of environmental change. They were forced out by steady encroachment and then appropriation of their marsh so that a park could be built next to the school.
I walk outside in the dark when I have the chance, and I listen for frogs or crickets or bats singing their high wild songs, calling for mates and offspring. It's rare to hear them. You only hear people, cars, and a lonesome emptiness ringing far and wide.
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way