In Search of Frogs

Last year Sally and I happened to be at our cottage, in northwest Michigan, on a spring weekend when frogs and toads were calling. The sound coming from the swamp at night was amazing—like a tremendous frog engine. (It was quite beautiful, as well—especially the sound that I learned later was the call of the American Toad, a long, high trill, bright and ethereal.)

Trying to learn more about what we heard, I went to the internet and discovered the Michigan Frog and Toad Survey, a project of data collection that began twenty years ago in response to worldwide amphibian decline. This year I decided to participate. I set up a route and registered it with the DNR, and they sent me a packet (including recordings on a CD). We studied the calls a bit, then, outfitted with a clipboard and headlamps (and a recording app, on my phone) we headed out on the “early spring” run.

Stop 1: We visited this new-ish park last winter, and discovered there are ponds here. But a walk down the paved path soon after sunset, then off to the right onto gravel reveals no frog sound—just loud, incessant highway noise. Is it I-75, or M-59? Probably both, we think. We hike back up the hill and encounter someone strolling with two dogs, off-leash (one runs up and licks Sally’s hand), and as we get back in the car we hear a rowdy series of whoops from somewhere down below. Quite the party scene, I comment to Sally as we pull out of the parking lot.

Stop 2: It’s almost full dark as we turn in the driveway for the conservation land next door to City Hall. There’s a short flight of stairs down from the lot, and we can see just enough to manage them without switching on our headlamps. A small footbridge crosses a stream and leads to a clear, dry spot surrounded by vegetation. We stand quietly in the dark, hearing nothing. Coming up empty again! Then Sally says, “look” and points, and I see a low, dark shape with a white blaze on its head, coming towards us. A skunk–not hurrying, but purposeful, going about its business. It’s headed right for us, completely unaware of our presence until our voices (“is that a skumk?” “wow”) startle it and we see its tail go up. “Back away slowly” Sally advises, and we do, retreating to the bridge. The skunk disappears into the night. I’m reminded that all kinds of creatures are up and about, in the dark.

Stop 3: Frogs! I was pretty sure they would be here, alongside the Clinton River Trail. We can hear them from the parking lot, and they get louder as we leave the sidewalk for the trail: the steady cheep, cheep of spring peepers. I get out my phone to make a recording, and we try to judge the quantity of the overlapping calls: is this a level 2, or 3? We can replay it later.

Farther along the trail, the bank on one side falls away to darkness and the sound is clearer here. I make another recording, and jot some notes about where we are standing, beside a brand-new trail sign, bathed in light from the skating rink atop the hill behind us. I feel the presence of people in that light, leaking out the windows and strewn across the path—but it seems distant, removed; and the life of the river—which we’ve walked along many, many times now—feels stronger, more connected to me as the frogs go on singing. I stand in the dark just beyond the squares of electric light, and listen.

Stop 4: Holland Ponds: we’ve got the windows down as we drive up and we can hear frogs singing even before we pull into the parking area. Traffic’s not so loud here even though we’re right on the road, and the front ponds just beyond the parking spaces sound like they’re full of frogs. We walk just a few yards down the trail and I get my phone out again to record, but we know this is level 3: a full chorus of spring peepers, a constant wash of sound.

We stand for a few minutes, taking it in. Even in the dark we can see that a lot of brush and small trees have been cut and cleared away since the last time we visited, a year or two ago. Then I remember that while I was on the web creating my survey route I saw some long posts from someone upset about habitat destruction here. Why do people have to mess with things, we ask each other as we get back in the car. There is a great blue heron rookery here; we’ve come in the past to watch the birds sitting on the nests and feeding their young. I hope their nursery survives.

Stop 5: We come in through the “back door” of this park, an unlighted entrance with a parking area just outside the gate. We’ve been here many times too, and we know there are vernal pools below us, at the foot of the hill. We walk along the grass beside the parking lot inside the gate; the dark outline of the picnic shelter looms up ahead. It’s quieter here, away from traffic, and this time we hear several different calls: the clucking of wood frogs—I read in The Sixth Extinction that they are the only frog that lives above the Arctic Circle; they survive the winter by literally freezing (except for their cells, which contain a kind of antifreeze), then thawing out again in the spring.

We can hear chorus frogs, too—a call we’ve just learned to identify from the CD, where the pleasant-voiced announcer describes it as resembling “the sound produced by running a fingernail across the teeth of a high-quality, fine-toothed comb.” The call does sound just like a comb (of what quality, I can’t say I can distinguish) being scraped, so we recognize it easily.

And there are spring peepers going in the background. I record our data and we head back to the car, still not using our headlamps. We can see pretty well, and Sally wonders if there is a full moon tonight, somewhere behind the clouds. Scanning the sky I can’t see any bright spot, and we decide that all of this ambient light is city incandescence—streetlights, houses, shopping centers. Skating rinks.

Stop 6: At this park, we get busted. We’re standing just beyond the parking lot, by the bathrooms, listening to the same trio of species: peepers, wood frogs and chorus frogs, calling from the vernal pools alongside the playing fields when we see a car pull in and circle around. A moment later we see a police car come in behind it.

We’re already back in our car and heading out when the police car pulls up fast, facing us and shining a spotlight straight in. I lower my window and explain we’re doing the Michigan Frog Survey; I hand the policeman our windshield decal as evidence. He is not impressed. You can’t be in the park after hours, he shouts at us, then (still at the top of his lungs) have a nice night. We follow him out, frog-stalking miscreants properly chastened. Next time wear dark pants, Sally suggests, referring to my tan-colored jeans. Rules are funny things, I reflect later. The cop was right, we’re not supposed to be in the park so late–unless of course there is a baseball game being played, then the curfew goes to 11:30. Seems to me frogs are at least as fundamentally American (and worthy of respect) as baseball. They’ve definitely been around longer—like, before there were dinosaurs. Some 250 million years.

Stop 7: This is a spot I drive by on my way to work, closer in to the city. We pull into the driveway of a big, new church, our windows down, and right there where I saw standing water around the trees we hear a chorus frog.

I park the car at the perimeter of the lot and we walk back over to the edge of the trees; stand for a bit, walk up and down, stand some more. Even after listening for a while we think all we hear is that one voice: one lonely little chorus frog, singing away. We turn back towards the car, and for a moment look out over what has to be three or four acres of fresh-looking blacktop, awash in fluorescent light. “All of this must have been wetland,” Sally muses. We get back in the car.

Stops 8, 9, and 10—a couple of retaining ponds, and the gated entrance to another park—are washouts. A fine drizzle is starting as I record conditions and we wrap up: 10:30, we’ve been at it for well over two hours. Back home I’m tired, but satisfied. We found some frogs—I knew we would. I hope that as the woman on the CD says, we’re “contributing to knowledge of the frogs of the world.”

Frogs of the world. I really, really like that phrase.

For more information:

The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert. If you don’t have time for the (Pulitzer-winning) book, try this article:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/05/25/the-sixth-extinction

The DNR webpage for the Michigan Frog and Toad Survey:

http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10370_12143_12194—,00.html

Amphibiaweb (info on worldwide decline of amphibians):

http://amphibiaweb.org/declines/declines.html

 

 

 

Solitude

On my walk the other day, suddenly I felt sad. I think it was the wind, blowing strong and warm so that all the trees were swaying. There were willow branches strewn across the path, and dry leaves scuttling along the ground. Holdouts—still attached to nearly bare branches when autumn ended, they’ve been stuck up there all winter and were just now blown loose.

Something in me shook loose, too. Coming along the side of the golf course approaching the woods I started to cry. I was thinking about Dad and missing him. I was feeling how alone we are, each and every one of us. I remembered his dying—how Linda and I cried, sobbed, when he breathed his last. I felt so bereft in that moment, when he’d left us for good. Besides losing him, did I feel that the last bit of my childhood was ended? That I now had to cross over, too?

I tried to hold this thought: people we love are always with us, in a way. I dried my tears with the back of my hand and turned onto the little footpath behind the woods; walked towards the setting sun. A few strides in and I felt compelled to step off the trail and into the trees. It’s hard for me to feel sad, in the woods. So much is going on, so much growing there even if asleep. Some big trees lay horizontal, crumbling but still massive, beautiful; their twisting roots and weathered trunks like sculpture rising from the forest floor. Even decomposition can be beautiful, in the woods.

After a bit I turned back onto the path. Up ahead, I saw a figure: a man, in an orange sweatshirt, the hood pulled up and hiding his face like a cowl. He walked slowly, as if he were lame, almost limping. As I approached we were hidden from view, with the trees surrounding us, and I was cautious. I’ve been told many times in many locales not to walk alone, and though I still do it, there are often these moments: friend or foe? One can never be sure.

We passed each other and waved a quick wave, and I saw that he turned where the paved path ended, circled around and fell in behind me. I was walking much faster than he and stayed out in front as we came into the open, alongside the pond. In the trees on my right something caught my eye, a tuft of fuzz caught in the brush. I waded in and pulled it free—a downy feather, tipped with brown. Probably from the under-layer of a goose.

As I held it in my hand, studying it, he caught up to me.

“Whatcha got?”

I saw his face for the first time. He looked not much older than me. It struck me that his eyes were blue, like my dad’s. He smiled.

“A feather.” I stood like a child, cradling my prize.

“Lots of birds flying around.”

“Yeah. It’s very soft… Probably from underneath.”

“We do have geese around here.”

We started walking again and even as we began I outpaced him.

“Amazing how the snow has melted,” I called out, gesturing with my arm. “Just like that,” I snapped my fingers.

“Well this is Michigan. Don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.”

I’ve heard that saying a million times. But still I smiled.

“That’s for sure,” I said. I continued around the pond, his figure getting smaller behind me as I headed for home.

Alone. Yes, I suppose each of us is, in undeniable ways. But maybe not as much as I think, sometimes. Not so much, after all.

Chances

A few weeks ago, I got a Christmas card in my dreams.

It was more like a small package, all wrapped up with a lot of tape, and it had writing stamped all over it, like it had bounced all around the world before getting to me. It had come from the Great Beyond—from friends of mine, contemporaries, who have died in the past couple of years.

When I got the package open, I saw that the surviving family had actually sent it. There was a note or something, explaining—they were trying to carry out the wishes of their loved ones. Yet, with all that tape and the postal marks printed on it, clearly this package had traveled a long, long way. I was still convinced that it had come from across the Great Divide. Maybe my friends’ families had simply helped, by forwarding it to me.

Other than that, I didn’t read any message in the card. My dream did not include that information. But I had the strong feeling that something important had come my way. And I was left wondering:

What are my departed friends trying to tell me?

It may be something other than coincidence that the day before the dream I saw a movie, Carol. Set in the 1950s, it’s about a romance between two women. It is also about people getting trapped in lives and personas that will never fit them. That kind of claustrophobic and stunted existence can happen to anyone, in any era. The wrong career, relationship, identity—people stay in them for years, decades. Lifetimes.

The weekend after the dream, I went to a funeral for someone I had never met. But as his friends and family got up and talked about him, about his love of life and especially of music and laughter, there was a feeling in the air. Of loss, yes—but also of inspiration. A renewed commitment to living, fully.

In life we are always surrounded by death. As I get older, I am so much more aware of this truth. After the dream, and the movie, and a few days after the funeral, I was sitting at my desk when I saw our next-door neighbor’s daughter coming up the walk. Aware of our neighbor’s age and health in recent years I thought oh, Marj must be in the hospital. When I opened the door and the woman came inside, what she had to tell me was that Marj had passed on, early that morning.

Why is it that we always think there will be more time?

I last saw Marj just before Christmas. I brought her some cookies and we sat in her living room and chatted. There were elephant figurines and carvings everywhere, and when I admired them she said she’d been collecting them for years. She mentioned how it impressed her that, like us, elephants appear to grieve. And she told me she felt fortunate that she had seen elephants in the wild once, on a trip she took to Kenya.

Then she said that Sally and I were good neighbors, and quiet (our condos share a wall).

I said, I know that sometimes I play music kind of loud.

She said, oh that’s ok, I would probably like it, anyway.

I would probably like it anyway. It was such a kind and generous thing to say. It may have even been true, of the Handel or the Beethoven CDs, but it almost certainly was not, of Led Zeppelin or even the Beatles. Although Marj was from England, originally…

And now I return to the question: what is the universe, including my departed friends, trying to tell me?

I don’t really know, but here’s my best guess. Something about enjoying the music, wherever you find it, and having a good laugh, whenever you can. Something about being kind, and being true to yourself. And especially this:

Go and see the elephants, while you can.

There may not be another chance.