Rana Subaquavocalis: Meditations Upon a Rare Frog

(Over the years I’ve published a handful of pieces in Pilgrimage, a journal not unlike The Sun, which offers personal essays and poems with a strong sense of place and spirit. Now I’ve caught up with Telling It Real: The Best of Pilgrimage Magazine 2003-2008, a terrific anthology about the Southwest. Here’s an essay of mine that appeared in 1999.)

There is only one question:
how to love this world.

–Mary Oliver,
From the poem “Spring”

The frog squatted in the corner of the shallow cement pool, half-guarded by a fallen branch that someone had arranged as part of a driftwood corral around the square perimeter. It didn’t move. It didn’t croak. It didn’t blink. It just stared at me, although I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t thinking about other things, like insects. It didn’t even look very pretty in the late afternoon shade under the sprawling Arizona sycamore tree. Through my pocket binoculars, it looked dressed in wet army green, like a private who had to clean latrines. Yet I knew from the information clipboard in my lap that this frog was one of the last of its kind. Called the Ramsey Canyon leopard frog, after Ramsey Canyon where I sat on a bench in a Nature Conservancy preserve in the Huachuca mountains southeast of Tucson, the species had 96 known adults in 1990, 21 in 1994, and maybe 60 today. A couple of bad breaks in a handful of ponds, like droughts or floods, and this animal could be history.

With my binoculars, I scanned the rough cement beach all the way around the pond, but I couldn’t find another one. Maybe this frog was more daring. Or a loner. A guardian. Maybe I was imagining things. As insurance against droughts, a long plastic pipe emerged from the ground beside the pool and poured in fresh water at the rate you find in bathtubs. In the far corner, I noticed on another sweep with my binoculars, the cement lip drooped, releasing a small waterfall of old water into the creek that curved behind this flat of land under the sycamores. Once upon a time, the Ramsey Canyon leopard frog lived in natural ponds, of course, but now the largest group of survivors inhabited this old irrigation pond left over from an era when the valley held an orchard. Off in the wild ponds they only have small outposts of four or five frogs.

The split rail fence protecting the cement pond reminded me of wooden fences at farm pen exhibits for children. But if you missed the frog in the corner you might easily think the exhibit was empty and forgotten. A few thick bundles of green grass now grew from cement cracks along one side. Scattered yellow autumn leaves had fallen on the still dark water. A bright green algae mat spread across much of the middle in the shape of an odd continent with one great lake and one giant bay. Tadpoles eat the algae for food. Big frogs eat anything that moves, including little frogs. They could literally eat themselves out of existence. And they probably wouldn’t even know it.

The clipboard informed me that the Ramsey Canyon leopard frog had one distinguishing trait. Almost alone among frogs, the males from this species sang for their love underwater, gathering in the middle of the pond to deliver their competitive arias that sound to people like insistent snoring, while the females listened at the sides. Ramsey Canyon leopard frogs have been courting this way for thousands of years, but no humans knew it until 1988 when Dr. Jim Platz, a herpetologist from Creighton University in Nebraska, sat by this pond one spring night past three in the morning and didn’t hear a thing. Yet he returned in daylight to find two new egg masses floating in the pond, proof that the frogs had mated. The next year he brought a hydrophone and plugged into their loud symphony. Sound actually travels better underwater, which may be one reason why these frogs don’t squat on the banks and scream over the night music of the crickets, the wind in the trees, the burbling creek. Only three other frog species sing underwater in the United States, and they all live in the Pacific Northwest, which means that this evolutionary breakthrough happened twice. If we erase it, who knows when it may happen again.

I had expected impending extinction to look more ominous. In the Nineteenth Century, hunters shot millions of passenger pigeons in the eastern forests, slaughtering them like locusts, until somehow this bird that traveled in vast flocks like black clouds simply disappeared. Today, we clearcut the forests, trawl the oceans with fishing nets that could hold 200 cars apiece, and reengineer the landscape with dams, suburbs, cities, and even golf courses, which atavistically remind us, I suspect, of the African savannas where our species first arose. But the Ramsey Canyon leopard frog wasn’t threatened by our selfish appetites. It lived in the middle of a nature preserve. And yet for reasons we don’t fully understand it had reached the brink of disappearing like many other rare frogs and amphibians around the world. It lived in a concrete pond watched like an intensive care unit. The Nature Conservancy, unwilling to be pessimistic about fate, had delicately collected egg masses from the pond and shipped them to the Phoenix Zoo, which hatched hundreds upon hundreds of tadpoles in aquariums maintained at perfect temperatures. Returned to the Huachucas, these tadpoles may well help restore the frog population, although few will survive. Less than one egg in 2,000 produces an adult frog.

After awhile, I folded my binoculars back into my shirt pocket and picked up my day pack from the bench. This preserve had been such a natural tonic that I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend my final half hour before closing feeling sorry for a frog. For the past four days, I had hiked and camped in the Sonoran desert, a stunning, brutal, and alien land, at least to me after a year of living in a log cabin in a hemlock grove in the Catskill mountains. Instead of trees, tall saguaro cactus reigned over the desert valleys like an immense but disorganized army of cartoonish figures, uncertain of what to do with their short goofy arms. Diamondback rattlesnakes appeared around camp and on the trails as commonly as porcupines did back home. Small lizards filled the place of chipmunks. And as I discovered by hiking off-trail on what looked liked open brushy terrain, almost every bush was another version of barbed wire with thorns or sharp twigs under the leaves. When I finally found one as soft as those at home, I wanted to fall into it and bath my stinging shins and thighs. I was transfixed by the desert, but I knew I didn’t belong there.

But Ramsey Canyon felt like an idyllic western paradise. Cutting a deep notch in the Huachucas, which were shouldered with dark firs and pines, the creek flowed under sweeping Arizona sycamores with trunks so stout they sometimes had fat belly rolls. Big gnarled oaks helped fill the canopy which allowed dappled sunlight from the brilliantly blue sky. Although best known for humming birds in early summer, the preserve still offered me a parade of butterflies in October. Lemon yellow and pale orange sulphurs flitted among the grassy field plants in the sunny clearings, while larger black Arizona sisters sailed between the trees with white wing bands that flashed in the sunlight as if they carried wishbones on their backs. Like a ragtag marching band, the Arizona sisters all seemed to be headed slowly and chaotically down the canyon, but as far up as I walked, I didn’t discover their source. One joined me for lunch, crawling over my binoculars on the bench, while I devoured the leathery pieces of beef jerky that I had bought for the desert but avoided after chewing it in the heat turned out to be an desperate chore. Unlike the Sonoran desert, Ramsey Canyon wasn’t a challenge, it was a treat, a fountain of life where nature bestowed its blessings.

After strolling a hundred yards down from the frog, however, I regretted my decision and walked back up to the pond. It seemed selfish to have left after the short visit I would give any animal. Although I’m not religious, I found the bench this time to feel like a pew, a place to reflect on the unanswerable questions in life. For all of the attention given global warming or toxic pollution, extinctions strike me as the worst environmental problem of our time. Even nuclear waste will cool off in 20,000 or 30,000 years, while vanishing plants and animals won’t be replaced by new species through evolution for millions of years. By overtaking so much of the earth for our own needs, we are creating an age of extinctions unseen since the collapse of the dinosaurs. Yet these figures present extinctions in the abstract. Sitting on the bench, I wanted to understand them in the particular.

The frog hadn’t moved. If it felt any emotion upon seeing me return, it certainly didn’t show it. We sat together in the gathering dusk. The saddest thing about extinctions, I realized, is how rarely we take the time to notice them. I wanted to ask the frog some questions, such as, Do you feel lonely? Afraid? Do you even know that you may be one of the last of your kind? But, of course, I couldn’t. We don’t live in that kind of world, which may be why don’t pay more attention to vanishing species. Most of all, I regretted that I wouldn’t be here in the spring, when I could dip my own hydrophone into the cement pond and listen to the Ramsey Canyon leopard frogs singing for their mates. After all, how can you even begin to know an animal until you have heard it in love?

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