In the damp and dewy early morning hours in a quiet neighborhood on the south side of Orlando ca. 1960, a grubby blonde tot in her nightgown carrying a bucket was on the hunt. Softly, so as not to wake the residents, she waded through the wet grass and lifted each concrete water meter cover to find her treasure. With luck, there were one or two toads snoozing in the cool dark hollows. She gently picked each one up, as gentle as a tot on the hunt could be at least, and placed them in her grass-lined bucket, covering them from the dangers of the rising sun and of course escape. The toads were a present for her mother.
She returned after her rounds with her jumpy bucket, proudly sharing her quarry with her mother who made a noise not quite like a scream, something quieter. It was early after all. Waking up to a small soaked and muddy child with a bucket full of toads is hard on a mother in the early hours of the day. It signals so much to come. Together they padded out to the back yard and set the toads free, discussing the pros and cons of keeping one for a pet. They watched the toads all hop to freedom to seek shelter in the azaleas and hibiscus and find another cool spot to snooze. Then they returned to wipe off the mud and change out of the soaking nightgown, the rest of the house asleep.
This ritual repeats as often as necessary.
I don’t know why I collected toads for my mother. It certainly wasn’t her idea. I liked them. They were cool and had funny feet and big blinky eyes. I knew they ate bugs and I didn’t like bugs at all. They had plenty to work with there in Florida. My frog/toad thing didn’t end with the morning collection either.
I was pretty sure that toads didn’t give you warts like the kids said. I had been wrangling them for a long time and was wartless. Mom said you got warts from kids and that seemed to make more sense. She went on to say it was from going barefoot. This was displeasing to me since I liked being barefoot. But in Florida there were many hazards that made going barefoot a problem, like the stiff-thorned sandburs that were barbed and painful to extract. So I tended to be footloose only indoors where the cool terrazzo floors were a sanctuary from the heat of the Florida sunshine.
A family lived in the house behind the little strip mall where my mother had her antique shop and across from their house was a small lake. My brother and I played with the kids there, built a ramshackle tree house from discarded boards behind the businesses in their tree and one day captured hundreds of baby frogs. They must all have hatched at the same time and they were tiny, about the size of a fingernail. They were dark, slick and they hopped, seemingly in all directions at once. Enterprise! We five or six kids set about building a pen or as children so often call their safe shelters, a fort. Then the roundup began. We were all hopping.
When we had secured as many as we could and put in dishes of water and grass blades for comfort, we planned what we would do with them. We would raise them and …. Like so many childhood plans, we didn’t really have a good answer for what happened next. Luckily for our frogs, our building skills were not particularly secure and the tiny frogs began to escape. We decided to try to move the herd to the lake.
The street between the neighbors’ house and the lake was narrow and not well traveled but like all Florida streets, it was hot. We knew we would need to get the herd across the street as quickly as possible to avoid losses. And like so many childhood enterprises, we were only partially successful. But by sundown we were pretty sure most of our frogs had made it to the lake where they were at least supposed to live even if it was likely that they were an egret or bass’ dinner. We were exhausted from squabbles and effort, our first efforts at cooperative wildlife management.
Fast forward, when I had to dissect a frog in Miss Beck’s biology class in high school, I remembered all my efforts in “froggservation” and was frankly a little sad that my little fellow had been sacrificed for my education. I named him, going against the general rule of never naming your science experiments or food, but felt better talking to my still companion whose inner being was now laid bare for me to draw and label. My frog and I got a good grade on our project but I was well aware I got the better part of the deal.
There’s a good reason to like frogs and toads and other amphibians and it’s not just because they are cute in a froggy sort of way. As tender as they seem, amphibians like frogs and toads have survived the last few mass extinctions, so you would think they are tough little hoppers. But the people who count critters are finding that there just aren’t as many as there used to be, to the point where scientists are really concerned. At least one of the reasons is a fungus that attacks only amphibians which is spreading due in part to, you guessed it, climate change. The biggest hit on amphibians, though, is that their homes, their habitats are being destroyed.
A group dedicated to tracking my little buddies, amphibiaweb.org states that 32% of the world’s amphibian species are threatened. How big a deal is that, especially when people are dying from man-made and man-controlled and natural events all over? Well, think of the froggy as the canary in the mine for biodiversity. It’s a signal. It’s saying things are out of balance and when things get out of balance, something has to give. There’s a great book by Malcolm Gladwell called The Tipping Point that shows you pretty much what you suspected when you were a little kid, that you can fiddle with something only so long before you hit your Mom’s last nerve and she blows up. It’s a natural law as well as a Mom-law. And scientists are worried that fewer frogs and toads may mean that we’ve sent nature over the edge and ourselves, being part of nature and not separate beings, with it. Not good.
It’s probably no surprise that I have frog and toad lawn ornaments and even one really cool concrete frog-bench in my yard. I have fiddle playing frogs and crowned frog princes. And wonder of wonders, a couple of weeks ago, in the cool of the night, I spotted a tiny frog, one of the little peepers I hear in my neighborhood. I’m really hoping we haven’t reached that tipping point because this world is such a fascinating place. As different as people all are here, the amazing other creatures seem worlds different from us, sometimes so much that we think they must be alien species because they are so much not like people. And yet they are part of our World, the balance of nature and the hopping rhythm of life.
Would you like to buy your own copy of Beth Seilonen’s Blue Dart Frog Arcana: The Life of Balthazar? Go to http://www.catseyeart.com/id30.html
For more from Malcolm Gladwell, check out his blog at: http://gladwell.typepad.com/