July 28, 2014

Lessons From the Lower Level

I can’t say why I’ve always had a fondness for, well, frogs, but it’s been a lifelong fascination. Or for snakes and ants and spiders, for that matter, either. Maybe it’s their way of removing me from what was and what will be and keeping me right smack in the middle of what is, in that specific moment, and not a second before or after. Frogs are like fish. I can watch them all for hours.

My first action for animals in my direct care occurred when I was about 13 years old. We were living in a neighborhood with a large field behind our house, one that hosted a rather significant pond, full of an assortment of insects, fish, tadpoles, and their parents. I’d take the dog and we’d hike out to the water along a worn path. The dog would romp in the tall grasses along the banks and I’d sit on a rock or in the sand and watch whatever happened to chance my way.

I was fascinated by tadpoles. In fact, some seven years earlier, I’d gotten in trouble for going out to some stream nearby and bringing home a bucket full of the wiggling little critters. It was explained to me that the frogs-to-be wouldn’t survive the ordeal I’d caused them because they’d been removed from their life-sustaining environment. It turned out my parents were right and I was mortified as I watched them waste away in their artificial home.

Better to sit on a bank and study them from there. So I did. For hours. And the thing about watching tadpoles is that, over time, they lose their tails and grow legs and miraculously become frogs. They then grace the nighttime with their choruses.

On one particular jaunt to the pond, I came upon a most disturbing scene. A neighborhood bully had gotten there before I had, him and his BB gun. He used the frogs for target practice, many of them still writhing in death throes in the water and on the embankment. It was a very bloody, gruesome scene and one that I’ve apparently never forgotten. The boy leveled his carnage on more than one occasion, and I knew I had to take action.

I got my little red wagon. I filled it with water and rocks and algae from the pond. I hadn’t forgotten the lessons of my earlier youth. If I was going to remove the beasties from their natural environment, I had to recreate it as best I could. I emptied my collection of flora into a cement mixer my father stored in the backyard and went back for the fauna. I gathered up as many frogs and their tadpoles as I could find. And when I thought I’d gotten them all, I went back for their eggs.

Needless to say, our backyard was filled with the hoppers and their nighttime songs. My father was mortified, of course, wondering why I couldn’t be more like my brothers and “leave the natural world to itself. Go find yourself a Prince,” he’d say, “and leave the frogs alone.” But I paid him no heed. I’d sit by the mixer each day and keep the water level high enough, make sure there was enough algae to sustain my charges, and count my eggs as they hatched into tadpoles. Eventually they became frogs. My father didn’t like going out at night because he was afraid he’d step on a frog on his way to the car, so he’d sort of cuss me beneath his breath and hope the critters would eventually move back into their homeland.

So I guess it’s only fitting that I share my backyard, still, with frogs.

After hours of horse care and ranch work, and sitting here in front of this computer more than I think is healthy sometimes, I broke down one day and bought myself a hot tub. It means I don’t have to go far to get away from it all. When I feel weary enough, I climb in and send my mind up to the sky, into other universes. It’s brought back only by the natural sounds around me: the magpies and crows, the occasional jackrabbit scampering past, an investigating honey bee. And then back my mind goes, far away from the physical and emotional pains that mark the life of a weary animal rescuer and rights activist.

It was sometime during this past winter that I got my first company in the hot tub. A tree frog had appeared under the hood, snug up against the lip where the warmth was most comforting. I think we startled each other that first time pretty good, but we settled into our routine: I’d open the hood, stand at just the right point so Frog wouldn’t jump into the water, and after he turned away from the too-warm liquid, I’d climb in. For the first few weeks, Frog would seek refuge elsewhere during my mind-sending dips, but not too long after he began to stick around. In fact, about midway into our “courtship,” Frog embarked on another: there were two and then three frogs under the hot tub hood. And they filled my nighttime with their songs.

I don’t always send my mind up to other universes. I focus it again on the microcosm. I get close to Frog’s face. Study those eyes. The line of his mouth. His toes and tiny elbows. The pattern of his skin. His little throat vibrates. I wonder what he’s thinking. What he’s thinking about me. I move away and his head turns to follow me. What does he see? I got behind him once, there in the hot tub, and looked over his shoulder at the world beyond him, seeing it from his perspective. An amazing place. Crickets were chirping. Did he hear them? A bird winging past caused him to cock his head and watch with a curious eye. Did it scare him? Or was he sending his mind into other universes, too?

No vivisected rats in Procter & Gamble laboratories. No wolf decimations. No puppies in breeding mills. No wildlife slaughter. No pig factories. No ivory wars. No caged birds. No kangaroo massacre. No wild horse roundups. No wolf cowering in a pen behind the donkey he was given to eat, the two of them awaiting their fate in human hands. And there is no magazine to put to bed, no fight to wage on behalf of the suffering and the dying.

Only a “lowly” tree frog catching my attention and sharing the world with me in that moment and that moment alone. The gift from the “lower level.” If only we could remain there. Oh, but Frog is giving it his best. For the first time, he’s found the control panel on the hot tub. It is lit and shiny and he sees, or so I believe he sees, his reflection in the “glass.” He cocks his head. He bends it downward to peer straight into the eyes looking back at him. He steps one way and then another, eyeing himself with every move. He makes me laugh — taking me just one step further into the microcosm — the way his kind has since I was a child.

I’d thank him with a kiss, of course, but I’m terrified he’d turn into a human being — and destroy the liberation.

Lonely? Me? No. My Prince, you see, IS a frog.

Comments

  1. Anastasia says:

    I am only 11 but I have always wanted to save animals. I was about 5 when I caught my first lizard but I always let them go afterwards. I wan’t to help but I don’t know how because we have no ponds in our backyard. But every spare time I have I go on the computer and research.

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