To Edward Hoagland:
The Meaning of Frogs

Rodney Lewis Merrill

(Reprinted from The Slate, Volume 1, No. 2, Fall, 1995)

Well, Edward, if turtles are a kind of bird with the governor turned down, then frogs are a variety of kangaroo with more chrome and a better paint job. With a greater leg-to-body ratio than a kangaroo, and a far better wind resistance profile, a frog's best defense is to bolt. Stop by the frog-jumping contests in Calaveras County, California (home of Mark Twain's "Celebrated Jumping Frog'') and you'll see why. These long-legged olympians can hurl themselves 18 to 20 feet, sometimes more, in the three jumps allotted them. Still, a frog that has to hightail it across a very long, open stretch of land to escape being lunch will probably be lunch.

That's why bullfrogs generally stay within a few hops of the water. Once in the water, bullfrogs swim like greased lightening and they can be hidden under the mud within seconds. They also can make abrupt sharp turns, enabling them to outmaneuver and confuse a predator in hot pursuit.

For some frogs, puffing up, playing dead, or sprinting is the extent of their defenses. That can be enough. If a frog looks too big to swallow, a snake or larger frog may just pass it by. Many animals refuse to eat carrion, so playing dead can be a good defense. Of course, remaining motionless also makes the most of protective coloration. Sprinting probably won't save a frog from attack by a fox, a weasel, or an owl; but turtles, major predators of frogs, are poorly equipped for running down a fleeing frog. Turtles only dine on unsuspecting frogs.

"Flying frogs'' eschew sprinting and make good their escape by "hang- gliding" from tree to tree. The arrow poison frog has the most aggressive defense strategy: it exudes from its skin a tranquilizing liquid so potent that indigenous people of South America make poison arrows with it.

By this, Edward, I mean to suggest: the fact that frogs don't burden themselves with a shell does not make them "depressingly defenseless.'' They are not nearly so dismal as, say, a turtle turned on its back.

Don't get me wrong: I admire and appreciate turtles. I even owned a Karmen Ghia once. It too was amusing, the way a sloth is at first amusing; then, not. Turtles force you to think about Porches and frogs, even toads; although, I imagine toads are more popular among people who like turtles and Karmen Ghias. Toads are rounder, slower, and more deliberate. Frogs are built for speed.

Here's my theory, Edward. I think turtles once aspired to be more like frogs and toads, but they just couldn't give up the mobile home and, when they reached a certain crucial tollbooth on the Evolutionary Expressway, they came up a few bits short of the fare. If turtles had learned to sing, they still might have gone somewhere. Singing sometimes can get you places even when you don't have the fare. That's one secret of the success of frogs: their ancestors brought the first vocal song into the world. They were peeping and crooning even before there were dinosaurs. Before that, the only conversation on this Earth was the scraping and buzzing of insects.

Alas, turtles could not even sing. Coughs, burps, hisses, and grunts are the best they could do. They have traveled the service roads ever since.

When I was a little boy, I stalked frogs. It was a snap. I'd creep up from behind, then hold my left hand over a frog's left side to draw its attention while I slowly brought my right hand around to its right side. Frogs react to motion. I'd wiggle my left hand slightly. When the frog leaned away from my left hand, I'd snap it up with a lightning flash of my right hand. Its tiny prehistoric brain didn't stand a chance. You could pull the same trick on the same frog a hundred times and he'd still fall for it. Brains are not a frog's greatest asset.

It's true, Edward, when you hold a frog, you're holding it's skeleton. It's a ribless skeleton at that. On the top, all you feel is spine and bones; on the bottom, guts. I'll admit it takes getting used to. But, this strange sensation of bones and guts lets you sense its vulnerability: you can feel it breath, feel its tiny heart beat. It is alive. When you hold a turtle, you're holding an igloo made of stone.

I was not the sort of boy to kill frogs or toads -- to stick them with a knife or crush them with a rock or kick them into the road for tire bait. I stalked frogs to admire them and pet them.

Experience soon taught me that a sun-warmed frog is a quick frog; they are slower and easier to catch on cool overcast days. Experience also taught me never to thrust a newly trapped frog up to my face. When frightened, it squirts a dark liquid which I first mistook for urine. It was not. It was an oily stuff that only smeared when I tried to rub it from my face.

I was not the sort to kill anything, except mosquitoes. Search as I might, even in my souls of souls, I never found true compassion or pity for mosquitoes. If I came across a spider in my home, though, or a beetle, or an errant bee, I'd catch it in a jar and set it back outside. Wandering inside by mistake (or in search of warmth) is no crime, certainly not a capital offense. I even got my grandfather to rescue a half-swallowed toad from the jaws of a snake once. (We named the toad "Hop-a-long'' Cassidy--later, just "Hoppy''--because the incident left him with a errant gait and a lopsided hop.) I was proud of my grandfather for helping me save a toad. My father would have ridiculed it as a "sissy" thing to do. We had no sooner saved the toad, though, than my grandfather shocked and disappointed me by parting the snake from its head with a shovel. I only wanted to save the toad. I didn't mean that we should choose up sides. I liked the snake, too. I just didn't want it to swallow the toad.

I sometimes carried a frog or toad in my pocket. After 15 or 20 minutes, though, I'd start to worry that he was hungry or short of air, or that I might squish him by accident; and, horrified, I'd turned him loose. (When I was a boy, all frogs and toads were hims.)

Toads have a big advantage over frogs: they can stay away from the water for extended periods. You can find them taking leisurely strolls in the woods or just sitting around waiting for lunch to come by. Toads can survive an entire afternoon in your jacket pocket, although they may appear gaunt for having missed their usual 500 flies per hour. Frogs, on the other hand, need to stay near water. They don't "drink" in the normal sense, they absorb water through their skin. A frog carried in your pocket on a hot day will dehydrate and die in a matter of hours. If you're going to keep a frog for long, you need to keep some water around. Not just any water. Pond water or bottled water. A frog's skin may look tough but it is sensitive to many chemicals. The chlorine in tap water will kill a frog.

Some boys are intent on killing frogs. I never could understand why. I still don't. I learned, though, that they don't tolerate interference. When I was 11 or 12 years old, I saw four large boys standing in a brook, throwing large rocks. I moved in for a closer look and saw that they were trying to smash a frog. The frog had not been injured as yet; so, I scooped up the pathetic little beast, too stupid to save its own life, and raced with it across the brook, hoping to reach the woods on the other side, woods I knew well. I slipped, though, when the boys began pelting me with stones. They chased after me. Fearing that they were going to beat the crap out of me, then kill the frog anyway, I hurled the frog downstream and hoped for the best.

I really don't know what happened to the frog. The boys caught me and held me down while the largest of them snatched up my testicles and yanked them, hard, several times. The other boys then took turns at trying to dislodge or flatten my testicles with their knees. They must have lost interest because I managed to squirm loose and crawl into the woods. The throbbing between my legs was so intense and so sickening that I stayed in the woods for maybe an hour just to be sure they weren't hunting for me. The frog had to fend for himself.

I learned something that day. If you are a scrawny boy and don't want your balls yanked and kneed, there are three things you don't want to do: show feeling for a sacrificial animal; show a sense of self beyond pack loyalty; or frustrate the quaint boyish need to inflict pain.

When I stalked frogs, it was to spy on them. I examined them under a magnifying glass. I followed them -- to find out where they go (not far) and what they do (not much, except eat). In the farmy hills of New Hampshire or the slummy back alleys and vacant lots of Massachusetts, I was the roving frogologist.

I liked frogs partly for the same reason that many people are repulsed by them--because they are outlandish and alien. They eat bugs: flies, roaches, and mosquitoes by the thousand. That alone, in my book, is enough to recommend them. When I was a boy, living in the woods by a river, I first felt real love for frogs when I discovered that they had an enormous appetite for mosquitoes. Frogs also have exotic wide-set eyes that sit in little bulges on top of their head, some with creepy see-through lids. Some frogs have yellow eyes, some red, some a bizarre metallic gold. Some frog eyes have round pupils like ours; others have slitted ones like a cat's. Even then, in some frog species the slit is vertical; in others it's horizontal. Frogs have no fur or feathers, no shell, no claws or fangs. They have only skin stretched over a ridiculous ribless skeleton. They are even powered by an antiquated three-chamber heart. Yet, they and their Salientian cousins (Latin: "the jumping ones") have managed to become four thousand species and subspecies.

Bullfrogs are natural Taoists. They follow the "watercourse way'' and the path of least resistance. They refuse to hunt for food; preferring to wait patiently until it passes by, then nab it. A bullfrog doesn't even go out of it way to find a mate. It just waits, as some humans do, "until the right one comes along.'' When the weather gets too hot, frogs find a cool spot and nap until it gets better. When it too cold, frogs burrow into the ground or sink to the bottom of a pond and wait for it to get warmer. If the temperature drops below 40 degrees, a frog's system slows down so much that it no longer bothers even to surface for air. It can survive on the little oxygen it can absorb through its skin. And since it can, it does.

Frogs remind me of time machines. Their genealogy reaches back 400 million years into the history of life. Frogs remind me that life was once confined to the sea, then it boldly reached out for land and became amphibious. The commitment that made frogs possible, made us possible. Life exploded onto land, into the air, and into the trees, filling the Earth with tyrannosaurs, brontosaurs, pterodactyls, mastodons, and a host of creatures that resembled modern life but with novel twists: scaly birds, bill-faced reptiles, egg-laying mammals, dragonflies the size of a raptor. The demands of interdependency shaped those that survived into what they are today.

It's true, Edward: Frogs are a staple food and being the staff of life is not an enviable role. Frogs are standard fare for racoons, owls, fish, to begin the list. Even frogs eat frogs. But frogs do not sit on life's platter alone. Turtle eggs and turtles babies, especially those of sea turtles, are a favored repast for armies of birds and mammals. That's why most reptiles and amphibians reproduce in astronomical numbers. Being humble creatures, survival is for them largely a numbers game.

It's true too that a goodly number of people have a taste for frog legs. Though my encyclopedia of international cooking may not properly represent the true situation, it offers one recipe for frog, three for turtle.

Frogs taught me that nature loves diversity. It sculpts filigree. It loves baroque. Life finds a theme and articulates it, embellishes it, expresses all of its variegations. Life is a baroque scheme of interdependencies. If there is beauty in this diversity, then few things are as beautiful as frogs for there is precious little your can say about them that holds true for all of them.

There is no typical size for frogs. A Cuban Arrow Poison Frog starts life about one-eighth-inch long and becomes a full-grown adult that can sprawl out on a larger variety of postage stamp. The "giant tree frogs'' of Cuba reach four or five inches, giants indeed if compared with arrow poison frogs, but less impressive seated next to a two-and- a-half foot African Goliath Frog weighing seven pounds or more.

The frogs of my boyhood backyard were pickle green or a mottled camouflage brown. A few could changes color somewhat to blend into tree bark or leaves. But, on the glossy pages of the dusty tomes at Lisbon Public Library, I discovered how varied frogs can be. Arrow poison frogs come in a rainbow of colors. Some are bright crimson red, some are a flame yellow-orange with bright blue-satin legs. The Central American Red-eyed Tree Frog is apple green on top, with a blue-splotched daffodil-yellow belly, sherbet-orange feet, and bright tomato-red eyes. Central American Glass Frogs, as you might guess, are practically transparent. If you see one against the light from the belly side, you can see its heart and guts.

I grew up with the jugband music of Spring peepers and bullfrogs. Peepers trill somewhat like a cricket. Bullfrogs "jurrrumm'' like a bass fiddle. I thought this exhausted the possibilities of frog score and orchestration. The exotic barking frog in the Deep South, though, sounds more like a bull terrier than a bullfrog. When half-swallowed frogs scream in terror, sounding too eerily like a scalded baby or a trampled cat, the other frogs heed such screams and the breathless hush of terror falls over the sticky night.

Not all frogs are toothless. Most frogs, in fact, have a pair of tiny teeth in the upper jaw that enables them to hold onto squirmy prey. If you look very carefully, you can see them. Some frogs are better equipped though: South American Horned Frogs have a full complement of razor sharp teeth and they do not hesitate to sink them into anything that vexes or threatens them.

Not all frogs begin as tiny tadpoles either. True, most do. But, the Paradoxical Frog of Trinidad works it the other way around: it starts out as a corpulent foot-long tadpole and "grows" into one-and-a-half-inch frog. The Cuban Arrow Poison Frog skips the tadpole phase altogether and emerges from the egg as a one-eighth-inch miniature frog (called a froglet).

Most frogs lay thousands of eggs at a time. Not the little Cuban Arrow Poison Frog, though. It lays a single egg. There is even a marsupial frog that keeps the eggs in a pouch until they hatch.

Most frogs are tailless. They start out as tadpoles: legless, all head and tail; then they absorb their tails, using it for nutrition as they mature and grow legs. Tailed Frogs, residents of the forested American Pacific Northwest, are a notable exception. They keep a small stub of a tail throughout their lives, a tail that, in shape, reminds me of a bulb from a strand of miniature Christmas lights.

Everybody knows that frogs catch their food by flicking out their long gooey tongues at passing prey. Not the South American and the African Tongueless Frogs, the only frogs known to eat dead food. These indolent fellows feed on whatever carrion sinks to the lake bottom.

You can't even generalize about how much time frogs spend in water. Bullfrogs spend most of their time in water and spring about on land only for short spells. Tree frogs, like peepers, return to water only to rehydrate or to spawn, preferring to live most of their lives in trees. There are even "flying frogs'' ("gliding frogs'' or "parachuting frogs'' would be more accurate) that are so adapted to arboreal life that they glide from tree to tree by spreading the webs on their oversized feet.

I've never kept a frog as a pet, but I once kept a horny toad. The poor fellow didn't fare too well. I bought him all the right food, but he wouldn't eat. He just huddled in one corner of the terrarium, apathetic and lethargic, even by toad standards. One of his forelegs shriveled up and dropped off. I had a No-pest Strip in the apartment because it was overrun with flies and I've often wondered if that had anything to do with the poor toad's leprosy.

That horny toad reminded me of a Triceratops and I loved looking at him, but not enough to let him die. I took him out to the San Bernardino desert and let him go. He looked around for a minute, then seemed to perk up. His movements became quicker. Even with part of his front leg missing, the little fellow streaked out of sight, leaving a tiny plume of dust behind him. I wished him well.

When I got home, I disposed of the No-Pest Strip, flies or no flies, and I have never owned another -- or anything like it. Nor have I ever kept another reptile or amphibian in a cage. I had forgotten all that. I had forgotten how much I loved frogs, forgotten that they reminded me of dinosaurs, that I respected them, maybe even revered them, for their ancient genealogy. I had forgotten that I am related to them by that moment when life reached out for the land. A small article in the Sunday paper reminded me. It was one of those National Geographic columns for kids. It said:

Frogs, toads, and other amphibians are vanishing by leaps and bounds from all six continents in which they are found. Drastic die-offs have been reported in at least 25 countries.

Scientists blame human interference with ecosystems for a major part of the mysterious global decline. Whether the phenomenon will continue or populations will eventually rebound is uncertain.

Costa Rica's golden toads, which mate en masse, have not been spotted since 1989. Australian gastric brooding frogs are now extinct. Leopard-frog numbers are dropping in the Rocky Mountains and in the prairies of the United States and Canada where wetlands are being drained. The western toad in the North American wilderness may be a victim of increased ultraviolet radiation related to ozone depletion.

That was only a year or so ago, but I've read more recently that experts now assume golden toads are extinct. The American Leopard Frog, once common, is probably the next to go. In fact, many frogs and toads teeter on the brink of extinction, not because of snakes or racoons or owls, but because corporate farmers need cheap land so supermarkets can sell cheap pineapples and cheap beef. Frogs and toads and everything that depends on them must be sacrificed to enable already obese American consumers to shave a nickel off the price of a cheeseburger, and perhaps as much as a dollar off their grocery bill.

Frogs and toads have survived nature's hungry scythe for millions of years. Except for us, they might survive millions more. If we push them into the abyss of extinction, we will sever one of our few remaining ties to the days when life committed itself to the eventuality of our existence. When that happens, we will have seveured the kinship among all living things.

Of course, Edward, I am biased. I love frogs too much to be fair- minded. I know, too, that my focus on the diversity of life is only one view among many competing views of natural beauty. There is, arguably, a certain ascetic charm to the cool, barren simplicity of the moon.

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