Last winter was a frog shocker. For five years we’ve had moderate, encouraging growth in the numbers of frogs caught, transported to the wetland, and then back up to the forest. But last winter -- 2017-18 -- our numbers plummeted. The year before, 751 frogs were caught going down to the wetland, and 834 returning to the forest. But the 2017-18 numbers were 297 going down and 433 up, the count essentially cut in half from the year before. There are many possible explanations for the decline: disease; the forest becoming unusually dry during climate change’s increasingly long, hot summer drought (the frogs seek moisture underground; if it’s not there they could die of dehydration); possible declines in insect populations frogs depend on; natural fluctuations in frog populations we’re not yet wise to; the city has been spraying herbicide in the watershed the past two years with unknown consequences (this came to light early last March); the many ephemeral streams are drying up more deeply in the summer drought (Harborton Creek began to run much later this winter, and it’s flow is much more fickle than in past years).
The current winter has been on the dry side so far, and a bit warm. (We’ve not had a hard frost yet, the first year in the last dozen the fuchsia at my windows haven’t died-back by December 1). Still, there have been nights that were wet and warm enough for migration, and it’s made us nervous that on four borderline nights -- where migration was possible; wet and above 45 degrees F -- we’ve only caught a total of five frogs. (In past years the very first migration has usually yielded 15 to 50 frogs). So December 29, when we caught 320 frogs going down to breed, was a joyful event. They were almost all males (only 19 females), which is normal, as the males go to the breeding pond first to establish territories. The males, smaller and faster than females -- they aren’t carrying a mass of eggs in their bellies -- seem to learn more avoidance strategies with each year.
In past years they would usually freeze when the beam of the head lamp found them, making them easy to catch. But December 29, many of them ignored the light and took off, hopping fast. Many headed off the road into the ditch, with it’s carpet of maple leaves, and quickly nosed under a leaf. I’d just watch carefully and grab that leaf. (Take your eye off them for an instant and they blend so well as to disappear.) Some took off, hopped 20 or 30 feet and stopped, sitting still on the pavement to be picked up. This suddenly docile behavior made me wonder if hopping a distance in a burst tired them, as in their normal forest home they’d never have to hop so far, so quickly, nor be out in the open, and so vulnerable. They’d never escape a coyote or raccoon by hopping away. Instead they rely on a fast, deceptive move (like jumping straight between your feet), finding cover and freezing, seemingly disappearing. More than once I’ve been left spinning like a top, trying to see where the little guy had gone. Might this seemingly miraculous ability to vanish have something to do with Indigenous people believing a frog may be a shape-shifted sorcerer, especially as frogs are edge creatures, living between water and earth? (Animals who straddle physical borders -- earth/air, water/earth, air/water, etc., like otter, heron -- are thought by the Multnomah people to be particularly spiritually powerful, because these animals can move between different worlds, or zones, of the cosmos. These sorts of once commonly held spiritual beliefs are now dismissed as superstition, but may eventually find an ally in quantum mechanics, which is steeped in mysterious physical properties, like matter existing in two places at once, particles being in communication over infinite distances, or explaining avian navigation, just to mention a few.)
One of the gifts of doing this work is gaining familiarity over time with these fascinating four-leggeds. I’ve learned to respect their inherent frogness, their evolutionary and frogly1 intelligence, which has made these animals so successful for so many tens of millions of years. We humans have known this deeper intelligence as well, while we still have Indigenous insight. But modern society disregards this wisdom, this balance and harmony, in our relationship to the world and its spirit. We deduct the tree down to its genetic tolerance of glyphosate, and claim we can see the forest.
The Multnomah people were apprehensive about these red-legged frogs, as they believed frogs shared qualities with shaman, who were not to be trifled with. (And of course, they believe that all animals are our elders, our teachers, having arrived on Earth long before humans, so respect for animals is a given. Plus, frog had an important role in the story of how Coyote brought fire to the people, so these creatures are nuanced, full of complexity.2) Shape-shifting from tadpole to adult, frogs share mutability with both shaman and sorcerers. Sorcerers can take on all kinds of animal shapes as they pursue their nefarious deeds. Shamanic work more often involves trance-induced flights to the land of the dead, or the upper, middle, and lower worlds, than physical shape-shifting. These inner flights were in the service of someone in the community, and intended to communicate with, and learn from, the shaman’s animal spirit intermediaries, of which frog might be one.3
I wonder if the gift these frogs have for vanishing added to this mysteriousness? And, does frog’s ancient inscrutability come into play; the calm, even grave, demeanor? In a healthy ecosystem, frog’s importance in the food chain dictates reproducing in great numbers, as many are eaten along their way from egg to elder. The egrets of summer, like angels, patient in the wetland; coyote, late one night crossing the highway, ducking expertly under the guardrail. Is frog’s demeanor the face of a profound fatalism? Seeing frogs dash into the monumental risk of the highway at rush hour -- their stopping in the bedlam mid-lane, then in the center strip, makes their appreciation of the danger plain, but they accept this perilous crossing as necessary. If only for this, can we not respect them enough to improve their circumstance?