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Nature’s Course

 

When the children were small, one of their favorite outings was to the Frog Pond.

Don’t bother to conjure an image of a pristine body of water surrounded by verdant meadows with maybe a cow or two mooing nearby. Such places exist in Maine, but for reasons I can no longer recall, our family got into the habit of visiting what amounted to a glorified puddle alongside Route 90.

By Maine standards a big and busy road, Route 90 forms a handy, time-saving hypotenuse between Route 1 Waldoboro and Route 1 Rockport. Along it are the sort of enterprises that need cheap space and good road access more than curb appeal: light manufacturing, an antique mart, a lighting store and a Subaru dealership. The aforementioned pond was scraped out, sometime during construction, to provide an emergency source of water in case one of the businesses caught fire.

Nature abhors a vacuum and so, disregarding the traffic zipping by on the nearby roadway, pioneer alders and white pines took root in the disturbed earth beside the pond, along with cattails and lilies. Soon enough the waterweed, butterflies, small fish, dragonflies, water sliders, water boatmen, and a couple of local frog species enthusiastically colonized, making of the scrape a handy bit of heaven for my four small naturalists, who were interested in mud and water and (depending on age and personality) learning to distinguish frogs eggs from toad spawn, lepidoptera from odonata.

My daughter Ellie was the frog-whisperer.

While her brothers armed themselves with nets and stalked among the cattails; while her baby sister crawled around eating dirt, Ellie would settle herself on the bank of the little pond and meditate. Sometimes her deep thoughts would be accompanied by gentle muttering, or perhaps she’d sing a little song. Distracted by her more demanding siblings—-Woolie would need to have some particularly indigestible lump of something removed from her mouth, or Peter and Zach would contest custody of the fishnet—-I’d leave her to her own devices for a quarter hour or so at a time. When my attention returned, I’d find my third child, still sitting in the same place, the water around and in front of her studded with the triangular faces of perhaps a dozen frogs of various sizes all floating in a semi-circle and gazing raptly at her with their bulging gold-rimmed eyes. Sometimes one would even have ventured up onto the bank, close enough to place a small, green hand on the toe of her red sneaker.

The boys caught frogs, learning to hold them tenderly in wet hands so they could look for the distinctive mottling of the leopard frog, the bright green lips and pale throat of the green frog, or the robber-mask worn by the wood frog and marvel at the delicate skin and propulsive power of the muscular back legs.

Occasionally, on our expeditions, we discovered evidence of the harshness of nature (say, a dead baby bird dropped by a wasteful marauding crow) or human mindlessness. One day we found a jam jar filled with tadpoles standing on the bank. Some rotten kid must have caught them, but rather than admiring the shiny, licorice bodies, translucent tails and sprouting limbs for a few minutes, then pouring them carefully back into the water, he’d walked away, leaving the imprisoned infant amphibians to die.

There were many angry tears in our party that day, which had to be soothed by an impromptu memorial service and the writing of an indignant letter to the editor re the respect owed to the creatures with whom we share planet Earth.

Then there was the day a grievously injured frog turned up in the fishnet. He was a really fine, big bullfrog, but our squeals of admiration turned to horror when we saw his right hind leg. Below what would, in a human being, have been called a knee, only a bone remained, exposed.

“He’s hurt!” Peter announced, unnecessarily.

Had the heron whose webbed footprints we’d seen in the soft earth done this dreadful thing? Hungry, it might have grabbed hold of one slippery leg, and the velocity of the frog’s startled leap, sufficient to save him from being dinner, could have left the flesh and foot behind.

“Let’s take him to the vet!” said Zach.

Holding the rim of the net just clear of the water so the maimed frog couldn’t escape, I considered my options.

What the heck could the vet do, other than to put the frog to sleep? I cringed at the idea of a frog getting stuck with a needle; surely that would hurt?

Besides, I doubted the poor thing would even survive the stresses of a drive to the clinic, stuck in a hot car with four damp, muddy, deeply-interested fellow-passengers.

Frogs bring out the maternal in me, with their vulnerability, harmlessness, benevolent expressions and nearly-human hands. I wanted so badly to help this one, phlegmatically treading water in the circle defined by our net.

“I think taking him in the car would just make his suffering worse,” I said.

“He’s suffering?” squeaked Zach in horror. “Do something, Mom!”

“You mean… put it out of its misery?” I glanced around, but the idea of smashing a frog to death with a rock didn’t seem much of an improvement over the hot car and the vet’s needle. “No,” I said, at last, feeling sad and obscurely cowardly. “We’ll just have to let him go, and let nature take its course.”

Deciding it was the least we could do, we christened the bullfrog (unimaginatively) “Froggy.” Then I pushed the net down into the water until he could float free. He lay in the water for a moment (gulping and gazing at Ellie) and then, with surprising alacrity for a dying anuran, Froggy vanished into the cool and weedy depths.

We talked about Froggy all the way home. At least two of us (Peter and me, if you must know) had bad dreams that night, involving tibi0-fibulae stripped of flesh and foot and sobbing veterinarians in lab coats throwing rocks at muddy monster babies.

At breakfast, we said a small prayer for Froggy, sure that by then, his little froggy soul had swum to heaven.

A year went by—-fall-winter-spring-summer—-and one early autumn day, the kids and I were out and about, and decided to stop by the frog pond again. Everyone was a little bigger, and Woolie was old enough not to eat mud, but otherwise, the scene was essentially the same as it had been a year before. Peter dipped his net in the water and pulled out…a bullfrog with a missing leg.

“Froggy!” he shouted.

As I came along the pond edge to where my son stood, rubber-boot-shod feet planted among the cattails, his net triumphantly upraised. I could see the contents attempting, energetically, to leap out.

Already firmly defining reality as was my maternal duty, I said, “Oh, Peter, it couldn’t possibly be Froggy.”

But it was. Unmistakably. Same markings. Same fleshless leg bone sticking out below the right knee.

This time, instead of leaving the creature in the net, I took him out, wincing as his exposed bone caught itself briefly in the mesh, and examined him.

He was a big, American bullfrog, lithobates catesbeianus, fat-bellied, heavy, and easily as long and wide as my hand. The bone protruded not from a fresh injury but from what was clearly a well- and long-healed stump. For all I knew, Froggy had been peg-legging it around that pond for years.

Certainly, he proved capable despite his disability: With a slippery wriggle, Froggy propelled himself out of my gentle hands and landed with a triumphant plop in the green water. With a coordinated stroke of webbed foot and femur, he was gone.

We caught Froggy a few more times over the years. We liked to imagine he got used to us, maybe even reciprocated our affection? Ellie was sure he was one of the regulars in the crowd of frogs that turned up to bask in her peaceful presence. But eventually, the kids grew beyond the thrills of exploring what still amounted to a largish puddle by a busy road.

Bullfrogs are said to live for seven or eight years at the longest, so by now, even the indomitable Froggy has gone the way of all flesh (and bone) though every time I drive past that pond—-it’s still there, near the Subaru dealership and the lighting store—-I think of him.

His was a humbling lesson for me, one of many in the fat file labeled “Gee, I Thought I Knew More Than I Actually Do.”

Had I come across Froggy soon after his injury had been incurred, I might easily have assumed the kindest thing to do would be to kill him, so as to spare him the lingering and painful death nature surely had in store.

As I picked up the rock and—-weeping and apologizing—-brought it down upon his soft body, I probably would’ve felt not just justified but absolutely sure I’d chosen the only and noblest possible way, murdering this creature out of what would have been—-and, blessedly, was—-a long good life.

Published in Environment
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There are 27 comments.

  1. Member

    Kate Braestrup: Soon enough the waterweed, butterflies, small fish, dragonflies, water sliders, water boatmen, and a couple of local frog species enthusiastically colonized…

    I am forever amazed how small ponds with no discernible access to any other major body of water can become populated by fish.

    Near where I grew up there was an old quarry where we used to go swimming. It had plenty of fish in it, but no discernible inlets or outlets. Our only guess was that there must have been an underground tunnel to a nearby river or stream.

    • #1
    • February 12, 2018 at 12:58 pm
    • 3 likes
  2. Member
    Kate Braestrup Post author

    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending (View Comment):

    Kate Braestrup: Soon enough the waterweed, butterflies, small fish, dragonflies, water sliders, water boatmen, and a couple of local frog species enthusiastically colonized…

    I am forever amazed how small ponds with no discernible access to any other major body of water can become populated by fish.

    Near where I grew up there was an old quarry where we used to go swimming. It had plenty of fish in it, but no discernible inlets or outlets. Our only guess was that there must have been an underground tunnel to a nearby river or stream.

    I am told, by reliable sources, that fish can arrive from the air, dropped by a careless bird, but that puddle would’ve been an awfully small target. So…I don’t know! Do fish eggs somehow stick themselves onto the fur of feeding raccoons and migrate that way?

    There is a large pond in northwestern Maine that was completely sterilized of fish back in the 1930s? I think the eccentric landowner wanted to discourage fishermen from showing up and ruining the view or something; anyway, that pond is still fish-free to this day. Or at least, fish-free enough to look that way to wildlife biologists. So…it’s a mystery. But there were indeed little fish in the frog pond.

    • #2
    • February 12, 2018 at 1:01 pm
    • 5 likes
  3. Member

    I loved this story. It brought back so many memories of my own little kids and their friends and my Brownie troop.

    A pleasant escape on a Monday afternoon.

    Thank you.

    • #3
    • February 12, 2018 at 1:16 pm
    • 4 likes
  4. Member

    A fine parable of euthanasia.

    Your choice was the only sensible one. Despite the feelings of horror, and the expectations of life ‘not worth living’, at the sight of his injury, you realized the only right thing to do was let nature take it’s course. Because, in life, you never know. And it turns out that your worst fears were not realized. Froggy lived a long and fruitful life ( for a frog) .

    It is the same with people. When they get old, and maybe a bit forgetful or even completely lost to Alzheimers, or otherwise ill or infirm, some look at them and think ‘I wouldn’t want to live like that so the kindest thing to do is euthanize them’.

    But, just like you and Froggy, they don’t really know that life isn’t worth living to them. It is their life, and the only one they get. And the lord works in his own, mysterious ways.

    • #4
    • February 12, 2018 at 1:17 pm
    • 11 likes
  5. Member

    Good stuff! Thanks.

    • #5
    • February 12, 2018 at 1:53 pm
    • 2 likes
  6. Coolidge

    Kate, that’s a wonderful story. Your kids’ natural empathy for a suffering creature rings true. I saw it in my own kids. My son mourned for a dead goldfish for weeks. I’ve mourned the suffering and death of a hamster.

    I shot a bird out of a tree with a BB gun when I was about 8, and I’ve never forgotten the sight of the dead bird on the ground. I never shot at a bird again.

    Letting nature take its course works some of the time At other times, it doesn’t. I would hope that if I am suffering greatly at the end, perhaps also with Alzheimer’s, someone will be wise enough to put me out of my misery and not let me continue to suffer.

    I have personal experience with an end-of-life situation, and I did what I thought was necessary to end suffering. I’d rather not be more specific. But I’ve never regretted it.

    Kent

    • #6
    • February 12, 2018 at 1:55 pm
    • 2 likes
  7. Member
    Kate Braestrup Post author

    Kent, my mom has ALS and has firmly announced that she doesn’t want to hang around much beyond the point when she can’t draw and paint. She may change her mind about that, but whatever her end-of-life situation turns out to be, I’m going to be with her and do my best for her, according to her wishes.

    It’s funny; I don’t think I imagined this as an allegory about euthanasia. But frogs do make me think of babies—the round tummies and bowed legs, perhaps? And I’d been looking at the picture of the new Gerber baby, and of course, here on Ricochet, I’ve been writing and thinking about abortion!

    • #7
    • February 12, 2018 at 2:13 pm
    • 3 likes
  8. Thatcher

    OohRah, Froggy! Dude! Your adaptable amphibiousness is inspiring…Thanks, Kate! Prayers for your mom, Ellie, Zach, Peter, and Officer Woolie – not to mention you and Mr. Kate!

    • #8
    • February 12, 2018 at 2:25 pm
    • 3 likes
  9. Member

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Letting nature take its course works some of the time At other times, it doesn’t. I would hope that if I am suffering greatly at the end, perhaps also with Alzheimer’s, someone will be wise enough to put me out of my misery and not let me continue to suffer.

    Oh, I agree completely,  where a person has expressed their desire it is a much different question.

    • #9
    • February 12, 2018 at 3:58 pm
    • 2 likes
  10. Member

    Kate Braestrup (View Comment):
    And I’d been looking at the picture of the new Gerber baby,

    Actually, that would have been a better example of what I saw in the story, the DS children that were never given the chance to live because someone else decided it wasn’t a life worth living .

    • #10
    • February 12, 2018 at 4:06 pm
    • 4 likes
  11. Member

    I grew up in Northern Indiana on a rural property adjoining a semi-abandoned woodland park, that had originally been built by the KKK (true story!) in the 1920s. Forty years or so later, it had passed into the hands of the local YMCA by means unknown to me. Eventually they redeveloped it, but at that time it was used only by occasional summer camps by groups of Y youth apparently pretending to be Indians.

    The original park had boasted two concrete swimming pools, and decades of neglect had filled them with enough dead leaves and dirt to turn them into woodland ponds distinguished only by their geometric shape, and having a ‘deep end’. The water was true pond scum, full of interesting microbes – paramecium, amoeba, hydras, rotifers and the like. So during my high school years, I became the provider of samples to the local biology classes.

    The former swimming pools were also full of leopard frogs, good ol’ Rana pipiens. So when the zoology class needed some dissecting specimens – you can see where this is going…

    A recycled butterfly net turned out to be pretty good for frogs, and the zoo classes were able to have fresh rather than pickled specimens. In spite of my occasional depredations, I never noticed fewer frogs in the ponds.

    For the record, if you have the need to humanely dispatch a frog, don’t step on it. Grab it firmly by the hind legs and swing its head hard against a solid object. That will stun it and you can do your worst. There’s also a procedure called pithing that some of our medical folks probably know about, but I will spare the rest of you.

    • #11
    • February 12, 2018 at 4:33 pm
    • 3 likes
  12. Member
    Kate Braestrup Post author

    Dang, @lockeon. Harsh. But helpful!

    I remember looking at paramecium and whatnot under a microscope—good fun! When I was young, I lived for awhile on a farm that had two ponds, one for frogs, sunfish, bluegills and bigmouth bass and the other for swimming and (because it unfortunately got drainage from a poorly-placed stable) huge clumps of smelly algae.

    The frog pond was fed by a stream that carried and dumped soil from elsewhere. This built up into layer of silt four or five feet thick, with the brown water hovering on top. The big-mouthed bass that still occupied the pond would have their dorsal fins out of the water, like Jaws, when they swam around after the tadpoles. And of course, both ponds had resident snapping turtles the size of tractor tires skulking in their depths. They’d surface now and then, sometimes hauling out onto the bank to lay eggs along the driveway, but more often just rising long enough to snatch a yellow duckling off the surface. The poor little thing would have time to give a tiny bleat of protest before the monster dragged it under in a great black swirl of evil silt.

    • #12
    • February 12, 2018 at 5:41 pm
    • 2 likes
  13. Member

    And we (in the broad society sense) think we know enough to implement assisted suicide and/or euthanasia?

    • #13
    • February 12, 2018 at 5:54 pm
    • 5 likes
  14. Coolidge

    This story reminds me of having a couple of times seen song birds with only one working foot, which would have to be used for landing as well as roosting…but yet they flew and seemed to be dealing with life, probably making nests somehow of their own. I did spot a poor squirrel one time with “paralized” back feet, that was crawling on the ground with just front feet. I seriously don’t see how it could climb a tree…but then how did it get down from any tree? Perhaps its time before a predator discovered the handicap was short, but there was really no intervention possible. Animals injured by some unnecessary contact with a human-generated cause like hazardous garbage in the ocean truly make me the saddest.

    • #14
    • February 12, 2018 at 6:19 pm
    • 3 likes
  15. Reagan

    Throughout the tender beauty and compelling nature facts of your Froggy account –

    sings the voice of maternal love and guidance.

    What a lucky frog. What lucky kids.

    • #15
    • February 12, 2018 at 8:12 pm
    • 4 likes
  16. Member

    This less than a day after @davecarter showed me how Koreans eat frogs (whole). Don’t worry, I’m sure they were all mean frogs that stole flies from respectable toads.

    • #16
    • February 12, 2018 at 10:23 pm
    • 2 likes
  17. Member
    Kate Braestrup Post author

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    This less than a day after @davecarter showed me how Koreans eat frogs (whole). Don’t worry, I’m sure they were all mean frogs that stole flies from respectable toads.

    Not…alive? I hope?

    • #17
    • February 13, 2018 at 6:44 am
    • 1 like
  18. Podcaster

    At least in this story the frog didn’t marry a pig.

    Did Ellie ever try to kiss any of the frogs to reveal her Prince Charming?

    • #18
    • February 13, 2018 at 6:45 am
    • 2 likes
  19. Member

    • #19
    • February 13, 2018 at 6:49 am
    • Like
  20. Moderator
    She

    Beautiful, beautiful post. We, here in a life-affirming corner of Southwestern PA salute you. As does the spirit of “Phoebster,” a baby Phoebe one of my Great Pyrenees found in the field several years ago. About the size of my thumb, she’d either fallen, or been thrown out of her nest during an almost hurricane-like storm and was huddled on the ground in the still pouring rain. We couldn’t find her nest (perhaps it was destroyed), took her in and fed her. A couple of weeks later, when she could fly, we set her free (it took two tries, the first time, she wouldn’t go).

    For the next few years, we had a single Phoebe who’d fly to the feeder on the South-facing window (on the other side of which she’d lived, in a cage for a time during her young life).

    I’m sure it was her (or she, as my freshman comp teacher would insist).

    Dumb animals? I don’t think so. They know.

    • #20
    • February 13, 2018 at 7:02 am
    • 6 likes
  21. Member

    That’s one tough little froggy.

    I think if I were afflicted with such an injury I would throw up, wet myself, and pass out (but not necessarily in that order). But then I think, a frog can bear such a wound, and I am so much more than a frog, then maybe I could manage to bear it too. Therein lies a lesson (that I honestly hope is never tested.)

    Thank you for the story, Kate.

    • #21
    • February 13, 2018 at 7:23 am
    • 5 likes
  22. Member

    A lot of wisdom, warmth and beauty here. Thank you for the lovely story, Kate, and may I say how lucky your kids are to have you?

    • #22
    • February 13, 2018 at 7:26 am
    • 4 likes
  23. Member

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Kate, that’s a wonderful story. Your kids’ natural empathy for a suffering creature rings true. I saw it in my own kids. My son mourned for a dead goldfish for weeks. I’ve mourned the suffering and death of a hamster.

    I shot a bird out of a tree with a BB gun when I was about 8, and I’ve never forgotten the sight of the dead bird on the ground. I never shot at a bird again.

    Letting nature take its course works some of the time At other times, it doesn’t. I would hope that if I am suffering greatly at the end, perhaps also with Alzheimer’s, someone will be wise enough to put me out of my misery and not let me continue to suffer.

    I have personal experience with an end-of-life situation, and I did what I thought was necessary to end suffering. I’d rather not be more specific. But I’ve never regretted it.

    Kent

    My sister came up with what I thought was a good plan. My mom was completely lost to dementia for over a year before she passed. She lived in a care home and we were amazed at how many others in her condition were on lots and lots of medication.

    My sister has instructed her children that if she is ever in the same condition, all medications are to be stopped and nature is allowed to take its course. (my mom was on zero medications, btw. I am convinced she would have lived as long no matter what century she had been born).

    I think it’s a good plan and have instructed her kids similarly. Not my kids …they’ll be hiding my Claritin the next time I lose my keys.

    • #23
    • February 13, 2018 at 10:54 am
    • 2 likes
  24. Member
    Kate Braestrup Post author

    Annefy (View Comment):
    I think it’s a good plan and have instructed her kids similarly. Not my kids …they’ll be hiding my Claritin the next time I lose my keys

    Oh yes! I told my step-daughter that, since she’s a nurse, she could be in charge of my end-of-life care. “You can give me some extra morphine or something when the time comes,” I said. And then, watching her expression change, I clarified hurriedly, “I mean when I’m really old and actually dying already…okay?”

    • #24
    • February 13, 2018 at 1:13 pm
    • 2 likes
  25. Member

    This brought back memories of my childhood and spending the day with my dad as he fished in different small rivers in the Peruvian Andes. My brother and I (probably 11 and 13) would wander far up and down the river banks, finding places to cross on stepping stones, our feet sometimes slipping into the cold water, and observing tadpoles in warmer areas at the edge.

    • #25
    • February 13, 2018 at 1:51 pm
    • 2 likes
  26. Member

    This reminds me of what I’ve read about sailors during the Napoleonic wars. Imagine having a leg amputated with primitive anesthesia, or no anesthetics at all. One third of all the casualties during naval battles were caused by flying splinters of wood propelled by the force of cannon balls striking wood. Not tiny splinters, either. Huge chunks of wood embedded in flesh, and difficult to remove because the barbs were hooked into the tissue. Yet, even in those circumstances people endured the medical treatment available in order to preserve their lives. Froggy’s will to survive may not be that different from yours.

    • #26
    • February 13, 2018 at 3:59 pm
    • 1 like
  27. Member

    The story reminds me of when our goldfish grew too large for the tank at home and a local hotel with a magnificent indoor koi pond let us release him into it. He was not quite as large as the koi, but with his fins, nearly as long. Our church met occasionally at the hotel and we always enjoyed looking for our goldfish. I believe that he was there for many months.

    • #27
    • February 14, 2018 at 5:02 am
    • 3 likes