The Peepers are here! Some people get excited about the appearance of Peeps, the brightly colored sugar-coated marshmallows confections that also appear at this time. I am delighted by the Spring Peepers.
In the patch of field and forest where we live, the high pitched call of these petite woodland frogs fills the air at dusk in the early spring. The chorus can be so loud that it feels like there must be thousands of them, each trying to call the loudest to attract a mate and establish territory. After a long winter and a tentative early spring, their boisterous presence assures me that we have really entered the season of growth, fecundity, and abundance. The peepers are singing before the crocuses have even poked out of the ground!
Each year when the peepers begin calling, I am reminded of a fatal mistake that we made a number of years ago. The boys were very young and endlessly curious about the critters that lived in our forest. We had been maintaining a rotating aquarium of sorts for a few months. We would collect bugs, frogs or salamanders from our creek and bring them inside to observe for a few days. We always took them back a few days later, hoping to let them go before captivity had caused too much stress. We thanked them for allowing us to study them for a few days, and released them where we had found them. We were trying to be careful, reverent, amateur naturalists. Our collection, maintenance, and release were guided by the principle that we would do no harm.
One summer day, we found a big blob of frog eggs in a water-filled depression in the field. For several days, we eagerly went back to check on them, hoping to observe metamorphosis. We didn’t see any changes in the eggs, but we did notice that their habitat was drying up. We worried that maybe the frog had chosen her nursery poorly. We worried that maybe there wasn’t enough water to sustain the eggs long enough for transformation to tadpole and frog. Just before the puddle went dry, we decided to help.
We put fresh water from the creek and the egg mass into our aquarium. Over the course of a few days, rather than observing frog metamorphosis, we watched the mass of eggs dissolve into a blob of gelatinous goop. We hadn’t helped at all. Maybe we had even harmed. Maybe the eggs of this species would not begin to transform until they began to dry. With regret, we took the goop and water outside and gave them back to the earth. The boys seemed to absorb the loss ok but, I was distressed by our “help” gone wrong. It still rattles me. We had the best intentions but, we had catastrophically interrupted the natural life cycles of a critter with whom we share this land.
Every spring, I wait anxiously for the peepers to begin their chorus. For a few years, they seemed substantially quieter. I attributed the muffled sound to population loss, a loss likely caused by human intrusion, including ours. I know it is irrational to think that we wiped out a whole region of the species with our egg collection that year, but reason doesn’t have a lot of influence when there’s guilt involved. Recently, I have learned that Spring Peepers lay their eggs singly, rather than in masses, and they hatch in a few days. The mass we collected (and killed) belonged to a different species. I do not know its name, its habits, or its call. I can only hope that it is flourishing today.
This wet spring seems to be good for the Peepers. They are really loud this year. Their strong presence is good for me. My heart seems to join them in song each evening. In the morning, I watch the puddles, depressions, and ponds for egg masses. If I find any, I will watch them and wish them well but, I will not interfere.
I can best serve the earth as a witness and participant in the enduring cycle of life. And I can best serve this cycle as an advocate for human systems (both large and small) that will recognize, honor, and protect it too. I will honor birth, death, and transformation in my life and in all life, fully embracing the eternal cycles of creation. What more could an amateur naturalist hope for?