A Tale of Two Frogs
I went to shoot some Dustys. Which sounds like something slightly illegal. But it involves chasing skittish black butterflies over a hillside. It involves crawling through Verbena and False Garlic and Wild Hyacinth, leaning and stretching to avoid the flowers and stealing close to the fast, fast wings of these grass-loving skippers. The hill was alive with Baskettails, Gorgone Checkerspots and Blue Corporal dragonflies. I crouched and rolled among them flashing unnatural light, turning my head at one point into a Hyacinth stalk and whiffing the sweet smell, sneezing all the butterflies apart and away. Standing afterward and walking, occasional flakes of stone and shale would shed from my imprinted elbows.
Down the valley the small feeder creek was dry. An Oklahoma Clubtail sailed from patch to patch of open ground like a honeybee colored helicopter. The trees are so green already. I stop and note this repeatedly. Like a dunce. The Buckeye blooms are still rich and red and dangling with large bumblebees that were not here just a week ago. I climbed the ridge north of the cleft valley of Verbena and there I stood to listen. The first Summer Tanagers called distantly with their whistled warble. The Red-eyed Vireos spoke at a level that was somewhere between already abundant and omnidirectional. And then there, just there, I hear something down the north side slope toward the swamp which is the sound that always convinces me I have located a rare bird, a strange and haunting avian that no one has bothered to put in the sonic guidebook. Eureka, I think. But wait, there is more than one, then there are many. They sound like musical and somehow invisible ranks of Pileated Woodpeckers. And I realize, slowly, as always before, that this is no bird. It is indeed a small and rare frog whistling in my favorite woods.
Twenty-nine years ago I heard this sound for the first time. Not here. But in a flooded pond near a swamp somewhere in Conway county. It is the place that gave up the first Bird-voiced Treefrog in Arkansas to scientific proof of its existence here in this population that is separate from the larger and congruent eastern range. We all stopped to hear them back then, a gang of students swashing through a pond full of life, we stood in Daphnia and Cyclops and listened to the ghostly whistle of frogs we could not see ringing in the cypress trees. We followed a teacher I have never forgotten. If he had given me nothing else except that day I would still be indebted to him.
Here on this day, I walked carefully toward the sound of the frogs and had this thought: “Now there is a difficult photo subject.” They call from high up, ventriloquently. Ventriloquistically? Something like that. They are here, not there—you know what I mean. They seem to be thirty feet high and in the oaks that stand above the actual swamp. Though out in the swamp cypresses somewhere the others answer. Beneath my feet the cricket frogs leap wildly into the leaves. And as I stare up at the sounds, I hear something else in the leaves. It is moving steadily and I watch as it turns out to be a large Blue Racer coming out of the woods and down the rough path directly at me. I freeze to see him. He keeps coming and we are both surrounded by frog sound.
There are several things to come for in these woods and swamplands known as Bell Slough. Beyond just the lay of the land and the flowers, I mean. Beyond the solitude and the woods. Come for that, sure. But there is the hatch of Dianas in the coming spring. There are the rare Metalmarks that will soon launch from the Senecio stands near the shale trails. There are the warbler migrations that will fall on the surrounding trees in the next month. And there is this: the calling choruses of the Bird-voiced Treefrogs that ring like magic birdlife from everywhere and nowhere in these trees in the spring.
I thought at first the Racer had been frightened by my human stump of a form in the path. He had wandered back into the leaves. But I stood there anyway fascinated by some other insect on the hickory leaves. The treefrog sounds vanished suddenly like they always do. And I could hear the lunging, muscular motions of the snake which suggested he had gone back to hunting and ignoring me. I could not see what this snake was thrashing after. I looked but just saw vague snake loops inside the buckeye maze. And then suddenly a large frog shot out onto the path just east of me. It took one leap out, hit and then took another long leap over to land in the water of a road rut just as the Racer came quickly across behind him and made a jabbing strike at a leaf above the rut. The snake, in its excitement, had been fooled for a moment by the leaf and so had I in the flash of all the commotion.
A three or four foot racer is a wise and old racer. He has several winters behind him by then. He has learned the secret ways of frogs and mice. This one was up in full cobra position quickly after the false strike. He shook off the bang of the nosestrike easily and was immediately in full alert. I knew the frog was under water just behind the head of the snake. The racer knew the frog was close by as well. He just stood waiting there for any motion, turning the predator head slightly to the left and right. Nothing. Then he methodically started nuzzling the leaf litter and snoozling in the mud layers, tonguing and shoving it around. I don’t know how long frogs can stay under. It may be tremendously long. This particular frog did not get to test it. Because the snake, after deciding the leaves were a no-go, went submarine diving and pushed his head along the pool bottom. He was definitely and consciously searching the water for his goal, the tasty Southern Leopard Frog.
It did not take long for the frog under this direct assault to break out of the water and make two more fast frogleaps over to a stump propped up above the road rut. It was like he had his next escape spot planned from his underwater hideout. I could not see him beneath the edge of his saving stump. The snake came up fast and went straight towards where the frog had gone. I braced myself then for the snakey strike and the final death grip moments of a Leopard Frog. But the snake just snoodled around on hyperalert and made a turn up the hill, nosing in the leaves again. I suppose the big hops of the frog make the amphibian smell hard to track. Like following a deer in the woods that can fly thirty yards at a time. The frog waited. And surely, it must have been a fearful trembling wait. Like a man bending low in the woods beneath the nose of some great mythic dragon. When the snake head was just up out of view in the grass of the dry land the frog leapt again down the path toward the water. I could see it perched up half in and half out of the muck and leaves next to the rut pools. The snake came alive and went that way, working again over the leaves and stopping to watch for motion. Now and then, during the whole tense hunt, the snake would jump at some false movement, a grasshopper fleeing or leaf turning in the wind, who-knows-what. This now was the frog’s most dangerous moment. If he had leapt again with the snake so close it would have been over. But he held with the body of the snake no more than six inches away. And when the snake went under water again the frog jumped down the road into the far water. The snake popped up and ran towards the grass. The frog swam all the way to the end of the rut pool and then nosed out. The snake was totally distracted in the grass. And the frog came out, as if seeing the whole picture, and hopped down the road for a full ten more yards and then cut into the leaves again. Making an absolutely clean escape.
Bird noise came back suddenly after this escape was accomplished. Like I had been deaf for a bit. Blue-winged Warblers spit-buzzzzed. The Prothonotary Warblers were singing, finding their places in the swamp margins. I moved farther along the path, leaving the snake sitting quietly in his place, just thinking I guess. Tiger beetles flared and fell in ranks ahead of me. It is that glowing green one that should have been named the Emerald Woodland Tiger but they called it the Six-spotted Tiger instead. Wood ducks launched and squealed out in the water somewhere. And then at another crossroad path the Bird-voiced Treefrogs started again. Tentative at first and then more and more of them until I was surrounded by the halo of whistling. It is a voodoo noise. And as it continued I stepped forward and looked to my right to find a small treefrog perched on a buckeye leaf not two feet off the ground. I was astounded. He looked like he had leaf litter on him. Maybe he had fallen and was making his way back up. Either way he was the first of his kind I had ever seen. Lovely green and gray with the big treefrog eyeballs. I wanted to pick him up but thought better of it. Why frighten him into tachycardia and anxiety. Life was short enough, I suppose, for a small frog in the swamp. I squatted and smiled at him, imprinting him for good in my eye and my camera. He never left his leaf.
On the way back, the snake was just frozen in the very same spot, head up. I could not see any sort of disappointment in his eyes. I saw another Leopard Frog leap to safety beyond him. These frogs fling themselves wildly from me but for snakes they hold and hold until they cannot stay. It is frog-knowledge earned hard I am guessing. The Duskywings fluttered around me looking ragged already from just two weeks of flight time. Gnatcatchers scolded me everywhere I went, already nesting and brooding. How green already the woods were. How green. I stop at the first frog calling spot and wait but the frogs do not talk again. I promise to come back in the evening and hear the greatest chorus in the dark. But somehow I know I won’t. I remember the end of the trip to that pond almost thirty years ago. That may have been the first day that a frog etched itself into my memory. I was eighteen. In fact, in that pond, we had found scores of Green Tree Frogs. So many we began to plant them on each other for decoration. They traveled around with us. We collected handfuls and stuck them decoratively on our backs, chests, and foreheads. And in the end I wrote then:
“We shook the life from our hair
And took off the last tree frogs reluctantly.
Snails were unpocketed;
Crayfish back-flipped from our shoes and hats.
Redhead and I were last back to the bus
And I squelched my arm into the mud for a rare stone.
I gave it to him
And, nothing said, he turned and cast it high above center pond.
I remember it seemed like another morning passed
Before the top of the arc
And then the stone fell, quick and almost splashless,
Pushing our disorder out and back into corrected position,
Restoring the false quiet to the teeming water
Which was still bearing and destroying
All those children of its own.”
I never went back to that pond. Can’t be sure I know how to find it now. Somehow I think it lives better in the mind. Thirty years later, many places do. It is a truth I try to forget sometimes.
But anyway, go, listen to some frogs though. Right now if you can. It does a traveler good.