By Susan Hand Shetterly
Last year, with a flashlight in hand, I stood on the road by my house in an April rain in the dark. It was the sort of early-spring rain that feels colder than snow, and I saw by the beam of the flashlight old snow crusts humped up in patches in the woods.
It was my job to look for frogs and salamanders that might have crawled out of their overwintering places and, slick with rain, started crossing the road, lumbering toward their breeding pools. They’re barely awake when they emerge. They’re slow and, in the hand, they feel like live icicles. If I found some, I was to rally my neighbors; together, we would usher them across, stopping cars and sometimes lifting the frogs toward where they were headed. We know the dangers amphibians face: the diseases that sicken them, the destruction of habitat, the roads.
By 10 o’clock, I hadn’t found a single one — it was the wrong night for the show on this road — and I gave up and walked home.
On my land, a shaggy woodlot of conifers, I have two ponds. They are small, shallow, and bursting with cattails and pickerelweeds and water lilies and blue flag that I have brought from bigger ponds and dug in. Although my ponds are tiny, the plants have taken root and thrived. I fancied myself a sculptor of sorts, carving out of mud and water beautiful places I would make for amphibians. The joy of wood frogs and spring peepers is in their voices. But the salamanders are silent, and the joy in them is to beam a flashlight into a pond bottom when they are doing their slow, circling mating dance.
I fancied myself a sculptor of sorts, carving out of mud and water beautiful places I would make for amphibians.
Spring begins in this woodlot with a male robin’s sudden burst of territorial song and the male wood frogs’ dry staccato counterpoint, somewhat like a bunch of black ducks quacking. And then the chorus of spring peepers begins, high-pitched bells ringing through the night.
I recently got in touch with a wetland biologist because I have noticed over the years that my ponds have slowly changed. It seems to me that fewer eggs are spawned, fewer polliwogs hatch from the egg masses, and of those that do, not many metamorphose into frogs. This worries me, and she has agreed to give me some practical pond advice. I no longer care that the pickerelweed and the blue flag and the water lilies are beautiful. I don’t care that the cattails in a summer storm beat like the wings of terns. I care that the egg masses hatch, that the polliwogs have enough to eat, and that the froglets that step from the water onto land come back next spring to sing.
On that rainy night last spring, the next town over had what is called Big Night, when people lift frogs and salamanders, sometimes even gathering them into buckets, and ferry them across a patch of road to safety. Our town’s Big Night came later, and we missed it, but this year, on this road, we will try to get the timing right.
Whatever we choose to love that’s wild, it’s likely these days that it needs some help from us. And in small towns in this state, people who love frog song and salamander dance grab their flashlights and reflective vests and head out together to their neighborhood roads on the first hard rains to save, if they can, the singers and the dancers. To keep the music and the dance going.