Wednesday, July 16, 2008

FROGS AND TOADS

Being able to hear the sounds of wildlife while breakfasting outdoors is one of the perks of retirement and Sewanee living, and sometimes I lament the absence of certain aspects of wildlife that abound in my home state of Louisiana. One of the sounds I miss is that of frogs – bull frogs, tree frogs, even pig and sheep frogs I once learned to identify frogs by the sounds of their croaking voices. Being a webfoot, I’m enamored with the low chuckle of the southern crawfish frog found in crawfish holes that have lost their mud chimneys.

It’s a familial thing – this love of frogs and toads. My mother, who was an artist, often painted pictures of deep woods featuring gnomes and huge toads in the foreground. As a child, my daughter Elizabeth spent much of her time when we visited our camp at Toledo Bend, hunting and catching small frogs on the shoreline of the lake there. Her youngest son, Joel, hunts toads in a different environment – the high desert of California. For Joel, I wrote a satirical children’s poem about a giant devil toad that my young friend Ben Blanchard illustrated and which we hope Border Press will publish next year.

In 1989, I wrote a satirical short story about a toad for a Creative Writing class at ULL. The toad was a cane toad that produces a toxin called bufotenine which it secretes to ward off predators. When, and if, a person licks the toad, the toxin acts as a hallucinogen. Bufotenine is a controlled substance and is illegal; however, it isn’t illegal to own a cane toad! The toad is a huge brown thing with big glands running down both sides of its body, is the size of a dinner plate, has dry, warty skin, and makes noises like a tractor motor. In the story, an unhappy Florida millionaire orders a cane toad and goes off into la-la land after licking the skin of this reptile, etc. Well, for awhile the toad makes him happy…until he’s arrested, that is. Actually, the Creative Writing professor who co-taught the class handed the story back to me without commenting. Hmmm. By the way, some countries revere the toad. Panama holds an annual toad festival in which each person has his own toad. A toad king is elected, and in the parade, the king wears the toad as a hat.

I’m not as enamored with toads as I am with frogs and their songs, and my experience with “frog listening” involves my oldest grandson, Martin. As a child, Martin was also fascinated with frogs. In the evenings, at “first dark,” we’d dress him in black waders that came up to his waist and take him a few blocks away to a swampy, wooded area we called “our swamp” (before someone denuded the property, ran off the wildlife, and is now selling the land for subdivision lots). Martin would wade into the swampy area and stand very still so he wouldn’t disturb the habitat, listening for the strange sounds of various frogs croaking, bleating, grunting, and making “jug-o-rum” noises.

Here’s a poem about Martin’s frog listening experience, which includes his guide, Godmother Vickie. It’s entitled “A Godson’s Frog Song,” from AFTERNOONS IN OAXACA by Border Press:

A GODSON’S FROG SONG

We hunted frogs in the Spring,
cricket frog, pig frog,

sheep frog, river frog,
heavy voices in the twilight,

and the moon, a silver dollar
smiled down on us.

Hours before we’d found eggs,
clotted black dots,

a jelly of eyes
looking up at us

like they’d break into faces,
begin croaking as soon

as she captured them.

That’s the way she is,
a magic woman

taking me swamp deep
to see the puff-eyed faces,

hear the weak sheep bleat,
short hog grunt,

enchanted frogs singing.

When I was four
we camped in a forest,

Godmother, Grandmother and me,
Godmother leaving for provision,

Grandmother trying hopelessly
to put up a tent.

In the heat of collapse, poles askew,
Grandmother should have said

hold up the world,
she didn’t know how

and she heated up even more
when I asked her to save the tent,

wait for Wonder Woman
to bring center pole,

the Universe put back.

She has always been there,
taller than grandmother,

easier to be with,
teaching me slow

how to lie like a twig
light on the water,

plunge for pennies in places
where bottom doesn’t seem to be,

turn over dirt
to set the flowers free,

sight hawks on wing,
be a Master of Adventure.

Victoria, a queen’s name she bears,
and I am royally loved;

they say Christ blessed,
was most joyful among adoring woman

and happy at her side…
I don’t wonder.
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