Rite of spring

This entry is part 64 of 91 in the series Toward Noon: 3verses


In small, murky ponds
that appear each spring
along the ridge crest,

dozens of wood frogs
float through the reflected treetops,
lust blatting from each fat throat.

Get too close and the show stops.
Another step and they vanish
into strings of bubbles.

See Rachel’s blog post (which includes a video of the wood frogs in one of the vernal ponds): “Monday is herp day.”


Narceus millipede
Narceus millipede
Something in the toe of my shoe this morning when I put it on. A pebble, I think, but when I turn the shoe upside-down, a Narceus millipede falls out — the kind that lives under leaf duff and curls into tight spirals when disturbed. After a minute, it cautiously uncurls, rights itself and heads for a dark corner, gliding on a magic carpet of pseudopods.

Yes, it’s been damp. But so far only the north-facing roof of my house has moss on it. This is useful to know in case I ever get lost.

For weeks, thunderstorms in the late afternoon or early evening have been an almost daily occurence. This has meant not only lots of rainbows but some interesting lighting conditions as well. As I type this at 7:58 p.m., the sky is suffused with an amber glow even as rain continues to fall. I feel almost as if I’m trapped inside a glass of the ale I had before supper.

Due to all the rain, the big vernal pool at the top of the watershed is lasting much longer than usual this year — good news for the wood frog tadpoles, which have now become frogs with tails and are graduating at a steady rate. Every morning, my mom reports, there are fewer of them than there had been the day before, which presumably means they’re leaving the water under cover of darkness. It’s a relief to know that after so many springs when the pool dried up too soon, our aging population of wood frogs will finally get some new blood.

The young frogs will spread out, travelling up to several hundred meters in all directions, and make new homes in the leaf litter, preying on various arthropods, including millipedes. I wonder whether any of them will make it as far as the house.

Woodrat Podcast 35: Creatures of the night

spring peeper, northern saw-whet owl, and American woodcock
Spring peeper, northern saw-whet owl, and American woodcock

It may feel and sometimes even still look like winter out there, but spring is on the march (so to speak). This is perhaps most evident after dark. Join me and some other folks for a night-time ramble through the March woods and wetlands of Central Pennsylvania. We’ll listen to a woodcock, a saw-whet owl, some creature whose identity I’m not certain of, spring peepers, and herpetologist Jim Julian from Penn State Altoona. Julian, an expert on seaonal wetlands ecology, leads the annual Vernal Pool Tour of the Scotia Barrens, sponsored by the Clearwater Conservancy. We all squish about looking for wood frogs and spotted salmanders on a cold and rainy night.

Note by the way that Woodrat podcast episodes can now be embedded on other websites and forums. Grab the code right below the player.

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Photo credits, l-r: Norman Walsh (CC BY-NC), Dave Darney/USFWS, Tom Tetzner/USFWS. Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence).

Sea of wood frogs

Direct link to video.

by Juan Ramón Jiménez

Siento que el barco mío
ha tropezado, allá en el fondo,
con algo grande.

¡Y nada
sucede! Nada…Quietud…Olas….
—¿Nada sucede; o es que la sucedido todo,
y estamos ya, tranquilos, en lo nuevo?—


I sense that my boat
has struck, deep down,
against some massive thing.

And nothing happens!
Nothing… silence… waves…
Nothing happens? Or has everything happened,
and we are already resting in the new life?


It may be a mistake to try and make a video for one of my favorite poems: I’ll never be satisfied with the results. In this case, my dissatisfaction is especially acute because one of the main things that made the footage so compelling to watch on my home computer — the complex patterns of waves — is excessively pixelated at anything but the highest of resolutions. Also, there’s some absurdity in visually equating the surface of a small, vernal pond with Jimenez’ “Seas.” Oh well.

For the translation, after much thought I decided to borrow from Robert Bly’s translation and render “lo nuevo” as “the new life,” instead of simply “the new,” because I think that is the gist of it. As always with my translations, I’d welcome suggestions of alternatives. I was trying to figure out some way to use “calm,” or a variation thereof, for “tranquilos,” but “becalmed” seemed over-reaching. It’s frustrating to have a clear idea of what the poem means and be unable to quite convey it.

Coal and sadness

Prayer, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo. Music traditional Tuvan, performed by Ay-Kherel.

A fervent wish: that the water in this ephemeral pond last long enough for the wood frog tadpoles to complete their metamorphosis this year. When I walked up there this afternoon, I found just two egg masses, anchored to sticks near the center of the pond. Many of last autumn’s leaves floating just under the surface had turned green again, thanks to a fresh bloom of algae. I suppose you could take that as a sign of hope if you wanted to.

wood frog eggs
Click photo to see the full-size image at Visual Soma

As of this morning, the “pond” down in the corner of the field has a single egg mass, and wood frog mating activity seems to be over for the year, so the resident newt will probably make short work of those tadpoles. I have serious doubts about the long-term survival of our wood frog population in Plummer’s Hollow.


Speaking of hope — or the lack thereof — somehow I’ve managed to avoid saying anything about the famous people who have driven past the mountain in recent days: NPR’s Linda Wertheimer, Senator Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton. It was fascinating that Wertheimer discovered outspoken social conservatives whose views just happened to confirm outsiders’ preconceptions of this part of Pennsylvania… in a local Baptist church. I gritted my teeth to read of Obama’s vocal support for “clean coal” (an oxymoron, since there’s no clean way to extract it) and wind turbines everywhere (the ecological costs of which would outweigh the benefits here in the east, according to a report from the National Academies of Science last year). In fairness, the Clintons also support these environmental shell games.

As far as I know, Jon Stewart hasn’t swung through western Pennsylvania recently, but he must’ve been here at some point, because his one-liner on April 1 captured the essence of the region as well as anything can:

This area best known for its chief exports, coal and sadness.

It is perhaps a measure of his greatness as a comedian that he managed to turn that into a laugh line.

Compton tortoise shell

A very tattered question mark Compton tortoise shell butterfly landed on the trail ahead of me as I made my way back to the house.

UPDATED 4/11 to correct the butterfly I.D., thanks to tigerbeetlefreak on Flickr. (See the Massachusetts Butterfly Club page for a side-by-side comparison with other brushfoots.)

Updated 4/9 with a couple more sentences and links on our all-too-brief brush with greatness.

Fossils of the wind

If it quacks like a duck… from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

The woods were full of question marks, Mom says at dinner. They’re migrating north. I am suddenly sorry I didn’t go for a walk in the woods. Instead, I spent an hour in the bottom corner of the field, crouched beside the artifically enlarged spring we call a pond, waiting in vain for the wood frogs to resume the chorus I’d interrupted when I had to change my camera batteries. After forty minutes, a single frog re-emerged; at least six had been quacking and fighting when I first got there. Even though I was watching the pond intently for the slightest sign of movement, the frog just suddenly materialized like some kind of amphibian ninja, floating motionless on the surface with a small lump of mud for a hat. He drifted back and forth in the breeze, not moving a muscle. Watching him watch me — this creature that can freeze solid for weeks or months at a time, his heart stopped — I too began slipping into a trance. I was reminded of Charles Simic’s “Stone Inside a Stone,”

On the border of nothing and nothing.

Fossils of the wind.
But what wind?

You can’t step twice in the same river —
With a stone you can take your sweet time.

wood frog

The sun was sinking, and the temperature was dropping back down into the 40s. My fingers grew numb around the camera. I caught sight of the red-spotted newt that has been living in this spring for the past few years, feasting on frogs’ eggs and tadpoles and reducing the once-teeming wood frog population to a half-dozen long-lived survivors. The newt glided insouciantly along the bottom, and I couldn’t help wondering if this was the real “lizard in the spring” in the old Appalachian folksong.

Later, when Mom hears that the wood frogs had been out, she says she’s sorry she went for a walk in the woods instead. It seems we each took the other’s walk! But on the way back up the driveway to fix supper, I paused to admire a clump of newly opened coltsfoot at the edge of the driveway, small suns in a firmament of blue-gray stone.