(Becoming a Naturalist, part 7)
Finding frogsong is my springtime wont. In my world, boreal chorus frogs start to sing before the vernal equinox and sing through the summer solstice and beyond. Humboldt’s “world-directing chorus” is closer to home for me; my muses prefer wetlands to mountaintops and midges to ambrosia. Pseudacris maculata is my slimy Sappho.
Following Thoreau’s journals is another wont. I’m curious about his musings as they correspond to mine. And while I find much of his writing contrived and constructed, his journal entries seem more candid. And he had an ear for members of the order Anura. On May 21st, 1851, he wrote:
I have heard now within a few days the peculiar dreaming sound of the frogs which belongs to summer, –their midsummer night’s dream…. The frog eyed the heavens from his marsh, until his mind was filled with visions, and saw more than belongs to this fenny earth.
Thoreau’s access to the dreams and visions of frogs may have been enhanced by drugs. A few days prior, he had all of his teeth pulled. Thoreau’s dentist used an experimental anesthetic that took him “to a greater space than you have ever travelled.” Though he saw the medicinal and recreational potential of this newly-invented “ether,” he deemed it only useful for those who could not be transported by thought, meditation, or sauntering. And by frogs:
When they peep, the loose wrinkled skin of the throat is swelled up into a globular bubble; very large and transparent and quite round, except on the throat side, behind which their little heads are lost, mere protuberances on the side of this sphere; and the peeping wholly absorbs them; their mouths shut, or apparently so. (May 1st, 1852)
Thoreau identified his chorus frog as “Hylodes Pickeringii,” coined by John Edwards Holbrook in his 1839 North American Herpetology. The Integrated Taxonomic Information System identifies it as Species TSN 776303 and sanctions the binomial Pseudacris crucifer. This is the name assigned by German explorer Prince Maximilian in 1838. My local chorus frog had already been discovered and named Chorophilis septentrionalis when Maximilian passed by here on his 1837 travels up the Missouri River. It was renamed Pseudacris maculata in 1850 by Thoreau’s friend Louis Agassiz.
The native peoples whom the prince encountered along the Missouri had their own names for these little frogs and knew them better than anyone ever will. But the true nature of this frog, like all frogs, can’t be named or catalogued. We can learn binomial nomenclature and native names and memorize mating calls, but until the vernal chorus rattles our eardrums and resonates in our sternums and vibrates our feathery souls like breeze on a web, we will have only historical names, serial numbers, and digital files. By song they reveal themselves and unleash a blast of fertility. A frog is a song made flesh and can only be known by experience. The sonic spheres they create are entered by muddy stealth through fragrant muck, slippery with love.
Like his ballooning peepers, Thoreau lost his little head in a globular bubble of song. That’s what I want from my frogs.