I sadly haven’t written here for a while due to some looming university deadlines – the last few weeks have been meted out in a rhythm of research, essays, and library fines. My mind ticks and whirs through word counts with only the odd moment reserved for writing. But a recent encounter on the streets of London has spurred me to take a break from schoolwork and surrender to the temptation to write here which has been nagging me on the stroke of every hour in the library. Walking home late from a long day of work, when the sun had set and the streets were dark, a curious little shape suddenly flitted past my feet. Of course, my inquisitive self couldn’t just carry on walking home after that, so I turned and followed in the direction I saw it go. It was a tiny thing, so within a few strides I had caught up to it – it was a little brown frog, with bright amber, quivering eyes, and with a quick movement I swept it up onto my palm.
Funnily enough, this has happened a couple of times in London. Frogs and toads get in a very sociable mood on days when the air is heady with the smell of rain, and they eke out adventures in the newly-formed puddles. On the way home from a night out in Camden I once caught a young toad, much to the surprise and admiration of the friends I was with (if it’s such an impressive skill, perhaps I should add ‘frog-and-toad-catching’ to my CV!). What I got from my friends in that chance amphibian meeting was a lot of questions: how did I know it was a toad, how on earth did I manage to catch it, is it true that frogs and toads are allergic to human skin. So, I’ll answer a few of them now – frogs and toads have already started laying eggs in ponds and small rivers, so you may well come across some in the near future.
If you find an adult, it’s easy to tell if it’s a frog or a toad – I have always thought that frogs are a bit nicer to look at. Toads are rounder and squatter, frogs more delicate and less warty. A sure-fire way to tell is to give the creature a gentle prod – a frog will hop away, but a toad will crawl.
As for catching the little things, I honed my skills over some serious frog-catching training in my childhood. My mother’s friend, Ann, had a huge garden, rambunctious with overgrowing tree-roots, wild-flowers and long grass, cut with a patch of water in the middle. Whilst mum and she would sit and drink tea whilst chatting, Ann’s husband would sit with me by the pond and help me to catch the frogs that had made it their home. Of course, it wasn’t easy – I had to coat my hands in pondwater (which I’ll explain a bit later) which made them about as easy to hold onto as warm butter, and with but a few hops they could reach the protective arms of the wild grass never to be seen again. The power of their hind legs has been a perennial source of fascination, propelling this little thing so far that it can escape the heavy-handed clutches of clumsy humans. But with trial and error came a timeless tactic: to cup our hands over them and gently scoop them up whilst keeping our palms closed, before slowly opening our hands. Then the frogs would sit happily with us, the strange pink giants who found them so endlessly fascinating.
It is crucial to remember, however, that frogs and toads are extraordinarily fragile. They have very sensitive skin that absorbs chemicals easily – if you smoke, or have used soap or handcream in the last few hours, you should really leave them well alone, as harmful toxins can pass from your skin to theirs. Like I said, I always used to dip my hands in pondwater first, although the creatures are so covered in mud and water usually that it’s okay to handle them with dry hands, so long as you don’t hold onto them for too long. They are far more likely to be hurt by jumping and falling out of your hands, so do keep close to the ground to avoid any death-defying leaps.
I mentioned a little earlier that frogs and toads are laying eggs round about now. To spot frogspawn, look for clumps of clear jelly, smattered with black dots, in ponds and streams that are thick with algae and weeds. In similar habitats you may also find toadspawn, which are long, clear tubes with the black dots inside. When they become tadpoles, take a good look at their colouring – dark brown tadpoles will grow into frogs, whilst black means little toads.
The life cycles of frogs and toads were also an integral part of spring in my younger years. Wellies were donned, dungarees pulled over knees scraped from tree-climbing, and with a jam jar in one hand and a net in the other, I was ready to go off tadpoling, catching the little critters with sticklebacks before releasing them when it was time to go home. One year, my father let me keep a few of the tadpoles I had caught so that I could watch them grow. The trusty jam jar, not longer looking sad and empty, was placed on my windowsill with an array of other natural objects – a tiny bird’s skull, a shark’s tooth, pebbles and twigs. I would watch the jar carefully, drawing out its contents into notebooks with bright colours and bold sweeps of a pencil. I would think of all the famous frogs and toads from my storybooks – Toad of Toad Hall from The Wind in the Willows, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad, and all the fairytales that promised a magical transformation if I plucked up the courage to kiss one. Every morning sleepy legs were pulled out of bed and directed to the jar, marking how the hind legs grew out of the body, from tiny lumps at the back reaching further and further out like strange tendrils until they became spindly limbs. I watched the tail shrink and googly eyes grow, until that black blob of cells became a minute, perfectly formed, creature. And then they would grow mischievous, escaping out of the jar and dancing across the window sill and its keep-sake obstacles to the sounds of my mother’s horrified gasps ad my delighted giggles. When that happened, we released them into the wild, to live lives taking after one of the storybooks sitting on my bookshelf.
Luckily, my experience of these wonderful creatures was much happier than Seamus Heaney’s, whose poem Death of a Naturalist I’ll finish with. I have always loved this poem despite being unable to relate to it – my inner naturalist has always indeed been alive and kicking! So much for the ‘plop’ and ‘slap’, I have always found frogs and toads to be charming and delicate delicate little creatures, bodies and flesh like wet tissue paper clumped over a hair-breadth wire carcass. But anyway, I think it’s time for me to get back to my essays, so here is his beautiful poem.
Death of a Naturalist
All the year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampots full of the jellied
Specks to range on the window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like snails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
– Seamus Heaney