Monday, January 13, 2014

All the World in a Vernal Pool

On a warming afternoon toward the end of March last spring, I heard the first calls from a population of wood frogs that collect in a series of vernal pools on the northwest side of my property.  Their duck-like quacking, along with the appearance of the mourning cloak butterflies, and the spearing heads of skunk cabbage in the local swamps, is a reliable indication of advent of true spring. But the last few years have been uncertain. Dry spells have become more common even in spring, and for whatever reason, the pools have been drying out earlier than usual, threatening the year’s crop of frogs. Last spring was the worst of these of these years.

   The season started well enough; the snows melted, the ice went out of the pools and the wood frogs arrived on schedule and began calling. By April I could see the little clouds of jellied eggs floating freely or attached to submerged twigs and branches.  But around mid April the rains ceased and we entered into a dry spell, coupled with some strange unseasonably high temperatures. The pond edges began to shrink. The heat and drought continued into May and soon enough, it looked like the pools would dry out even before the eggs hatched.

 I’m not sure of the legality, or even the wisdom of what followed, but I set out on a campaign to rescue at least a segment of the population. I have three different ornamental pools in my garden, two of them heavily vegetated, and one deep enough to maintain cool waters.  So little by little I began collecting eggs from the vernal pools and moving them to my own pools. I had help in this from a willing five year old.  Three or four times a week we would carry a net and buckets to the vernal pools, scoop up a mass of eggs and carry them back to the garden. We continued this rescue operation all through M

   And all the while the heat and the drought, wore on and the pools dimished day by day, foot by foot, leaving a surround of wet vegetation.  Nonetheless at some point during that month some of the eggs hatched; I could see the little tadpoles in the deeper water, the boy and I would wait and watch for wriggling ripples in the still waters, and scoop them out with the nets.  These too we carried back to the garden pools.
 As the vernal pools dried, our rescue operation began to take on a bit of a desperate maneuver.  By June, with still no significant rain, the center of the pools were no more than mud puddles, teeming with wriggling tadpoles. Beyond these pools in the drying leaves we could find multitudes of dead tadpoles..
 Finally as far as we could tell, there were no more struggling tadpoles in the former pools the mass of some, they were all either saved by us, or dead.
 Meanwhile the ones we had rescued thrived. Slowly over the month of June and early July the tadpoles grew legs.    The only way to check their progress was to net them and watch the growth of their legs and the slow shrinking of their tails. Happily there seemed to be fewer and fewer in the nets when I scooped them out. --- presumably a good sign. They were making their way out into the wild world.
 In late summer, along with the usual adults that seem to appear at the end of summer each year. I began spotting tiny wood frogs, more than I usually would.  Presumably our rescue had worked.
 I see a metaphor in all this. Without our intervention, that season’s crop of local frogs would not have thrived, thereby decreasing, however slightly the number of wood frogs in the world.  The adults who originally laid the eggs, will  probably return to their native ponds this year, and the year after.  But in an increasingly warming planet, and the associated odd vagaries of the weather, who knows how long that population would last. So our efforts, for the time being, were justified.
 But  in a sense, the world is a vernal pool. The climate is warming, habitats are disappearing worldwide,  populations of wild things are shrinking, and there are no god-like giants roaming the earth to scoop us up and carry us to a better, more sustainable planet. 
 In effect we are the only ones who can protect ourselves.


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