"What else can you do with frogs that've been dead since 1972?" Asked my twelve-year-old nephew when he learned of an attempt to stop dissection of frogs in the Bend, Oregon, school district. His response to the animal rights group's suit leaps the larger issue of why were the frogs initially preserved, and lands on the practical observation that dead frogs have few uses. Dissection seems the most logical. But I wonder if students have to dissect frogs to understand them. I remember my high school biology class. With scalpel and pins, I opened a frog drowned in formaldehyde. Bright pink organs in the textbook transparencies were tiny balls of gray mush in the frog. Although I got an A for the section, I don't recall anything I learned, other than not to slip a dead frog into a girl's hand when she wears pointed shoes; my shins hurt for a week. I learned more about frogs the spring I was eleven.
We lived in Boring, Oregon, then, and Sputnik dominated current events that school year. Months after the satellite's launch, old men still sat on the elevated porch of the country store, waiting for the beep-beeps every hour and a half. They wondered aloud about whether the town ought to build a Civil Defense shelter.
I hung around with Mark Buxton, the storekeeper's son, played softball on a church-league team for a church I never attended, and spent every evening after practice along the shore of the local millpond. A small creek ran from the pond, through the south edge of town and down a still-wild canyon to Deep Creek. I knew every foot of the creek and of the bank around the pond as well as I knew the basepath from home to first. I hit .800 that spring; I thought that someday I'd be another Hank Aaron.
Man-made, the pond was blue-black from tannic acid. Sunken logs covered much of its bottom. Stumps of the firs originally growing in the draw hadn't been removed. With still-evident springboard notches, the rotting stumps stuck up like snags, one every twenty-five yards or so. Sapling firs, some fifteen feet tall, grew from the snags, their roots destroying the trunks giving them life. Slabs of watersoaked bark, stained black, lay in the shallows and on the bank closest to where the pond continued to be used as a log dump. The sawmill was located at the west end. When a bandsaw had replaced the double circular saw headrig, the mill began to dry-deck its logs; so only an occasional truck still rolled its load into the bruised water.
The upper or east end of the pond supported a recovering aquatic ecosystem. To me, that meant catchable numbers of bullfrogs, springer frogs, tadpoles, a large population of bullhead catfish and a few native cutthroat trout with vivid red slashes under their gills. The acidity of the water seemed to enhance the cutthroats' coloring. Their spots were, if possible, darker black than those of the fish in the creek. The frogs were certainly darker colored.
Using a flyrod I paid four dollars for at the neighborhood second-hand store, I caught my first trout in the pond, and I tortured scores of waterdogs [Oregon newts] that grabbed my crude nymphs. But I went to the millpond every evening mostly to check on the frogs, or rather, to check the masses of frog eggs clinging to the limbs and bark of the warming shallows, then to check the teeming tadpoles' development of legs and lungs. Just before Sputnik's launch, I read an article about splitting frog eggs so that the frogs developed six legs. The article intrigued me. I could hardly wait until I had the chance to split an egg.
Dad died in January. Heart attack. So as the oldest of five children, I had greater freedom and responsibility thrust upon me than most eleven-year-olds. The pond was the haven where I escaped being grown up, yet not. While Mom tried to put her life together and provide the necessities with too little money, I waded in the shallows, filling pickle jars with frog eggs. I sat on the muddy bank, my fishing pole propped on a forked alder branch, and watched catfish follow caddis nymphs to the surface as trout do. I didn't know then what they were doing; I only knew that I couldn't catch anything when they were dimpling the surface all across the pond.
Although disgusted by copulating waterdogs, I wondered what it'd be like to touch a girl. I picked bouquets of blue camas blossoms and wild iris where they grew between forgotten lumber stacks, but I was ashamed to be seen carrying flowers home. Always, though, I caught frogs. Now, mostly bullfrogs instead of the smaller springers. Only my reason shifted for why I caught them. I no longer caught them for fun though that was why I did. I caught them to eat, but we didn't eat them. We gave their legs to a neighbor lady.
I carried home a sloshing jar half full of frog eggs sometime in late January or early February--western Oregon winters are mild and gray so the month doesn't mean much. The eggs were half of the first mass I located that spring. I wasn't sure of the species, but thought the eggs were springers'. I didn't want bullfrog eggs. Their tadpoles take two years to develop, and I couldn't wait that long for a six-legged frog. And I was very scientific. By leaving half of the mass in the pond, I had a check on how mine were developing.
The kitchen drainboard served as my lab table. I waited to split my first egg until Mom wasn't home.
Frog eggs aren't the easiest things to handle. They're slippery; yet, they stick to everything. But using a teaspoon, I separated one egg from the mass, laid it on the cutting board, and carefully pulled a long, red hair, my sister's, I imagine, into its nucleus.
I didn't know how far I should cut into the nucleus. I barely pulled the hair into the first egg. The second egg I cut in two and had to throw away. And I had either cut or nicked a couple dozen nuclei before I heard Mom pull into the driveway.
Satisfied that I had enough to hatch a six-legged frog, I set the gallon jar with the altered eggs on the kitchen window sill while I hastily cleaned up the drainboard. But moms always know when sons have been up to something. Mine made me dump the frog eggs still sitting on the drainboard. She probably would've made me dump the others if she'd noticed them on the windowsill.
I smuggled the gallon jar out of the kitchen. Not daring to take it to my room, I hid the jar in a corner of the barn, really a single-story shed where the previous owners of the house kept their horses. Still, it was the center of neighborhood activity. Mark Buxton and I played catch across the manure pile. My brother and I played war there, throwing rotten apples and walnuts covered with manure at each other. Everyone dug worms under the edge of the manure pile. And I used manure to keep the eggs in the gallon jar warm.
With the eggs in the barn, most of the boys in my class knew about my experiment. The eggs didn't look different than before. Black dots in balls of clear jelly. Except for Mark, the other boys lost interest in them long before they hatched. But he and I checked the eggs daily, often several times a day. We lugged water from the pond after ball practice, and we were disappointed when the eggs in the shallows developed tails. Nothing seemed to be happening in the jar. Even Mark's interest waned when little legs appeared on the tadpoles in the pond.
Finally, a tail appeared on one egg in the jar. Not just one tail, but two. Using Mom's soup ladle, I transferred the soon-to-be-tadpole to a quart jar of its own. I was elated. I had done it. I'd altered nature.
But only the one egg developed. The others rotted.
Do we have to kill frogs to understand frogness? Or do we kill frogs to understand ourselves?
The tadpole developed much more slowly than its unaltered siblings. Whereas the tadpoles in the pond swam around preying on organisms too small for me to see, my tadpole had trouble swimming with two tails. In the pond, the tadpoles rapidly developed hindlegs, then stumps of frontlegs. Mine grew very little, though its two tails lengthened. I felt strangely attached to the tadpole, and checked it several times every morning and many more times each evening. I changed its water daily, tried to find insect larvae to feed it, but never felt I was doing enough. Not only did I want a six-legged frog, I wanted this tadpole to make it, to prove a scientific experiment, to prove that I could do what the other boys didn't believe possible.
Although I was in fifth grade, I was the biggest kid in grade school, taller than any of the eighth-graders, taller than all of the teachers. I used a 38-ounce bat, too big for even me according to the coaches: I hit a lot of balls to right field because I wasn't getting around fast enough. But I wouldn't give the bat up. I closed my stance, and hit a lot more balls to right field. And I closed out the world that said you can't do this, can't do that. After all, I hit .800 that spring, more than double Hank Aaron's average. And my tadpole was growing. Slow, yes. Deformed, yes. But it was growing.
The Royal Ann cherry tree next to the barn bloomed. The neighbor's bees worked its blossoms. Mom expected to have a good crop of cherries, but a late freeze wiped out the fruit buds. And killed my tadpole. I was careless. I hadn't packed manure around the jar; I thought the danger of frost was over.
If we kill frogs, will we understand ourselves?
We moved from Boring that summer. I haven't seen the pond for more than 30 years, but I still remember its tranquility. Frogs croaking. The occasional splash of the bass I couldn't catch. The buzz of dragonflies, damsel flies. Hatches of mayflies and caddis flies. I also remember a girl pitcher who struck me out three times in one game. I couldn't get around on her fast ball.
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