Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate
reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and
shapes of an animate earth—our eyes have evolved in
subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned
by their very structure to the howling of wolves and
the honking of geese.
—David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, 1997/2017
Driving to Earth Place nature preserve on a warm afternoon in April, Matthew, my soon to be seven-year-old grandson, and I were planning to hunt frogs. The spring peepers had begun to chorus, a vivid reminder for us of last summer’s captures at the pond in the heart of the woodlands.
“Remember when we caught that giant frog?” Matthew asked, belted in, passenger side, in the back. I glimpsed him in the rearview mirror, baseball cap pushing his brown bangs into his eyebrows and his alert expression exuding what I recognized as a hunting-mode glint.
I nodded at the memory. We’d seen a huge bullfrog basking on a rock at the edge of a feeder stream to the pond. It took Matthew four tries to nab it. The first few times he closed in, the frog slipped into the water, swimming to the other side.
“I used a snap trap.”
Another glimpse in the rearview revealed Matthew demonstrating his technique, putting his palms together and opening and closing his hands. “I caught him in the air!”
True enough—the frog was mid-leap.
Matthew’s cheeks flushed with the memory of what he considered an all-time best capture. He often reminded me that frogs of massive proportions had predated dinosaurs in evolutionary history. His admiration for the length of their presence on earth, however, did not mitigate the intensity of his catch and cage instinct. Yet he appreciated they were still around unlike the giant reptiles whose extinction troubled him.
“Not one left?” he’d ask about once a month.
“Not one,” I always answered, watching his hopeful expression drain.
The nature center covered 62-acres, the largest open-space territory between Matthew’s town and mine on the coast of Connecticut. Wetlands surrounded the pond, making it an ideal breeding place for the peepers. During the last month, solo calls of these small frogs could be heard near Matthew’s house in the late afternoon. As the evening wore on, however, and more frogs joined the ensemble, their anthem, a full throated choir celebrating the dark warmth of a spring evening, became orchestral, a continuous quavering of sonorous chirrups and peeps.
I had reservations about Matthew and me invading the frog sanctuary, but I didn’t let on. Since age three, he’d noticed how many outdoor creatures moved under their own power and instinctively, it seemed to me, adopted a hunting demeanor when we walked the woods. He loved to stalk his prey—frogs, toads, butterflies, fireflies, worms, ants, spiders. Poised next to an unsuspecting target, he moved with a quickness and precision that belied his age. He had no intention to kill. Quite the contrary. He desperately wanted to apprehend. His eagerness could lead to mishaps. What gnawed my conscience was the dislocation of creatures from their habitats and disrupting their lives. One time last summer we transported our captured frogs to a makeshift habitat on my patio for a week of observation, intending to return them to the pond the following Saturday. We covered the opening with a screen, secured overnight with a rock. Our refuge offered no defense against the crafty raccoons who lived in the oak nearby. Mid-week, I found the rock removed and the remains of only one boney frog leg on the patio floor. Matthew stiffened when I relayed the news. But I did not detect any censure of us or the raccoons; rather, he exuded a stoicism and acceptance that this was the way of life for these creatures, the conditions that defined their lives. Especially, I noted silently, when removed from their habitats.
My family lived on a small farm in southern Pennsylvania until I was seventeen. Life outdoors was a given, wandering a mile in any direction a daily activity: to the pond up the road, along the edge of the stream on an adjacent property, or to the neighbor’s barn to check on the litters of kittens. I delighted in the varieties of plants and animals, sharing my time with creatures bigger, smaller, buzzing, mooing, sweet smelling, or foul. But I couldn’t recall wildlife capture as a particular focus.
Still, I found myself drawn to Matthew’s fixation. The gleam in his eye and the alertness of his senses were contagious. I imitated him, slipping easily to my knees, tensing my muscles and training my gaze on our prey. Most weeks, the two of us spent a day and an overnight together at my home. Simply being with Matthew meant more time closer to the ground. He walked while I half crawled or crouched, straightening and bending, as we stealthily searched for toads nesting at the base of the Hosta plants covering the hillside behind my house.
We learned to set up secure cages and terrariums on my back patio, to observe our hostages up close for several days. As might be expected, Matthew, the passionate catcher, was a reluctant releaser. That was my rule. Frogs along with the toads that lived in my garden appeared to be on their way to extinction, a prediction I’d not shared with Matthew. I was aware amphibians were considered by many to be an indicator species in the sense of a barometer of the health of the planet.
I convinced myself that Rachel Carson would approve of our adventures. “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder,” she writes, “he needs the companionship of a least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” I cherished my time as a companion on Matthew’s expeditions. ~
At the nature center, I parked the car close to the trail head and dug out Matthew’s snow boots from the trunk. The ground was always wet and muddy around the pond. I piled several plastic containers, a sand bucket, and a butterfly net into a canvas bag and slipped it over my shoulder.
As we entered the trail, the immersion in the outdoors took over; the animate world folding us into itself. This would be our home for the next few hours: the breeze, the scampering of a tribe of squirrels in branches overhead, the smell of decaying leaves, the overhead canopy filtering shafts of light. I set my cell to audio record, something I did often when the prospects of an adventure appeared especially fruitful.
Within minutes, we reached the pond, its water nearly overflowing its rim. Off shore was a tiny island where on a previous visit we’d seen a pair of Mallards building a nest. Matthew had spotted them half hidden in the tall grasses. They were still, their eyes on us.
“The mother is the brown one?” he asked.
“Yes, the dad is the one with the beautiful green head and black tail. The mother is brownish and grayish.”
“Are they mammals?”
“No, they’re birds. Birds lay eggs.”
The Mallards were quiet, but, then, so were the peepers. I walked along the water’s edge to the end of the small wooden bridge that spanned the feeder stream to the pond and crossed over to the other side.
Matthew followed, watching me expectantly. “Do you know where a frog is?”
I shook my head and stared hard at the water, searching for frog noses poking above the surface. That was how we’d detected them last summer. I crouched down and peered into the shallow water. “Hey guys, where are you?” I whispered.
Slowly, it dawned that I’d miscalculated. We were too early. The peeper chorus signaled mating season, the call to action. The frogs and their progeny would not be visible in the pond for several weeks. Should I share the news?
A loud rat-a-tat-tat sounded in the tree above us.
“That’s a woodpecker,” Matthew whispered as he scanned the branches above us.
“Listen, there’s something else making noise.”
Matthew looked in the direction of the sound, and then lifted his head and let out a trill—high and light—amazingly similar to what we’d just heard in pitch and tone and powered by a roll from the back of his throat. He must have listened closely to the spring peepers chorusing near his home.
“I recognize that sound for a peeper,” he said.
I smiled at his arcane phrasing. What 19th century text had he been exposed to? Arcane or not, his recognition of a peeper call would not change the fact that a capture was almost certainly out of the question. At this point, these creatures were little more than an inch long and nearly impossible to detect amidst the tall grasses and woodland debris.
The male Mallard joined us, foraging at the water’s edge. Matthew narrowed his eyes.
“You want to catch one of those ducks?” he said, twirling the butterfly net as he watched the female join the male.
“No, it would be so frightened. Remember we saw the two of them working so hard, building their nest?”
“Guarding their eggs.”
“Yes. It would be mean to capture one because then the other would be all alone.”
“How about we catch both of them and the eggs?” He dragged the net through the water.
Was he joking? The Mallard swam closer to the edge of the pond, his eyes on us, probably looking for a handout. A glance at Matthew’s solemn expression told me he was dead serious. He raised the net. I put my hand over his.
“Even if it were possible, the Mallards would need a pond or stream to live in. I don’t have either in my yard.”
Matthew didn’t say anything. Annoyed, he turned away and went back over the bridge, with me holding the net. ~
I sat down on a nearby rock as he disappeared into the tall grasses. A good time to allow a little space between the two of us. I’d wrestled with whether to share the prediction for amphibian extinction with Matthew, the same fate as his beloved dinosaurs. Well aware of the meteorite collision as instigator of their demise, he’d begun to pose the possibility of whether a similar end might be in store for us. I didn’t know how to answer him. The delicate reciprocity with earthly life-forms described by David Abram still seemed in formation with Matthew, his sense of wonder in need of buffering against predictions of loss. I didn’t want to risk short-circuiting his instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, to interrupt the apparent deepening of his intuition that a living network connected all the animals, including him. There would be time enough in his future to construe the missing threads in our Earth’s organic web.
I could make out the top of Matthew’s baseball cap above the grasses. His head bobbed up for a moment and then withdrew.
“I’m gonna ambush ’em,” he stage-whispered, “like an Allosaurus.” A pause before his voice floated out from deep within the grasses. “I smell a frog. Do you?”
I didn’t say anything, as I retraced my steps over the bridge to join Matthew. Just as I arrived, there were several clear quick trills nearby. Matthew stood up and scrutinized the grasses. Several more peeps followed. He turned in the direction of the sounds, lifted his head, tipped it back, and delivered one of his trills. The peeper answered, and Matthew gave another trill. Back and forth it went, Matthew and the unseen frogs talking to each other. I stood stone still, afraid any movement might interrupt the exchange. Another bird that I couldn’t identify began to sing, its song a kind of vibrato, an alternating high and low pitch—clear and beautiful.
“They’re talking to me,” Matthew whispered.
They were. No other way to describe it.
“Now I’m going to do a lower sound.” He produced a guttural tremolo and a woodpecker seemed to answer him.
I looked up. “The birds are talking too,” I said, staggered by the realization this was as real a conversation as there could ever be among the birds, the frogs, and Matthew. As close as I’d ever been with the wildlife surrounding me. Their exchanges belonged together, a spectrum of vibrations linked in sound and sentiment.
“They must think I’m a grown up,” Matthew said, apparently enjoying the idea of mistaken identity, invisible as we were to one another (at least they were to us). Since his trills appeared to bring responses, perhaps he sounded like a robust and worthy mating-partner.
He took my hand. “You try it.”
Trill the way he was doing? I stared at his flushed face, his encouraging gaze. He felt I could respond the way he did. I opened my mouth and closed it, unable to locate a peeper trill. Growing up and growing old had brought a self-consciousness that made it impossible for me to join the conversation, my sense of wonder too battered to trill.
If there was a wish I harbored as a kid, it was to talk to the animals and to hear them respond. I mooed, barked, neighed, clucked, and crowed with abandon. The chasm between who I’d become and who I used to be had never seemed so wide. I heard Rachel Carson chiding me: “Learn again, by using your eyes, ears, nostrils and fingertips, opening up the disused channels of sensory impression.” I couldn’t risk it. I might contaminate the exchange. Matthew would have to speak for me. I squeezed his hand and shook my head.
Matthew turned toward the far end of the pond, the source of the peeps. “We can’t see them, but at least we get to talk to them.”
“A perfect way to put it,” I breathed. And I’d been worried about sharing the vulnerability of this species with him? The strength of his connection to the life around us seemed as if he may very well be more ready than I to contemplate that reality.
When light began to fade, I suggested we start back. Matthew produced several trills mixed with words. I asked what he said. He told me he promised the peepers he would visit again. He ran ahead and turned around for a last look. “The animals are loving me.”
“Yes, they are, and talking more now than before.”
“Maybe about me, how nice I am.” He explained to them why we were leaving—that he needed to have dinner. “I’m just a kid. And you’re grown-ups.” He paused. “Though I’m still bigger.” Then he introduced me. “This is my grandma. She’s older than full grown.”
“Now and again,” Scott Russell Sanders writes, “a wild poet such as Blake may still converse with tigers, or a rare shaman such as Black Elk may still converse with buffaloes.” But he reminds us, we no longer speak the universal language: “Our ears have been stopped up. Our lips are sealed.” There I was, my lips wrapped, clamped, vocal cords too long separated from communing with the animate earth in ways that could keep alive the feeling of oneness I’d gloried in as a kid.
Could a greater miracle take place than that the sense of self we have when we arrive on Earth be kept alive as we mature into adults? And if it weakens as it has with me, can it be regained? The next time, would I be able to join the conversation? Perhaps it was too late. I’ve been separated too long from my younger self, too long complicit with the rest of my country, ignoring the cries of help from planet life and expressing my denial of the crisis by saying very little, too often nothing at all.
If we’d stuck around, who knows, Matthew’s trills might have led him to a peeper discovery, even a capture. What amazed me was that talking to the animals trumped capture. Long ago this kind of exercise, listening, watching, imitating the animals, was necessary for the skilled hunter. David Abram describes how this was the case when there were no guns, requiring a hunter to get close to his prey, “not just physically but emotionally, empathetically entering into proximity with the other animal’s ways of sensing and experiencing.”
Matthew’s peeps revealed his instinctive feelings for these woodland creatures. I was lucky to have him as my companion. His excitement and awe gave the kiss of renewal to my aging spirit, stirring and revving the connections that used to come so easily.
We were almost at the trail entrance. Matthew trilled his final good-byes and began talking in subdued tones.
“What are you saying?”
“I’m just talking. ‘Cause I’m just trying to think what they are saying.”
Matthew climbed into the back seat and continued to murmur to his buddies as if he meant it strictly between him and them. The last thing I overheard before starting the car:
“You want to go to the beach?” he asked.
“Where’s that?” he answered as one of them.
“Not far,” he said.
As I eased the car onto the road home and Matthew’s talk became entirely muffled, it occurred to me that, unlike indigenous people, his main motivation as hunter was to make friends with his prey, the stakes for survival in his lifetime more dependent on alliance and sharing lives than extermination.
“Did you hear that peeper?” Matthew asked from the back.
We were stopped at an intersection, the car windows open.
“Yes, I did.”
“There it goes again.”
I glanced at him in the rearview. He gave me hope, that his wonder might stay with him into the future and mine might be reignited.
Linda Stallman Gibson’s career as an early childhood teacher and professor of education at Queens College, CUNY ended just as grandmother-hood and full-time writing began. She earned her MFA in 2016 from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is completing a memoir based on recordings of games, storytelling, and conversations with her grandson Matthew during his year in second grade. This essay is excerpted from that manuscript. Recent publications: Pushcart nominated essay, “Partners,” Centered: A Magazine of Personal Stories, spring 2019; and “Surviving,” Creative Nonfiction: True Stories, Well Told. Issue 72, fall 2019, in press.
© 2020, Linda Stallman Gibson