Ways of Seeing by Rebecca Kneale Gould: Hope springs eternal from peepers
Last week I was poking around a vernal pool in Massachusetts when I heard a late-afternoon sound that I ache to hear every early spring. It was the first few peeps of the spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer for the budding naturalists among you).
Never mind the official calendar that proclaims spring on March 20th. “Really??” we say, shaking our heads as we trudge out for yet another round of scraping ice off the windshield. For me, whatever the date, it is the first discernable peep of the spring peeper that makes me absolutely giddy. Finally, we have it, the amphibian assurance that the season has truly turned.
“That’s them!” our little group exclaimed, ungrammatically and practically in unison. Our voices quieted to a hush while we listened to these tiny frogs chirping away. “David heard them in Pennsylvania last week,” one of my walking companions observed. “I suspect that means at least a week before we hear them in Vermont,” I mused.
Happily, I was wrong. I returned to Vermont the very next night and not long after sunset a little bevy of Monkton-ite peepers started calling to their prospective mates. “Second night?” I queried my spouse who plays in multiple orchestras and has the right ear for distinguishing chamber music peeping from full-on orchestral peeping. “That’s what I’m thinking,” she concurred, “but definitely not the third.”
In the first few nights of any Spring Peeper appearance, one can make out one or two distinct voices with plenty of expectant silences between. Several days in, it begins to sound like a high-pitched competition is unfolding in every available wetland: “Pick Me!” “No, Me!” “Me! Me! Me!” Or so my anthropomorphizing mind suggests. Before you know it, so many (male) peepers join in the mating game that the frog-chorus oddly crescendos and simultaneously resolves into a persistent, underlying hum.
Always eager to discern the very first signs of spring, Henry David Thoreau took a special interest in peepers. On March 31, 1857 he described their call this way in his Journal: “How gradually and imperceptibly the peep … mingles with and swells the volume of sound which makes the voice of awakening nature! If you do not listen carefully for its first note you probably will not hear it — and not having heard [it] your ears become used to the sound so that you will hardly notice it at last however loud and universal.”
I can relate. I rarely miss the first notes because I so eagerly await them. Their calls are so distinct —and I am so excited to hear them — that I find it very hard to get to sleep. But at some imperceptible moment, a shift occurs and the underlying hum becomes a lullaby of sorts. Indeed, in ways that I find hard to describe, I sense that I am truly companioned by these little chirping friends outside my window. It feels lonely when fall arrives and their music fades.
But what is almost as exciting as the arrival of peepers is other peoples’ excitement about it — a thrill that seems particularly robust and contagious in Vermont. “First peeper” reports echo like the high-pitched calls themselves on Facebook and Front Porch Forum. Needless to say, since I could not stop pondering peepers this week, I too sent out a query. “Not in Weybridge yet, but I’ll tell you as soon as I hear them!” one friend reports. “Not yet at 1,500 feet in Cabot,” another chimes in, “we still have a good foot of snow.”
My even-nerdier-than-I-am friend Stephanie went beyond geographical statistics and into the realm of wonderment: “What I think is very cool about spring peepers is that they hibernate [outdoors] and manufacture their own brand of endogenous anti-freeze to survive the winter.” “Truly?” I eagerly plunged into consulting (and consuming) scientific sources, completely ignoring the work that I needed to do in my actual field, which is the humanities.
It turns out that data on this self-freezing frog phenomena abounds. Nevertheless, particular kudos goes to Mollie Flanigan, the Green Mountain Club’s Land Stewardship Coordinator, for explaining amphibian “over-wintering” in particularly accessible language: “As temperatures drop and ice crystals start to form on the frog’s skin, its liver produces glucose, a kind of antifreeze circulated in its blood that prevents its cells from freezing and its tissues from dehydrating. As freezing continues, ice crystals form between the cells of the frog, but not within them. Eventually, the frog stops breathing, and its heart slows to a stop. The frog remains in this frozen state for the entire winter, even through occasional freeze-thaw cycles.” Now that is cool. It also sounds like an excellent way to get through February.
Beyond town-based reports of “yay,” “nay” and “if only they would start!” some of my friends waxed poetic on how it feels once they hear spring peepers arrive. “I will not lie, Becky” my pal from Cabot confessed, “It’s an extravagant joy! I feel like the snow has at last melted off of me and that I have come back to life after months of a semi-comatose existence.” (Clearly, he is in on the “endogenous anti-freeze” facts that seem to have passed me by.)
“It’s like a surprise, a gift, like finding cash in my pocket!” Joanne wrote in from Western Mass. A Connecticut friend jumped into the peeper-praising fray with perhaps the ultimate compliment: “My hilly, backroads drive home from work crosses 10 or 12 wetland areas so the peepers fade in and out over about 15 minutes of my drive. This is the only time of year that I don’t listen to NPR in the car.” Sound advice. And with it should come the reminder to drive slowly this time of year, for humans-in-cars are the absolute biggest threat to our amphibian friends.
For some, the harbingers of spring are the return of the geese, the first heard call of the red-wing blackbird, Opening Day for the Red Sox or Free Cone Day at Ben and Jerry’s. After a long winter — and is there ever a short one? — I celebrate them all. But for me, the peepers are the true sign of spring — a backyard chorus of companions that returns every year to enliven the night.
For more about peepers (and that’s just a start!) a good place to begin is: The Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas Project (vtherpatlas.org). The Herp Atlas Project has been mapping and disseminating information about Vermont’s reptiles and amphibians since the mid-1990s. There you can find charts and maps galore, including a graph of frog calling times. See also greenmountainclub.org/sounds-spring-spring-peepers/.
Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, focusing on comparative religion and the environmental humanities. She lives in Monkton where she tends — and is tended by — a small flock of adorable sheep.
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