Saturday, February 18, 2012
Farm Bulletin: Who's Minding the Frogs?
One of the reasons that I reprint the marvelous essays that Anthony Boutard sends to his market mailing list is because of his ability to capture the ineffable quality of the land and the creatures that live on it, creatures that he and his wife Carol have worked diligently to bring back to Ayers Creek Farm. His keen eye, his wit and his passion for the farm, as well as his concern for its well-being, as expressed in this essay, give glimpses into a world so close by but that we rarely hear about.
Fourteen years ago this month, we made an offer on the 144 acres that has become Ayers Creek Farm. We followed the excellent advice of Cato the Censor regarding the most important considerations in purchasing a farm: water, roads and neighbors (aquam, viam, vicinum). Although Cato was thinking of the other farms as the neighbors, for us the Y-shaped draw that cuts through the farm is now an important part of our neighborhood. Flanked by ancient Garry oaks, Douglas firs, a couple of madrones, big-leaf maples, hawthorns and service berries, this is the marrow of the farm. In using "marrow," both senses of the word apply: the life-sustaining core of the farm's bones and, in old English vernacular, a partner or spouse.
In the wet soil at the base of the draw, a healthy population of red legged and tree frogs developed. They migrated out into the oak savannah and the cropped fields during the summer and early autumn. Dozens made their home around the house, seeking shelter in the shiplap siding during the day. They were constantly underfoot. Many came inside with the house plants, and we enjoyed their calls during the winter. The large, phlegmatic salamanders (Pacific ambystomas) also started appearing in the fields. The increasing populations of these amphibians validated our management efforts. We have come to terms with the fact that farming is necessarily disruptive of natural communities, but having the reinvigorated marrow of the farm offsetting our activities is a balm.
In July, when we started harvesting greens for market, we noticed the frogs had almost disappeared. Where we would disturb a dozen or more frogs any other year, we were lucky to see just one, and it was invariably small. The fields were silent, none of their rasping calls. In the evening we noticed that even the bull frogs in the wetland had ceased calling. We searched the siding: the smudges where the frogs crawled in and out remained, but there were no green faces staring at us – an eerie Mary Celeste moment. We asked Zenón if he noticed anything different with the frogs. He shrugged his shoulders and said he thought there were plenty. Two days later, when he was working in the sweet potatoes, prime tree frog habitat, he called us over and said we were right, they had gone. When I had a moment, I went down the the ditch below the poplars, another reliable frog habitat, and the Leopard and Bull frogs were also missing. We decided to wait and see if things changed; it was a cool spring.
Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson's Silent Springwarned us to pay attention to the damage we do to the world around us. The book was elegantly written, and carefully research and documented. Sadly, half a century later, Carol and I are waiting anxiously to see if the frog ponds remain silent this spring. We seem to be alone in this vigil, getting blank stares when we raise the matter, and I have hesitated to even broach the subject in a newsletter though it gnawed at me for months. Bees have their beekeepers and birds have their birdwatchers to sound the alarm when all is not right. Someone has to mind the frogs.
Photos (excepting the frog on the bean leaf) by Anthony Boutard. Track the progress of the owl family with the Great Horned Owl Follow-Up and Leaving the Nest.