Who will blink first?

It may seem untimely, and perhaps a little odd, but a leaf blown across the grass in a manner that strongly resembled that of a lolloping frog or a toad reminded me the other day that I haven’t seen one of these clunky little amphibians for a couple of years or more. I wouldn’t expect to see one now, of course, as they tend to hide under piles of leaves and other debris during the winter, but for them to have been more or less absent all year in a place that boasts a long stretch of the river Avon, four lakes and two shallow ponds, plus an ornamental pool, seems to support what the current research suggests, that there is something seriously wrong with our  Anuran friends.

Ten years ago I lived in a house that had a small pond in the garden which backed on to a wood. Every spring the pond was chock-a-block  full of copulating toads and their resultant offspring. The pond was so small that in warm weather we had to keep topping it up with water from the hose – probably not a good measure as tap water isn’t the best for wildlife or plants, though it could have been far worse.

Among the chief culprits for the decline in frogs and toads is the widespread use of chemicals and fertilisers as a routine part of farming and grassland management. It’s true that these are far less indiscriminately destructive than they used to be, but anything that attacks the insects that frogs and toads feed upon is bad for them. Road traffic and suburban developments all help to give them a hard time.

A frog is the centrepiece of one of the most famous of all haiku, by Basho, which has been translated many times from the Japanese. This is one of my favourite versions:

old pond
a frog jumps in
sound of water

Basho lived in the 17th century, when no doubt there was a lot more wildlife about. My own, slightly cynical, interpretation might now run something like this:

old pond
only the wind
disturbs the water

Frogs and toads have a long established place in world mythology, taking on many roles. Key to this is their ability to radically transform themselves as a natural part of their life cycle. Anyone who has watched a tadpole change from a small fish-like creature to one that gradually acquires legs and then becomes the perfect miniature of its adult self might be forgiven for thinking they are witnessing a few million years of evolution before their very eyes. Perhaps for this reason they are often associated with stories of transformation. One of the most famous is the frog prince, who was transformed by a princess into a handsome lover. However, it is only in modern versions that he is transformed by a kiss: in the much darker version by the Brothers Grimm he is changed by being thrown against a wall by the petulant and ungrateful princess.

Frogs and toads are often portrayed as lowly creatures, sometimes disguising inner beauty behind their ugliness. But they are just as likely to be associated with those damp and dismal places that lie close to our hearts:

Oh, curse of marriage
That we can call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapor of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others’ uses.

(Othello Act 3, Scene 3)

A more benevolent, but no less subtle view of our amphibian cousins is held by another Japanese master of the haiku form, Kobayashi Issa (d 1828).

locked in a staring contest
and a frog

At the moment of this poem’s composition, which he noted in his diary as “sitting alone”, he realises he is not alone. He and the frog sit as equals.*

Another of his poems, well known in Japan, is this one:

scrawny frog,
hang tough!
Issa is here

Issa records in his diary that the poem originated from a scene he witnessed in which two frogs were fighting, one gaining the upper hand on the other. The poem might be interpreted as suggesting that he is about to spring to the weaker frog’s rescue; but it might equally be taken to evoke Issa’s sympathy for the creature.**

Even as I read this and share in that sympathy, I’m reminded once again of changes that neither Basho nor Issa, nor any of the writers of the past, knew anything of:

these frogs and toads     distant croaking

* Lanoue, David G.. Issa and the Meaning of Animals: A Buddhist Poet’s Perspective (Kindle Locations 227-230). HaikuGuy.com. Kindle Edition.

** See Lanoue, David G.. Issa and the Meaning of Animals: A Buddhist Poet’s Perspective (Kindle Location 504). HaikuGuy.com. Kindle Edition.

Picture ‘Der Frosche und seine Freunde’… by Denis, Flickr Creative Commons



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