Requiem for spring peepers

Spring PeeperSpring peepers are to the amphibian world what robins are to the bird world.  As their name implies, they begin emitting their familiar sleigh-bell-like chorus right around the beginning of spring, when the calls of the males fill the evening air to entice females.   Found in wooded areas and grassy lowlands near ponds and swamps in the central and eastern parts of Canada and the United States, these tiny, well-camouflaged amphibians are rarely seen.

But they are certainly heard!

They mate and lay their eggs in water and spend the rest of the year in the forest. In the winter, they hibernate under logs or behind loose bark on trees, waiting for the spring thaw and their chance to sing.

[From the National Geographic website]

Thirty years ago, when we lived on the very outskirts of town, one of the joys of drifting off to sleep at night was the accompanying serenade of the spring peepers in our neighbourhood.   This ecstatic chorus reverberating through the night air never failed to lift my heart.

Most mornings I got up before dawn for my morning exercise run before the start of my work day.  As I pumped my way along the dark streets, I often met raccoons, or skunks, or rabbits – and once, even a fox!  Bats dipped and wheeled overhead as they caught the insects that made up their nightly feasts.  It was a deep, quiet, happy world; and on the days when I met fellow denizens of this world, I considered my outing a huge success.

Today our town continues to push its boundaries relentlessly outward, gobbling up fields and woods and replacing them with a maze of subdivisions, leaving me stranded in a sea of houses – and just incidentally forcing whatever wildlife manages to survive the tree-cutting and construction farther and farther back into increasingly confined spaces.

A few years back, my husband and I found a new “outskirts” just a short drive from our home, a small wooded area with a trail that followed a stream north of the street where we parked, on the edge of fields that hadn’t yet been paved and built upon.  The stream bed cut under the road and continued on to the south, but the south path was all backyard fences on one side, and bare fields on the other.

On the north side, however, if we didn’t look beyond the trees and bushes, it was easy to imagine that we were indeed “far from the madding crowd” – the factories and offices a mere few hundred feet away on the other side of our path.  If we were lucky, we would catch a glimpse of one of the deer that lived across the field on the other side, or a beaver sliding soundlessly into the water.

Every spring, as we walked the north path looking for signs of the beavers that had made their home there, or hoping to spot a deer before it leapt away, we would hear the ear-splitting chorus of what must have been thousands of the tiny peepers singing their hearts out for love.  It was breathtaking, enchanting, and very nearly deafening!

Winter BeautyThis winter, though, the city decided that the stream must be rerouted because it was somehow causing problems for one of the nearby manufacturers.  All winter long, the north path was closed as heavy machinery dug up the stream and a steady convoy of trucks hauled the earth away.

TeaselsSo we began to walk the south path instead.  If it wasn’t wooded, at least it was paved and lined with grasses and weeds that I find beautiful in their blonde winter guise.

One afternoon last week, as we were taking a brief walk along the south path, we heard…what was that?  Could it possibly be…?  It was…yes, spring peepers!  Oh, nothing like the immense chorus that used to greet us on the north path.  This was a few – pitifully few – hardy little frogs that had managed to escape the clutches of the digging equipment on the north path and migrate downstream to find new homes.

Oh, how I hope they manage to gain a foothold in this new location!

As humankind’s lust for ever bigger and ever more rages on, our structures edge farther and farther into every nook and cranny of the natural world, in the process displacing – and killing – more and more of the indigenous wildlife.  Builders tear down before they build, levelling land and removing trees, razing the homes of animals and birds and insects, all the creatures that make up the ecology of a place.

As a Buddhist, I try not to kill the creatures that share my world – but of course that doesn’t mean I don’t.  In the winter, putting spiders outdoors is not a kindness, and I simply can’t share my living space with ants or earwigs at any time of the year.  But I mostly leave the occasional small insect that wanders into my space alone, and it moves on, never to be seen again.

So I suppose it could be called a case of a small pot (named Susannah) calling a much larger kettle (called urban growth) black.  But mindfulness of the tiny lives that are at my individual mercy in my own home has made me mindful of the life-and-death struggle of the birds and animals with which we share this world, to survive our constant depredations.

And I know this much:  our modern brick and mortar buildings sit on arid and lifeless land left behind by builders, with thin layers of topsoil disguising every kind of non-biodegradable construction debris mere inches beneath, where we grow grass (which requires large amounts of water to maintain) and shrubs and a few new trees, solely for decoration.

There are fewer and fewer songbirds in the suburbs now, replaced by hardier bird species that have managed to adapt to increasingly difficult conditions.

And spring peepers in my back yard are a thing of the past.

Requiescant in pace, my tiny friends.  I’m so sorry.