Can we spend a few minutes chatting about a frog who is looking for sex in a bathtub and other things we can never understand? Relax. I’m not interested in exploring life after death or the origins of Consciousness. My unknowns are far more basic.
At the downpour end of a day last month I was parked on the cabin porch reveling in the sound of rain on the metal roof. The storm dimpled the surface of a brim-full cast-off cast iron bathtub that serves as a water garden just off the porch. Across the top of the tub rested a flat four-inch board that has been there since a grouse chick that came to drink slipped in and drowned.
As the afternoon light began to fade, a male chorus frog began barking from directly beneath the piece of no-grouse-drowned-on-my-watch lumber. Form eight feet away I frantically began scribbling notes. Every so often Bathtub Frog stopped calling, perhaps spotting the movement of my right elbow or hearing the scritch of pen on paper or just because he needed a break. If chorusing from a bathtub seems absurd, realize that for years he or someone a lot like him has been successfully luring at least one female into this porcelain fiefdom. I know this because every spring there are tadpoles in the tub. Along the way someone taught me enough biology to know that this was not the result of spontaneous frog generation.
Then Bathtub Frog had company. An interloper began calling a few feet from the tub. Bathtub Frog had a low resonant voice. Latecomer was high and squeaky. I couldn’t see Latecomer, but in my mind he was smaller and probably younger. I found him mildly irritating. Bathtub Frog could ribbit at about three times the rate of Latecomer, an impressive difference given the huge energy investment that frogs make to chorus. When Bathtub Frog stopped, Latecomer stopped, and Bathtub Frog always initiated a new round of chorusing. In the world of chorus frogs, males call throughout the breeding season, using their audio presence to attract females and keep rivals at bay. Bathtub Frog's forceful prolonged presence meant he was a stud, even if his chosen circumstances seemed a little ignominious.
The tip of my pen began bleeding questions. Who was Bathtub Frog, anyway? Was he the same animal who was here five years ago? Or was this Bathtub Frog, Jr. or Bathtub Frog III? What is the lifespan of a chorus frog that breeds in old bathtubs and spends the rest of the year in Douglas-fir forest? Was he one of those startled tadpoles I saw a few springs ago, squiggling downward into the submerged vegetation like a sinking black pebble with a tail? Why does he pursue sex in a bathtub? Was he telling Latecomer “join me and we’ll have a great time with the girls tonight”? Or was it more like “if you set foot in this tub I’ll smother you with my distended vocal pouch and you will never again strut your puny stuff”? One question queued another, until the light left the overcast sky and I began to shiver and think that the woodstove and an electric light would be a friendlier writing venue than porch-sitting with two noisy frogs bent on sex.
But the questions don’t stop. Surely we are hard-wired for asking questions, driven by the unknown. Other species ask questions as well. This is how all of us learn. There is always more to learn, and learning more means more questions. If by good fortune or fortitude the answers actually do come, quantum mechanics steps in and tells us that nothing can be known with certainty because reality is adjusted to the eyes of the observer. So we get to ask again, this time taking turns.
Our questions have taken us from fire to the projectile point to the structure of DNA. Science has played its part. I constantly regale my students with questions made up on the fly then stylishly restated as “hypotheses.” I ask them whether these hypotheses are testable. This approach appeals to me because it foists the responsibility for my harebrained ideas onto them. My point really is that science is fueled by wonder and wonder, verb and adjective. Science is wonder-full, because enlarging our knowledge intensifies wonder.
But I wonder if wondering aimlessly might be a good thing. Maybe questions don’t always need to be testable to expand our knowledge. What if we were to poke a bare hand out from beneath our comfortable, progress-driven porch, probing that rainstorm of questions, contemplating each wet cool splat on our skin? What if we were to ask whether it is acceptable, even preferable, to reflect on the unknown and be happy with leaving it that way—unknown. Even further, what good can come of sitting in the company of two uproarious frogs, one of whom seems to have a thing for bathtubs, deliberately scribbling questions I can never answer?
In his poem “Malheur at Dawn,” William Stafford wrote of chorus frogs that he “didn’t know a ditch could hold so much joy.” Do frogs feel joy? Or are they just a foil for our own emotion? For that matter, what is joy? Poets know that asking the unanswerable isn’t a waste of time, because humility has value. As an alternative, consider arrogance, even in something as local as the decline in chorus frogs. I live in a house on a lot that once was the edge of a wetland that once was a place for breeding chorus frogs. Sometimes I think I am entitled to this life to which I have become accustomed, or that somehow someone will have the brainpower and resolve to fix the mess I’m making, or that the frogs don’t mind. On good days I just don’t think.
So in honor of humility, I’d like to celebrate the Bathtub Frog and the unknowable. Because pondering things like how chorus frogs feel about their world expands my humility. Regular head-on encounters with the unknowable help me cultivate a sense that the world is not my oyster waiting to be opened. Rather, the oyster is a secretive bivalve sitting quietly in the intertidal with an existence that I will never fully comprehend.
[NOTE: This essay first appeared as a column in April edition of Nature Trails, the monthly publication of the Eugene Natural History Society. TAT]