Way back when I was a free-range kid in coastal Southern California, there was a decent-sized freshwater pond about a twenty-minute walk through the barbed-wire fence and up into the hills behind our street. Whether it was fed by a spring and/or creek or wholly by rain I don’t know. It can’t have been more than a few feet deep even in winter, such as that was in Southern California. But each year it filled up and reliably bloomed with tadpoles, and then small frogs. I loved them and would walk out there regularly, sometimes sneaking out at night with a flashlight to hear them singing away in mass unison under the stars, like an orchestra of rhythmic voices I never tired of. When it was truly late and quiet one could also faintly hear the surf murmuring from the beaches not far away below our suburban streets.
For a couple of years each Spring I took a large mason jar with me and scooped up a few dozen tadpoles, bringing them back down to our small yard and dumping them into a wheelbarrow I’d filled with water. There I could more easily watch them grow legs and morph into frogs, who would soon jump out and take up residence in our greenery. The one problem with this forced relocation was that they started up their evening concert there too, right outside my parents’ bedroom, and my dad finally said “OK, no more damn tadpoles - it’s getting way too loud out there at night!”
One day I walked out to “my” pond to see “my” frogs and was surprised to find another kid sitting there on the big rock I sat on at the pond’s edge. Our neighborhood was relatively small and most of us knew each other at least by sight, but I didn’t recognize him. He seemed to be about my age. I walked up and was about to say hello when I saw what he was up to. He had a flat rock in one hand and was scooping up frogs with the other, dropping them on the big sitting rock, and smashing them. There was a pulpy mess of crushed flesh and blood smeared next to him.
The phrase “seeing red” has always seemed metaphorical, or something like that, but in this case it was literal. A rush of rage exploded inside me. I must have yelled at him, for he stood up and faced me. I was not a big kid and he must have been at least my size. I don’t recall if he still had the murder rock in his hand. But without hesitation I punched him hard in the face. As his hands went up, I lunged forward and pushed him backwards, into the water. It was only a couple feet deep at the pond’s edge but he was fully submerged for a second at least. He popped back up, blood under his nose, looked at me in shock, and soaked, ran off without a word, down towards civilization as we knew it. I stood there, shocked myself, then scooped up pond water to rinse the grotesque mash off the rock. I must have sat there sadly for a long time before walking back home.
Later that night our telephone rang and my parents talked on it for some time. I was cowering in my room, not having said a thing about what had happened that afternoon. Soon came my dad’s voice yelling “Steve, come out here now.” Out I went. Pop, an intimidating presence at the best of times, was sitting on the couch, cocktail in hand, looking stern.
“Did you hit somebody today?” he asked quietly. I gulped and just nodded.
I told Pop the story, almost cringing in anticipation of the likely consequences. But as I talked, a strange expression grew on his face. When I finished, he sat there quietly for a moment, looking down, and then just said “Well…. just don’t do that again.” Then he stood up and walked into the next room, where I thought I heard him explode into laughter. In retrospect, I bet he was proud of me, not so much on behalf of the frogs - Pop was raised as a hunter and had little sentimentality about animals, although he did seem to enjoy our cats - but as I’d shown some glimmer of macho toughness.
By my high school years I was reading widely in the environmental realm and as an undergraduate chose Environmental Studies as one of my majors. Decades later at a seminar in West Marin the renowned physician and author Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen posited that most environmental and other advocates had a signature event in their very young lives that set them on their activist path. She asked attendees if we could recall any such experiences and my frog-saving violence came to my mind for the first time in decades. So I related it to the group. “Well, THAT certainly qualifies,” Remen remarked. Another attendee then half-joked “Wow, you were a child eco-terrorist!”
There’s the famous parable of the frog in the frying pan - as the water slowly heats, the frog doesn’t notice it until too late, and is boiled alive. This vignette has often been invoked regarding the human future as well. Human population has doubled since that little pond was obliterated by development of fancy houses and a golf course. Our impact on the planet’s climate has become increasingly clear and it’s not a happy scenario going forward. The last presidential administration did all it could to halt and even reverse any climate policy that scientists advocated, setting us back crucial years in efforts for a livable future, but it remains doubtful whether even optimal collective responses can head off mass disruption and suffering. Some of us hoped the COVID pandemic might reverse or at least stall human-caused carbon and other emissions by shutting down some economic activity, but that appears to have been a short-lived side-effect as people and industries go right back to what they were doing before. It does appear that actual lasting changes and lessons come only via disasters - if even then.
Interestingly, just up the street from our house lived a UC Irvine chemistry professor, Sherwin Rowland, who some years after my frog-saving violence discovered that certain chemicals humans were using could fry us all by destroying earth’s protective ozone layer. His pioneering work led to a landmark treaty to phase such chemicals out, and a Nobel Prize for himself and his colleagues. But before that they were attacked by the chemical industry as “KGB agents out to destroy capitalism.” Later, a pioneering UC Berkeley biologist who showed that pesticides were linked to bad mutations in frogs was also attacked by industry-funded flacks. Such profit-protecting nonsense had been directed at the pioneering author Rachel Carson for her crusade against pesticides a decade earlier, and at anybody who dared argue that tobacco wasn’t healthy, and so on and on, and continues today. Meanwhile the internet has help foster nonsensical paranoid “theories” about vaccines and much more, often also motivated by profit. Actual scientists, medical, and public health experts despair while being threatened by delusional crusaders for garbage. Such madness is hardly new but nowadays goes truly “viral” - an ironic term indeed.
As for the poor frogs, they, and other amphibians, are declining worldwide. The numbers of frogs, toads, salamanders and other such creatures are plummeting, and could be halved in the next couple decades. Climate change, habitat erosion, agricultural chemicals, invasive species and diseases are driving many such species towards extinction - in recent times, this has accelerated to where over 200 species of frogs are already gone forever. And as these creatures are often crucial parts of ecosystems, and especially vulnerable to environmental pressures, they are sometimes called “indicator” species, like the proverbial canaries in coal mines, foretelling and warning of our collective future. At this point hope remains a good thing, but optimism seems like a form of denial.
As for my long-gone frog friends, while I’ve had some incidents of rough self-defense and sports-related bruising, I fairly sure that punching and soaking that murderous kid was the only time I’ve ever instigated physical violence against another human. And I’ve never regretted it.