Herpatologist. In 1976 I was ten years old and about as ugly as a wet stoat, and by no little coincidence I spent a certain about of time by myself. In the summers, while the other boys were out on the lake in their gleaming Speedos and balancing on single skis, or else canoodling with girls, I was out hanging with the frogs. They were my familiars, being the geeks of lakes and ponds, and I shared with them their gangly limbs and clumsy locomotion, their squeaky low-high voices and their idiotically huge, goggling eyes.
At our summer place, down toward the highway, there was the Kiddie Beach, its goatee of Canada-goose-beshat sand leading directly into the shallows. It was fenced in on either side with brackish waterlily- and bulrush-filled lakewater, and the bottom there was a layer of slimy vegetation and dead leaves, under which a quickening mud made subaqueous farting noises when your foot went through it. It was home to at least four species of frog, two of turtle, and the water moccasin, in a huge black snake.
This latter was the hardest to capture, only to be had after the most exhausting chases across grass and then, usually, in the water itself. Snakes were pure physics, living sine waves. But wherever the head went, if you could be in that spot one second later, you’d have a shot at the tail (the only technique worth teaching children). You could then drag it back to shore and lift it up, skirling and thrashing like a live whip. Turtles were caught by pedal means (you stepped on them accidentally, then held them down with your foot until you could grab them), but frogs had to be outwitted.
The bullfrogs were the main prize. They were as clever as dogs, and gorgeously misdesigned, like I was. They were also excellent breath-holders and simply dove under the dead leaves and mud and hid there for as long as three minutes before surfacing. Their weakness was a poor sense of proprioception (an Oliver Sacks word), which is to say, they didn’t know exactly where in space their body parts were. Bullfrogs consider themselves hidden if they can’t see anything (so do young children), but as often as not, the back halves of their massive torsos would be poking out of their hiding places. Only a person of a like leaning can understand the intense pleasure it gave me (and I will fully admit, still gives me) to see, upon the clearing of the swirling mud and grid, two thick, murky, green-and-black striped legs pulled up tight against the back end of a fourteen-ounce Rana catesbeiana that thinks it has you beat. How pleasing to stretch one’s hand forth into the cool water, palm down and fingers spread, and simply pluck the sleek creature off the bottom of the lake the way you might take big green russet apple out of a basket. Upon breaking the surface, the females would open their mouths, exposing a glistening pink gullet, and utter a cry of defeat not unlike a cicada’s song, only longer and much more exasperated. The sound had the wondrous tendency to clear beaches.
As an adult, I still feel an odd connection to all this waterbound life, and I notice when species numbers are up or down, and worry for the food chain. But why I never followed this interest up professionally is hard to say. Some days I think I could still willingly give up my current life and retrain, go to the Amazon with a clipboard, but I may have thought I couldn’t do as an adult what I enjoyed as a child. Why I didn’t apply this to writing (another lonesome childhood pastime), I don’t know, and possibly the world of the cold-blooded is lesser for it.
Michael Redhill is a novelist, poet, playwright, and a former publisher of Brick. He also writes crime fiction under the name Inger Ash Wolfe and has been awarded Best Handwriting by The National League of Spelunkers, twice.