Naturally

The chorus subsides
The rains will begin soon, and not long after, with the approach
of spring, the nights will grow shorter and warmer and the darkness
will fill with the chorus of
– nothing.
The chorus subsides

The rains will begin soon, and not long after, with the approach of spring, the nights will grow shorter and warmer and the darkness will fill with the chorus of – nothing.

Perhaps Rachel Carson, the author of that milestone environmental opus, Silent Spring, chose a more apt title than she imagined. The frogs that used to serenade the night with their love songs are disappearing, along with the other members of the class amphibia.

No one knows exactly why.

Some things are just too big to ponder, so few of us do. Global warming or the decay of our planet’s ozone layer takes a back seat to whom might win the National League playoff. Add to that the mystery of what’s causing population crashes throughout an entire class of animal life. Accompanying the declining numbers is a spike in bizarre malformations of these animals.

Scientists have floated several hypotheses to explain the causes of malformations and decline, including chemical contamination, infection, exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, or physical trauma. Whatever it is, it probably isn’t good for us, either.

Like the canary in a coal mine, amphibians are a great indicator of overall environmental health. At least part of an amphibian’s life is spent around water, something we find essential for our well being, too. Their porous skin exposes them to any toxins in the neighborhood as well.

When they start to disappear, it might be worth paying attention. Of course, the people who study salamanders, newts, frogs and toads have been doing so for several years. Studies are ongoing, but there are too few people trying to look in too many places. A search revealed that only one search has been logged in San Benito County, for example (and it turned up nothing unusual in the way of malformations).

My own anecdotal experience seems more conclusive. The amphibians that used to share our neighborhood with us are mostly gone. Some of the disappearances are easily explained. The slender salamanders – elegant little animals that move gracefully without benefit of fully developed legs – that used to occupy the weedy lot next door are interred in concrete that forms the foundation of a house that now occupies the site. Any place I hear the baritone of a bullfrog, I know not to expect native amphibians. If any remain, they’re sure to become a meal to the more aggressive, non-native frog.

But some disappearances are still unexplained. With puddles and pools aplenty, and a small creek nearby, the spring chorus of frogs should still be with us and it isn’t. I don’t even know exactly when the population crashed. That’s easily explained. One evening, you may hear 100 frogs. Next season, there may be 50. Would you notice? Likely not. The silence may not manifest itself until there are a dozen or fewer, and by that time, their fate has probably been decided.

There’s little for us to do. We can only we learn more about why our amphibians are disappearing before the prediction contained in Rachel Carson’s book becomes true.

Best bet

The Croy Road fire west of Morgan Hill scorched a landscape untouched by flames for 80 years. Without intending to minimize the scope of the tragedy for residents of the remote area, the fire is a cleansing event. After the rains begin in earnest, it’s fascinating to watch the scorched earth transform itself.

There’s beauty and much to be learned in returning to such a landscape from time to time. A natural succession of growth and regeneration is sure to take place, reminding us all of the resiliency of nature.

Mark Paxton lives in Hollister and works in Morgan Hill. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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