Obstacles aren’t always roadblocks. Sometimes they’re detours into mystery leading down unexpected paths. Recently I’d had a hard time getting out to canyon country. Bags packed, dogs with the sitter, I was ready to go solo, deeper into the canyons than ever. Then my water well blew out; three days for repairs. Then a water fitting in my camper broke. Another delay, another day lost. And by the time I was finally ready, the weather report called for days of rain. Odd that water, of all things, should keep me out of the desert. But meteorology be damned! There’s exploring to be done…
Off the highway, over the cattle guard and onto an old dirt road winding towards a canyon I’d discovered on a previous trip… Mud everywhere, truck slipping and sliding in sticky ochre mess. I’d never seen this place so wet, never witnessed this particular mood of Hers. I set up base camp atop a slab of redrock where an old mining road intersects a slot canyon camouflaged by a short stretch of level terrain. Beyond the cottonwoods lies a hidden gem I’d briefly surveyed on a previous expedition, a marvel of red, orange, pink and yellow rock, narrow chutes, expansive atriums, slickrock walls weaved with bands of impossible colors and layers of texture, too small to be noted or named on any map, yet immense in the scope of its beauty.
Two days of sporadic rains, hail, sleet and snow and a series of muddy misadventures later, the skies clear and the mud dries. Under summer’s desert sun it takes but a few hours to go from sloppy mud to where you’d never guess it had rained at all, save for the brimming potholes and tinajas dotting the slot in both directions. Over dinner I plan tomorrow’s quest, pondering whether to pack canyoneering gear or simply play it by ear and handle any technical challenges creatively, flesh and bone and boot harmonizing naturally with rock, solving problems with craft versus equipment. I opt for simplicity and a light load. And a good night’s rest; I’ll need my wits about me.
Sometime around dusk the cacophony begins and I understand why it took so much time and effort for me to get here. On my schedule, I’d be in Utah by now, already having explored this area. But I’m connected to this place in some mysterious, unexplainable way that sometimes beckons me on its terms. My original plans disrupted and delayed, I’ve arrived just in time to witness yet another natural wonder, another of the sporadic miracles the desert offers up as a gift to anyone willing to accept Her generosity.
I hear them but I can’t see them: Canyon Tree frogs, among others. Sheltered under rocks and lurking in various crevices, chirping and ribbiting and squawking their little hearts out, so many sounds from so many directions that I can’t pinpoint a single one but I know they’re close. So loud I’d need to raise my voice to be heard just across the campfire. Clamorous, boisterous, seemingly disorganized and chaotic, yet underlying it all is an indiscernible, unidentifiable order, a wild, untamed harmony that draws my eyelids shut, alights my drifting spirit upon mellifluous wings and sings me toward my dreams.
I awaken under moonless midnight, starlight’s subtle glow delicately whitewashed upon a distant canvas of dark. The frog symphony is at fever pitch. Spellbound by the variety of vocalizations, I hear everything from angry camels chastising rambunctious chimpanzees to frustrated bull seals in heat and the occasional gaggle of 9-year old boys playing “pull my finger.” Honking geese, quacking ducks, dogs barking in the distance and sheep bleating… There must be a thousand frogs out here casting their songs randomly into the night, beckoning spring lovers closer.
I grow agitated. Nothing will quiet them down. Shouting, clapping, shining a light, all for naught. I seek solace and silence deeper within my sleeping bag but none’s to be found; my 3-bean chili dinner has erupted into a spontaneous symphony of its own. What to do, what to do? I release my irritation to the night. Who am I to be bothered by the noise? This is their world; I am but a guest here. And blessedly privy to wonders most will never experience. Show some gratitude, man! If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, I figure.
Strapping on a headlamp I step out onto the rock and into the canyon’s lattice of ever-shifting temperature gradients. The air is cool but a few steps later I’m enveloped by a mass of warmth radiating from a sun-warmed slab of rock. During the day the details are washed out by the extremes of heat and sun but at night, if you pay attention, you can feel the shifts, the day’s history dancing upon your flesh, heat memories burned into the rock, the invisible footprints of the sun. The interplay of air and sun and moisture upon the ever-varying textures of the canyon results in subtle shifts of temperature that can sometimes change drastically within just a few feet. You sense the water up ahead before seeing it. You feel north in a canyon; it’s warmer than south after a sunny day.
And the frogs! Frogs everywhere. In a coffee table-sized tinaja twenty-one pairs of gleaming eyes bob just above the water’s surface. An entire chain of potholes and puddles and pools surrounds me, each of them filled with frogs swimming, splashing, clamoring atop and mounting one another, some in pairs others in groups of as many as five, six, maybe seven. So many frogs that it looks as though the water is flowing as their mass raises water levels and forces puddles to spill over into lower pools.
I sit down for a closer look. A lump of bumpy flesh crawls out of the pool and plops down next to me, its throat swollen to near translucence, like a bubble of chewing gum stretched to its most fragile extreme, and belts out a chirpy serenade towards no one in particular. He hops back in, paddles a lap around the little pool, scampers out on bony oversized frog toes, sits to my right and sings once more. I am honored by his fearless acceptance of my intrusion, thrilled that my love for all the wild things speaks to him what my words could never communicate. Animals hear what’s in your heart; I’m no threat, merely a fascinated admirer.
His plump, moist body almost begs to be touched. I flash back to my childhood, summers spent by the lake, a visceral recollection of rubbery yet tender flesh, stroking silky smooth frog bellies into hypnotic calm. The memory is enough; I needn’t harass these innocents unnecessarily. Compassion asks “how would I feel about a giant hand in the sky plucking me out of my home?” Live and let live, I say. It’s enough, this privilege of detached observation. Yet there is something so deliciously moist and squishy about their flesh as it glistens in the beam of my headlamp that I will later regret not having reached out and touched.
As I move farther up the canyon and deeper into the night, the cacophony recedes into the invisible aural horizon, blending with similar scenes playing out up and down the slot, into a low-key hum of steady pitch but rhythmically wavering volume. A pulsating, throbbing croon, the canyon’s breath, a song so encompassing, pervasive, and directionless that it’s hard to notice without deliberate intention, the way humans don’t perceive the ether and fish lack awareness of water. I try to hum the tone but the pitch escapes me. I almost have it but then it’s something and somewhere else, yet it hasn’t changed. Like trying to grip a rushing river in my fists. It is beyond my range; not in frequency, not too low nor too high, but too different, too complex, laden with undertones and harmonics too rich for one man’s throat. The desert is silence and silence is the desert but tonight it lilts a lullaby of winter’s passing, humming dulcet tones of life’s perpetual re-creation.
I marvel at my blessing, this perfect temporal alignment of fate and circumstance and incident and rain that beckoned me forth at just this time, summoned me into a magical herpetological wonderland, to bear witness to a timeless ritual, this amphibian water celebration, Frog Town’s Festival of Rain. Far beyond these canyon walls restless souls stir amongst 80/20 cotton/poly sheets in dreaded anticipation of cubicles and traffic and a perpetual stream of deadlines, oblivious to the miracles that lurk under the canopy of an infinite horizon. How many wonders do we miss in our mad rush to dominate every corner of the globe, to impose our means and methods upon the planet, to pay the bills, to put off until “someday” the beauty we should bask within now?
The innocence of these little critters moves me. They have no idea, nary a hint of the dangers we impose. It’s estimated that over 30% of the world’s amphibians are currently under threat of severe decline and extinction. The causes aren’t entirely clear but there’s little doubt that industrial pollutants and habitat destruction play major roles. I look into the eyes of a frog and I see a wide-eyed, innocent child uncorrupted by knowledge of the dangers of encroaching uncivilization. A child who should never know such corruption, should never have to suffer for our sins… but does nonetheless.
We have declared ourselves lords and masters over the planet, in the image of a god of our own creation, but have failed dismally in assuming the responsibilities that role engenders. The shepherd cares for, tends to, protects his flock. We exploit, take what we want, so very much more than we need, while the frogs come out to dance their rain dance, oblivious to the chemical pestilence sometimes carried by those rains. Who will protect them from our unconscious malevolence? Who speaks for the frogs and every other creature touched by the invisible hand of our lust for “progress”? We forget our power, our influence, that so many creatures depend upon our mercy and yet have no say in the matter whatsoever. With this power comes responsibility. If we’re to illegitimately declare ourselves masters of the earth then we must also assume the attendant responsibilities.
This is why connection to wilderness is so important. We are born of, made of, sustained by, totally dependent upon this planet. Without the earth we are nothing. But we forget that, lulled into the false confidence of fantastic corporate mythologies that claim to have beaten nature at her own game. We ignore the repercussions of our actions – easy to do when we’re sheltered within homes, suburbs and cities, oblivious to the fallout of our consumer choices, where we never have to look into the eyes of our victims.
A sentient, compassionate human can’t help when bearing witness to a spectacle such as this, the frog dance, to sense one’s place in the web of life. You can’t help but be changed for the better, your eyes opened to the Mystery and drawn into it, touched by Beauty. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Thoreau. It is from the wilds that we came, the wilds upon which we ultimately depend, and the wilds to which we will inevitably return. The eyes of the frog are our own eyes staring back at us for what we do to the earth we do to ourselves. To witness these natural wonders is to realize this, and relinquish the role of selfish parasite to become a responsible citizen, a steward of the planet. There are no big things or small things, important creatures or less important creatures. Ultimately everything depends upon everything else. This is what the frogs have taught me. In their innocence and vulnerability we discover our own responsibility.
I wake up the next morning to silence, perfect desert stillness, an entirely different world. No signs of frogs, no hint of last night’s frenzy, as though nothing ever happened here. The air is tinctured with longing, a melancholic yearning, as though the circus has packed up and left town, as though a passionate summer romance has ended and my lover has gone home. The stage remains intact, the props still stand, but vitality has secreted away behind the rocks. The usual silence and stillness of this place has returned but now feels all the more empty by contrast.
No matter; all is at it should be. What I feel is merely a projection of human attachment, the desire to cling and hold onto what we love forever, trying to grip the rushing river in my fists. It can’t be done, and it needn’t be. There will always be another wonder, another miracle farther up this road of life. Seek and you shall find; Her bounty of wonder is perpetual. Attachment be damned. There’s exploring to be done…