Of Pools and Plans

by Conrad Vispo


In the depths of Winter, it is hard to believe that the riots of Spring will come; hard to believe that the delicate life below frozen pond or ground will reappear with any flourish. And yet the birds have already changed their tunes and, by the time you read this, our first string of amphibians will have kicked the frost out of their bones and made their ways to pools and hidden sloughs to breed. Some years, such as this, the snow leaves early but the warm spring rains are fickle, and so thawed pools await the rain that will trigger the amphibian influx. Other years, such as last, rain comes atop the dregs of winter. Then, Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders clamber across patches of snow, and slip down small holes in the ice of still-frozen ponds, their aquatic forms seeming ill-suited to such Arctic tasks.

These creatures are driven not by beginnings but by ends. Their eagerness to start their activities anew is propelled less by an urge to smell Spring’s wet green air, and more by a fear of the parching summer heat of July or August. This heat can rob them of their nurseries. Breeding in shallow pools, their aquatic young must grow and metamorphose into terrestrial adults before the waters dry. Hence the rush to mate – tarry too long and your young will die in the caking mud of fetid pools. Some years it happens.

Perhaps they seek such precarious sites because fish, potential devourers of their eggs and young, cannot survive these wet/dry rhythms. These amphibians are left to choose, not between a rock and a hard place, but between a Bass and a dry place. Evidently, the latter choice is most often the best, and most species try to fit their mating and larval development into the short window between spring thaw and summer drought.

Vernal pool creatures have “learnt” to weigh these fates, and their instincts drive them to the pools just as instinct drives shad upriver or send birds north. But they have not “learnt” about us, we who drain their little pools as inconvenient puddles or dig them out and put in fish and swimming rafts. Or, barring destruction of their waters, turn their upland refugia to other purposes. Their Spring orgies are only their cotillions; the adults spend but a week or two in the pools, and then, leaving their jellied eggs to grow, themselves return to the surrounding woods to eek out a living that will let them return next year. Clean away the forest that surrounds the ponds and you have destroyed them just as surely as if you drained their pools. Perhaps they can’t learn about us. Perhaps we are too whimsical yet unforgiving in our ways.

But the moral of this little spring tale is not so much one of wilderness as of respect. If you had hitched a ride upon the back of a Red-tail Hawk 150 years ago and then flown across our country, you would have seen a land of small fields outlined by stone walls. The woods would have been largely cornered on hilltops or in wet draws, or exiled to the ‘Back 40’ for firewood or lumber. Wetlands were circumscribed by pastures, drained as meadows, or ignored on hillside perches. Yet, somewhere in that tapestry lurked enough woodland and enough wetland to keep these creatures going up to our generation. Indeed, we have found Spotted Salamanders sharing their waters with cows in cattle ponds backed up against woods, cattle ponds too meager for a fish; we have stumbled on Wood Frogs making their way across pastures; we have found them in ponds midst cornfields, and in wetlands between hillside and vegetable garden. They will find their way, if we let them.

Our task, as creatures who can envision the future in ways beyond our instincts, is to use our talents of foresight for the good of all. While our impromptu actions may be the greatest threats to instincts’ polished but eonal plans, our will to learn and to anticipate is perhaps its greatest cushion against the unexpected.

So, where is our land now? What do you see if you fly over in some light Cessna? Where are the grasslands that will welcome meadowlark or bobolink? Where the ridgetops that will catch the butterflies flitting on their ways? Where those wetlands for the ardent frogs and salamanders of Spring? Where the crops that will feed us? Where the houses that will shelter us?

There are many such questions, some easily answered, some less so; some to be answered with pride, others with regret; some foregone, some still awaiting the verdict of time. However, the most important mindfulness is not so much in knowing all the answers, but rather in having the respect to ask; is not in accepting our landscape in set monochromatic hues of economics, conservation, We/Them, farming/not farming, but rather in perceiving the richer, spectrum in which we all live, where land feeds us, befriends us, protects us, supplies us. This is a dynamic spectrum of landscape and human motivation so complex that, if we do not ask it where it is going, we will have little idea of its destination until, for better or worse, we are there.

As we hurry through the beauty of our landscape towards whatever is our next task, it is easy to forget to ask. It is easy, midst the riots of Spring, to forget the potential depths of Winter.