Last Sunday evening my family and three others gathered for a picnic supper at the old farmstead that serves as the headquarters of the Damariscotta River Association, a conservation land trust here on Maine’s midcoast.
The main reason for our gathering, besides sharing a meal and one another’s company, was to search for spring peepers (pseudacris crucifer) and wood frogs (rana sylvatica) in the DRA’s fresh water marsh just below the farmhouse. Our friend Tom, a biologist, had led a walk in search of frogs and salamanders just two nights before that drew 40 people. His friends, we losers, had missed it, so he and his children, Andrew and Jenny, agreed to host a private peeper hunt.
Among our party was Mamiko, a woman in her late fifties who came from Japan to spend this school year teaching Japanese and learning English at our local high school. She lives with our friends Ned and Denise and their sons Abe and Lucas.
By the time we finished our potluck meal, the sun was setting over the tidal river beyond the treeline. As we donned hats and zipped jackets, Tom and Andrew stopped to put on waders. I looked down at my Converse All Stars (white) and my sons’ sneakers and experienced a moment of maternal inadequacy. I looked over at my husband Scott and knew, after almost 23 years of practice, that he was just along for the company… if he didn’t get his feet wet and see the diminutive peeper up close, that was just fine with him.
Mamiko was wrapped in her full length winter jacket but hatless. On my way out of the house, I had grabbed several wool beanies and still had one in the car. It had been a beautiful spring day but now the air chilled to remind us that spring is a fickle friend to Mainers.
“I will get a hat for you, Mamiko,” I gestured the universal sign for hat and ran off. A moment later, with peepers in full voice as dusk dropped quickly upon us, I returned to her. Everyone else had started down the hill to the marsh: Andrew, who is 12, swinging his long-handled net marched ahead and Audrey, who is two, tried to keep up with the big kids despite the uneven grass.
“Not many Americans get to do this kind of thing,” I told Mamiko. “This is special. This is rare.” She turned to me as we walked along.
“I know,” she said, smiling in her shy way. “I am very happy.” And forgetting to be reserved with her, I put my hand on her shoulder.
Earlier Tom had explained that the call of the spring peeper is pitched so high that it makes it almost impossible to identify where the sound is coming from. “They’re only an inch long and you can practically look right at one without seeing it.” Now, down at the marsh’s edge, everyone fanned out with flashlights. After five minutes we’d found a lot of big spiders but no frogs whatsoever. In the dark I’d lost my husband, sons, and Mamiko, but found myself beside my five year-old godson, Lucas, whose responsible and loving mother had supplied him with a headlamp and rubber boots.
“Okay, Lukie, I’m depending on you to find a peeper.”
“I can hear them but I can’t see them,” he said, earnest but exasperated.
“We’re going to have to go closer to the water. Tom said they’d be in the water or on the grass at the edge.” As I stepped closer, a surge of frigid marsh water seeped into my All Stars and socks. I trained my flashlight on the tufts of grass that made cozy little inlets for frogs and searched. After another few minutes in the deafening roar of lovesick frogs, I heard Lucas’s brother call out to him and off he stomped in hope of allying himself with someone with better luck and eyesight.
Alone, I realized that the only way I was going to get close enough was if I knelt down in the water. Another plunge and my left leg, knee to ankle, was soaked. Argh. My flashlight probed every little nook of the brown marsh grass for the evidence of just one of the gajillion tiny amphibians making all this racket. It’s obvious that they’re here, so why do I feel compelled to see one? How uncomfortable must I become before I’m rewarded with the proof.
After another few moments, I decided to try something. I switched off my light and in a few seconds, I heard a call that was just inches away. I hit the button with a “haHA!” but nothing. I tried it again and the little voice returned from a tuft near my left hand. On with the flashlight, a quick grab, a plop. My light picked up a tiny frog doing a froggy kick in the water. Splash as my hand went in and came up with nothing. Well, I saw the critter at least. That would have to do.
Standing up, dripping, cold and happy, I heard a commotion 20 feet away. Andrew had succeeded in catching one in the water. He sloshed over to the edge of the marsh in his waders and we gathered around. “Bring it inland so I can see,” I heard my husband call from higher ground.
There it was, a tiny frog, just as we’d been told.
How powerful is this need to see with our own eyes, to feel, to taste, to hear, to smell. Though the aural evidence of the presence of peepers was overwhelming, a sound I’ve welcomed every spring of my life, the urge to actually see one and – better still – to hold one for a few seconds was strong. It was strong enough to compel me to get my shoes and jeans soaking wet in the chill of a spring evening, to turn off my flashlight and kneel alone in the dark. It’s not a far leap to liken this human requirement for evidence to how we demand such proof from God.
Though when it comes to delivering sensory input, it’s hard to beat the Episcopal Church. The feel of an oil-slickened thumb making the sign of the cross on your forehead; the smell of smoke emanating from the thurible; the sweet taste of the wine; the swell of a well-played organ or a practiced choir; and the sight of the backs and shoulders of your loved-ones – or, better yet, strangers – as they kneel at the rail and wait for their turn or intimate gaze of people’s eyes as you offer the chalice to their lips.
These physical points of confirmation give us license to believe the unbelievable. They embolden us to make choices that the world deems foolish. They feed us enough in the way of faith to last until we become faint and doubting again and then provide the space to return to be replenished, week after week, year after year.
ee cummings had it right:
how should tasting touching hearing seeing breathing any--lifted from the no of all nothing--human merely being doubt unimaginable You?
Even if Andrew hadn’t caught a peeper to show around, seeing the quick flash of the little frog in the mucky water would have been enough.
I think of my young friend Lucas for whom I couldn’t deliver the goods. Despite my willingness to soak my shoes and pant legs for our efforts, he went over to the big boys who could. But still he’s my friend. In fact, as we climbed back up the hill, he told me and Mamiko all about it. And the warmth of his mittened hand resting securely in mine is proof enough to last awhile.