EDITOR’S NOTE: I wrote this column 15 years ago. It came back to mind last Thursday after encountering a brilliantly colored frog on my evening walk.
“Today’s a pesticator day, daddy,” my rascally 7-year-old told me Sunday, messing up my hair as we set out for the moist old forest path leading to what we call Frog Hollow.
You won’t find “pesticator” in the dictionary, being one of many proto-words my dad transported through time. Born in 1912 when northwestern Washington state still was ferns and farmhouses instead of Starbucks and strip malls, his vocabulary came from an innocent age when people actually said things like “jumping Jehosephat!”
When I was about Elizabeth’s age, dad read me “Huckleberry Finn,” forever instilling Mark Twain’s vision of adventure as my ideal model for growing up — endless summer days floating on a lazy river.
Every American generation needs to revisit and re-imagine Twain’s America, a place of individual liberty where everyone has the option of lighting out for the wilderness — even if, in our day and age, that wilderness likely is more metaphorical than real.
I probably have a thousand photos of my kind, strong daddy, but in one I particularly like he is indistinct, a small figure reclining on a flat homemade raft drifting out on Lake Samish. Printed at the family home in a little amateur darkroom set-up, it’s a tiny snapshot that fades every year, as though he is pulling farther from shore, dissolving back into a far-away long-ago.
My friend Warren and I were incredibly lucky living where we did, with parents who gave us freedom to be boys. Growing up on one of the West’s great Indian reservations, the empty terrain we ambled had almost no physical resemblance to Twain’s humid Mississippi, but it was much the same at heart — a sublime unused land with the pale blue Wind River Mountains sweeping up to the horizon.
Aside from some tortured hay and alfalfa fields that existed only through the grace of federal irrigation projects, there mostly was sagebrush and powdery dirt. It got about 10 inches of precipitation a year, most in the form of snow that the wind blew back and forth until it not so much melted as simply wore out.
Warren’s parents had a small ranch carved out of deeded property on the reservation, and we were blessedly unsupervised. We used to melt the lead from old car batteries on his mother’s kitchen stove, pouring the molten metal into water-filled pots and observing the weird shapes it made, steam spitting up to the ceiling.
We went inner-tubing down the irrigation canals and meandering creeks, hoping maybe to see a sunning rattler, or an old discarded bottle sticking out of the bank. (A lifelong collector of antique bottles, Warren’s literally gone on to “write the book” on the subject.) Come August, it was so dry even the mud smelled dusty, and the ditch water was cool as lemonade.
We never got in much trouble, though I still have a guilty conscience about the swallow’s nest we knocked from the underside of a single-lane iron bridge out in the middle of nothing. Deserved a hide-tanning over that.
Red-legged frogs come in several colors, from dark brown to a burnished copper that looks newly minted, like something from a Mexican gift shop. Lively fellows that are almost supernaturally attuned to flee at the first vibration of an approaching predator, this native species is still abundant here in our home woods.
Like their close cousins, the California red-legged frogs that Twain immortalized in his tale from Calaveras County, ours deserve to be celebrated for their jumping. Not that it helps them escape Elizabeth, whose personal record currently stands at five caught on one walk.
She names each one, and lets it ride along in her hair for awhile like a tiny jockey atop an elephant. They seem quite content there, looking from side to side in apparent equanimity, until I insist she set them free again. Last night, for want of pockets, she carried four along folded up in the hem of her bright pink dress, pausing to reassure them of her good intentions.
In Frog Hollow, there’s a congress of amphibians, enough red-legs to tow a trailer if only you could harness them and get them to all hop in the same direction. Elizabeth and I tread cautiously as deer, keeping our pesticating to ourselves, acting like the guests we are in someone else’s home.
We love our little wilderness, still more than a metaphor, still frog heaven.