Wading back into the muck of life

May 24, 2013

In Montgomery County where I grew up, just out of earshot of the Beltway, spring revolved around our neighborhood pond. Water striders careened across its surface, and swimming beetles inhabited the shallows. But it was the green globs of frog eggs appearing each year that most entranced me. They held potential. And in the midst of our tidy, well-kept neighborhood, the pond in its thin collar of woods seemed the only place where the cycle of life was left to play out on its own accord.

I was 11, and my friends and I were fascinated by the often-precarious balance between life and death. During a month-long school unit on pioneers, we imagined ourselves on a wagon train, fighting for survival against snow, starvation and Indians. We held a burial for little Tommy, the youngest member of our group, who died of exposure on the way. At the edge of the broken ground where the school was building a new gym, we gathered around Tommy’s dirt grave, said solemn, made-up prayers and erected a cross. When the police called our principal a few days later after spying a suspicious mound on school property, we knew we were messing around with something serious.

Most often, our investigations into life and death took us into the woods. We set to work testing theories of mortality during a gruesome outbreak of tent caterpillars. At recess, we experimented to determine what sorts of torture would kill the furry things.

When the periodical cicadas emerged by the millions soon after, we were mesmerized. The insects left the hollow exoskeletons of their juvenile forms clinging like ghosts to every surface. In the evening, they roared from the trees. The profusion of life was dazzling but haunted; we couldn’t escape the mass casualties all around as the insects got crushed beneath car tires, by curious dogs and by our own stomping feet.

The pond was the perfect reminder that life and death were commingled. The water was so thick with muck and leaf litter, you could look at it as just a collection of drowned dead stuff. At the same time, it was where so many things were born.

One spring day, my mother and I walked to the pond with a white plastic bucket. Our calico cat trailed at a distance. We collected a mass of frog eggs as big as my mother’s fist, carried the bucket home and set it on the deck on the shady side of the house. Our plan was to watch the black dots in the eggs turn into tadpoles and then frogs.

I monitored the bucket daily. Around the time when the tadpole’s streamlined heads were growing fat and squarish and nubs of legs appeared at the bases of their tails, I came out to find the bucket tipped on its side. Only a dry trail of brown muck remained inside.

I knew what had happened: The cat had put her paws up on the bucket’s edge and knocked it over. The water had spilled down through the spaces in the deck. The creatures had found their graves, I imagined, in the no-man’s-land below.

I tromped down the deck stairs and stepped into the shade beneath. There, cartoon whales smiled at me from a blue, plastic baby pool leaning against an old woodpile. It was so easy for life to be taken away. A few years before, Helen Stryker, the mother of a school friend, had died of cancer. When she had become really sick, my parents and I got dressed up on a Sunday afternoon and brought a yellow chrysanthemum in a plastic pot over to her house. But Helen wouldn’t take it inside. Chrysanthemums, she said, were bad luck. A few months later, she died.

Rainwater had collected in the tipped pool. On hot days, my little brother played in that tub for hours, endlessly getting in and out of it. I noticed movement in the water. My tadpoles! I carefully poured the creatures back into the bucket, so proud of my rescue mission, even if I had saved only four or five of the original dozens.

After putting the bucket back on the deck, I noticed black dots that looked like nail heads where there hadn’t been nails before. On closer examination I realized they were more of my spilled tadpoles. These had dried onto the deck’s surface and died, I figured, in a slow process of dehydration.

I couldn’t bear to leave the tadpoles encrusted there like that. With my cupped hand, I dribbled water onto one of the dots so I could gently free it from the wood. As soon as the water formed a small pool, the dot began to swim around in it. One by one I brought the tadpoles back from the dead and put them into the bucket.

In the weeks that followed, we watched the survivors lose their tails and grow fully formed legs. I don’t remember them as frogs or how we must have carried them back to the pond to release them.

But I know that spring fell easily into summer, which passed far too quickly. Soon after, my baby brother gave up his tiny pool and joined the swim team. And it wasn’t long before our cat was killed on our driveway by a neighbor’s dog as my mother tried to beat it away with a broom.

My own metamorphosis took me out of the woods. I stopped visiting the pond and instead went to the mall or the movies. No longer fixated on mortality, my friends and I experimented with eyeliner and unnecessary bras.

But the day I resurrected tadpoles still comes through clearly to me now. And today, with two young daughters of my own, I’m back in search of tadpoles and ponds full of muck. I’m back in search of strips of woods that can teach those same lessons of life and loss and luck. Because I want my daughters to learn about the so-called “cycle of life,” but not from a poster, school lesson or Web site. I want them to get dirty and recognize the smell of rotting leaves. I want them to feel the anticipation of what even a tiny pond can hold. And I don’t want to tell my girls any of this. I want the thrill of catching a tadpole in a plastic bucket to overtake my daughters so they ignore me and wade in over the tops of their rubber boots.

Miranda Weiss is a writer living in Homer, Alaska.

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