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Of Fall, Tree Frogs, and the Minds of Children

Bill Meredith

"The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his mightÖ
And that was odd because it was
The middle of the night."
ÖLewis Carroll, "The Walrus and the Carpenter."


(Oct, 2010) The equinox was scheduled to arrive at 11:09 p.m. on September 22, and I guess it did, although I couldnít tell. When I was in the 6th grade my science book said the sun is directly over the equator at the time of the equinox, and if youíre in the right place you can see it rising exactly in the east, if you happen to have a compass with you. I always meant to get up early and go out with my compass to see if the book was right, but I kept forgetting. This year I intended to make a special effort; but as it turned out, here in Emmitsburg it was too dark to tell. I suppose when it was 11:09 p.m. the sun must have been coming up somewhere in the world; maybe if you had been somewhere in the Pacific Ocean with Lewis Carrollís walrus, you could have seen it. But not from here.

Fall is not my favorite season. The leaves turn pretty for a while, but they donít last, and things start dying and it gets cold. At my age it is unwise to wish for time to pass, but this year I was glad to see fall get here, just to get rid of summer. It was a bad year for gardens. The rainfall was actually nearly three inches above average, but it all came in storms that were two or three weeks apart, and between storms it was so hot that the soil dried out completely. Even the weeds stopped growing. The only good thing about it was some of the doubters started to admit that global warming is real.

The heat was as hard on the birds as it was on the tomatoes. The local chimney swifts left early; I may see a few yet this month as the northern populations pass by, but the ones from Emmitsburg are probably half-way to Patagonia by now. The Carolina wrens that nested in the window box after my wife chased them off of the front porch hatched a brood of three, and both parents worked their beaks to the bone trying to find enough caterpillars for them, but none of them survived. The robins, cardinals and sparrows left the yard and moved down to Toms Creek, where there is water, shade, and a better chance for a meal. About the only birds visible from the yard are the turkey vultures that live in the old haunted house next door, but they donít know how to sing so they arenít very good company.

The heat and drought seem to have confused the wooly bears. I saw two of them last week on the 16th green of the golf course; both were crawling at top speed in opposite directions, and they didnít even nod as they passed each other. They were both pale tan in color. Usually they are two colors, meaning the coming winter will be black in the middle and brown on both ends, but so far, the ones Iíve seen have been either all tan or all black. Iím not sure what that means, but it doesnít sound good.

I used to spend summer evenings sitting on the porch, but this year that wasnít a pleasant environment. The heat was a factor, but the main problem was the mosquitoes. Normally they would have been in the back yard where the drain from the basement sump comes out, but that dried up back in June, and the only wet place available was on the porch where my wife waters her potted plants. Mosquitoes seemed to come from miles around, as if it were the Great Dismal Swamp. It wasnít a fit place for man, but at least one beast liked it. One morning when I went out to get the paper, I saw what looked like a lump of greenish chewing gum sitting on the window sill. On closer inspection it proved to be a tree frog.

Tree frogs are small frogs with adhesive pads on the ends of their toes; there are nine species of them in Maryland, four of which live in Frederick County. You donít see them often because they spend most of their time in trees, sometimes high up, and they can change color to match the bark or leaves they are sitting on. This one was Hyla versicolor, the Gray Tree Frog; it probably wandered onto the porch to eat mosquitoes. It appeared to be sleeping off a good meal, and tried to ignore me, so I was able to pick it up easily. It was a beautiful little creature, pale blue-green on the back, with gray sides, white underneath, and yellow on the hind legs. It was less than an inch long, but looking carefully, I could see the pattern in its eye that Shakespeare called "a precious jewel in his head."

The frog gave me a chance to test a theory that has been bothering me for some time. In her autobiography, An American Childhood, Annie Dillard made the claim that "Young children have no sense of wonder. They bewilder well, but few things surprise them." I love Annie Dillardís writing, but she doesnít have children of her own, and her statement doesnít agree with my experience. So I called on my two-year-old neighbor, Claire, to test it. She has a story book with froggies in it, so she was not afraid, and after explaining that frogs are soft and you mustnít squeeze them, I put it in her hand. She looked at it as it sat there contentedly; her vocabulary doesnít include words like "wonder" yet, but from the expression on her face, she didnít need to say it. Then she decided to pet it with her other hand, and of course it jumped. It landed on my sleeve and stuck there with its adhesive toes, but as far as Claire was concerned it had disappeared into thin air. She was bewildered at the disappearance (Annie was right on that point), but she was definitely surprised and delighted when I showed her where it was. I put it back in her hand and she promptly poked it to see if it would jump again. It did, naturally, this time landing on her blouse. She wanted to take it home to show Mommy, but we decided that might not be a good idea; so, very reluctantly, we put it back on the windowsill. It stayed there the rest of the day, and left some time during the night.

How the minds of children develop is one of the great mysteries left for science to solve. We do know that they thrive on new experiences. So the next time Claire comes, perhaps there will be wooly bears to wonder about, and perhaps in another year or so I may tell her about the walrus and the carpenter. Maybe in the course of time I may even get to tell her about the equinox. Wonder and surprise keep both young and old going.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith