Frog Song, Earth Song and the Rights of Nature

Late in the afternoon, about three months ago my wife and I were given the opportunity to time travel right here in Central Wisconsin, and we took it. Time machines are stashed here and there in these parts, though to most they would look like a pond, or a small wetland, or even the little pockets of water that dot the woods each spring.  I had just put away my ax after splitting some of next winter’s firewood when we set off down the road. We had barely gone a hundred yards when we unexpectedly stepped through a kind of science fiction portal into a soundscape around two hundred million years old.  Our time trip came about compliments of a choir of frogs fresh out of hibernation singing their ancient songs of love.  It was their first chorus of this new year. We stood listening, pleased, and honored to be part of their audience.

We had long guessed these were among the oldest voices on our planet, so when we got back home, we did a little, easy, Google research.  According to the American Museum of Natural History frogs were the first animals to develop vocal cords and began using their voices around 180 million years ago. Now our enjoyment of frog song took on a bit more of the respectful hush appropriate when in the presence of the ancients, and a deeper level of outright gratitude. 

A little more research, though, reveals that frogs are in steady decline, their numbers dropping by an average of 3.8% each year. So says the USGS and the Center for Biological Diversity. Their figures are based on data gathered in the field around the globe. Habitat loss, climate change, pesticides and disease explain this slide towards extinction. Though not all frogs are disappearing at the same rate the saddening trend is clear. 

Frogs are far from alone in their dwindling numbers.  According to the World Wildlife Fund vertebrates around the world average in the range of an alarming 69% drop in numbers since 1970. That is a shocker, but it’s the loss of familiar critters that really brings it home to me. 

Birds like the eastern meadowlark and its wonderful song, and the whippoorwill are in steep decline according to the American Bird Conservancy.  Eastern Meadowlark numbers are down by 77%, while whippoorwill numbers are down by about 70%.

Pesticide use, climate change, loss of habitat to make room for agriculture and homes for our growing population, are the primary causes – us – in other words.  That so much of Earth’s life is in decline, that our children and grandchildren may never hear the voice of birds and other animals we enjoyed so much not that many years ago burdens our hearts deeply.  These very real, very personal losses also connect us with Native American spirits who, in their day watched with despair as white folks took their homelands away.  We can more easily feel their pain as market hunters drove the buffalo they loved and depended on, the antelope, elk, and many more to the edge of extinction.  We feel their anger too, as well as their sense of powerlessness in the face of a force too great to overcome, and minds too focused on wealth and land to successfully reason with. We have changed little today.

As we watch our climate become further and further unhinged, as our oceans overheat, become more acidic, less able to produce oxygen and our planet’s corals bleach and die; as our precious carbon trapping forests dwindle to make room for palm oil, cattle and the soybeans to feed them; as our living planet’s song dies out voice by voice will we continue heedlessly on our present course?

How is it that our Native friends hear Earth’s song and we do not? How is it that they see the shared, sacred soul that makes us one with all the natural world, while we only see resources to exploit? How is it that we fear the woods and her dangers taking comfort in our mono-culture lawns and orderly farmlands, while our Indigenous sisters and brothers revel in the richness of wooded glens, giving respectful thanks for nature’s bounty?  We abuse and destroy, while they honor and protect.  We came to this, their Holy Land for thousands of years, and were amazed at its richness.  In only a few hundred years we poisoned the air, land and water.  We plowed under the prairie and decimated the forests.  Today we feed on fewer and fewer fish, poisoned too, that our DNR warns us against eating.  We shrink from CWD infected deer but kill the wolves who kept herds healthy by harvesting the sick and weak.  We spend millions to filter out the toxins we put into the waters we drink and eat plastic.  Our clothes are polyester plastic too, made from oil and gas.  Burn them and turn the air black and poisonous.  And we fight bitter, political battles over things like solar panels and electric cars, preferring black lung coal electricity, oil spills and the pollution of the internal combustion engine.

Do we bring hope to a dying planet with our civilized way of life?  We sent Native children off to soul crushing boarding schools to take the savage out of them and we all lost. Perhaps we should journey out to sit attentively in a wild schoolroom along a reservation stream and listen to what the real Wisdom Keepers of this amazing planet have to teach us.    I suggest we start our journey by Googling Rights of Nature Wisconsin.  Join this growing, global, Indigenous led movement to establish legal rights for frogs and birds, rivers and wetlands, brook trout and old growth forests. And then, vote for those who respect those rights, who care deeply about a healthy environment and who are ready to take on the legislative challenge of restoring the greenhouse gas levels in our atmosphere back to preindustrial norms.

I know such rights fly in the face of our unquenchable appetite for more profit, more wealth, the latest thing in the marketplace. But it does not take a gifted soothsayer to predict where our subservience to more is taking us, an insurance actuary and an underwriter will do.  Ask the folks in the states where prices and refusals to insure are already forcing people to live vulnerably unprotected. In the end, demanding legal protection for nature may be the only way we will ultimately ensure our, and our children, a livable future on a living planet.

Start with a garden, unplug the clothes dryer and hang the wash on the clothesline for a first step. Downsize the house and use the Inflation Reduction Act to put solar panels on its roof.  Stop buying plastic and let the store manager know.

Many of our fish are also spiraling down towards a murky bottom, especially the cold-water ones.  Maybe you’ve never felt the tug of our only native trout, the richly colored brookie, zipping through the mysterious, dark waters of a woodland stream on the end of your line.  Maybe you’ve never held one in your excited hands, admiring it like an exquisite jewel just pulled out of the watery treasure chest it was hidden in only a moment ago.  But if you have, you know you want to teach your children the secrets of stalking Wisconsin brook trout. 

That dream may, soon, remain only a dream.  Even here in the north our world’s warming climate is taking a toll.  According to the scientists who make up the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts, as our Wisconsin waters continue to warm the brook trout will disappear in almost 70% of its current streams by mid-century.  Eventually it’s days in Wisconsin are numbered, thanks to our continued habit of relying on fossil fuels to power our lives. 

Add to all this the poisoning of our water with various chemicals like the PFAS Wausau residents pay to filter out on their water bills, the overheated death of the world’s corals, and the movement of people away from the parts of the planet becoming too hot to live in. 

The of this loss of life on what is the only living planet we know of lies, many believe, in our long-held belief that nature is a resource to be thoughtlessly exploited. 

Given the reality of the worsening climate crisis, our dawning awareness of the real threat we face from the plastic containers on our refrigerator shelves and in our cupboards, the host of dangerous chemicals like PFAS and pesticides that now taint what used to be clean water around the world, it is even clearer that our modern, convenient  life style threatens the future of life on this planet.  Our planetary life support system, our environment, is.