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  • Jennifer Jewell, Cultivating Place


Pacific Chorus Frog - Butte County, CA

Winter's inner-seasons are marked in many ways. Each marker holds its own small, perfect replica of the struggle and tension embodied in all such life-altering, life-creating transitions. A tension of waiting and watching. A pregnancy between the past, the present, and the possibility of the future.

It is at such precise creases, deep storied/historied cleavages - early winter's internal transitions to mid and then to late winter, that - here in this place I live - a particular crescendo begins: Pacific Chorus Frogs begin to sing.

It is a season of magnificent nocturnal soundscapes, and primal connection through sound and vibration to our companion creatures here.

It's a rising, ever heightening, building-up in the winter months here, based on temperature and precipitation. Each night the chorus gathers and begins, in creeks, in vernal pools, in seasonal ponds and seeps, to mate and sing, to sleep and sing and start again - on an off - all night.

Slowly, hesitantly at first, they test the night air and the reflective water, warming to their task in the cooling, increasing damp of early-winter evenings. Trilling, crooning, humming, and croaking their voices reverberate, expand and fill their unlikely amphibian bodies and in time - together - symphonic - they resound through the starry night or cloud-covered rainy night sky, alone and together.

In sound, it reminds me of watching wide-winged birds spiraling loftily on thermal drafts slowly, carefully, determined, straining towards .....fullness, when... with a final inhale of exertion and effort they reach peak, and then subside - sometimes slowly winding down, but other times in a split second moving from full throated chorus to....silence. The apex and nadir. The alpha and omega. It seems a full-body - visceral - exhale of relief on the far side of the shift, from building to resting. On and off, all night they melodically call out into the universe with every tiny, quickened cell until - perhaps spent, exhausted - the morning light lifts purposefully through bare winter branches...and .... they sleep for a longer stretch. Slipping quietly out of sight and earshot beneath the din of everyday.

Each winter night that's not too cold, not too warm, and just the right level of damp, this chorus lullaby raises high our dreams: exaltations of life and longing and time and change and cycles of minute, ordinary, and simultaneously enormous magnitude. John, who has for close to 40 years carefully tended to a small year-round pond in support of the frogs at Canyon Creek, and I both listen to them with awe and delight, grateful for their seasonal return.

Pacific Chorus Frogs in Rain Barrel, Canyon Creek. Butte County, CA 2019

Frogs are of course far more than beloved companions to us on our seasonal and gardenlife journeys. As amphibians they are integral and sentinel species in their home habitats. Their presences, their populations, and their health are strong indicators of the health of the entire ecosystem. They occupy important middle ground in the food chain, helping to keep the insects they feast on in balance, and their healthy numbers provide ample nutrition to predators who feast on them - the snakes, lizards, and birds such as herons, egrets, hawks, owls, and eagles, which are all very active right now.

The Pacific Chorus Frog (Psuedacris sierra) is also sometimes known as the Pacific Treefrog, or the Sierra Treefrog or Chorus Frog. It was once grouped as the same species as the Pseudacris regilla, the Northwest Treefrog or Chorus Frog, but in 2006 three species were created from the one. The petite little Pacific Chorus Frog has a characteristic dark stripe across its eye and has a highly variable coloration from mottled brown/black to a quite vivid green and black. Their songs and their habitats call out to me - fill me each winter here in this place.

Are there creatures in your winter garden and trails that do this for you? As fruit was a currency of value and meaning for Sara Bir, the fruit forager who joined us in January, these connections that our gardens and outside-time make for us strike me as important in a variety of ways. For me, the winter frogs of Northern California were wholly new when I moved here eleven years ago. When I heard them and came to love and wait for them expectantly each winter, they sparked my curiosity, and in learning more about them, I learned more about the depths and layers of my place. I don't know a gardener who does not revel in this same expansive cycle of connecting, loving, learning, and expanding.

I try to follow scientific updates on them and on frogs generally, like this from the American Museum of Natural History relating that "over the past 50 years, scientists have recorded major declines in frog populations around the world. A few species have vanished completely. Many frog die-offs are the result of human activity, and scientists continue to search for answers. Major causes of frog declines include: Habitat destruction [according the US Forest Service, California leads the nation in the loss of original wetlands and we've lost 91% of the wetlands within the modern state's boundaries since the turn of the 19th century], Chemical pollution (which, being porous and thin skinned creatures, frogs and all amphibians are particularly sensitive to), Climate changes, Over-collection, Introduced Species and Epidemic diseases."

(*Side note here about the ironically euphemistic use of the word "lost" in the description of California wetlands, they ARE lost to us, but we did not lose them, we destroyed and built over and did not protect them. I was proud of and energized by ecologist Greg Suba of the CNPS in the recent Fire Recovery Guide episode for calling us all out in regards to fire preparedness going forward - the first and most effective step we as humans can take to live more lightly and interconnectedly on this land is to make decisions about land use that do not serve our short-term convenience, but serve to protect landscapes for their intrinsic values.)

Chemical pollution of course equals things like lawn and garden fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides, all running off of landscaped areas and roadways into native area soils and surface waters. So these frogs of winter I love provide yet another reason to NEVER use these chemicals - not even "organic" ones, but to choose better care techniques to keep my lawn and garden healthy. And if I love my frogs and want them to thrive, any pesticides would serve only to diminish their food sources, so I'm doubly encouraged to support frog and toad populations in order to keep slugs, snails, mosquitos, etc, in see where I am going.

There's nothing that makes me change my own actions and thinking and to spur me to encourage others to do the same than by seeing up close how my individual actions directly impact those I love, including frogs. These are weighty costs. I say over and over again but I am not sure any of us can say it enough: our garden practices connect us to the best of ourselves, and as a cohort, even in our own laid back ways, we gardeners taking informed and passionate actions such as learning about and working to protect our environments, holding values like these and modeling them for others - we become important leaders from our gardens out. We make environmental decisions, truly inclusive community health and well-being decisions, and economic decisions, which compounded and accumulated can result in real change.

Together frogs and toads are considered anurans, amphibians who are tailless in their adult forms. A group of frogs is called an Army, a name I bridled at some when I first learned it, why not a Chorus? But then again, here is an Army I can get behind allocating far more military dollars to from our federal and state budgets.

Tender transport to perfect Pacific Chorus Frog Habitat - a seasonal pond rimmed with native vegetation.

At night this pond vibrates with February Frog Song. Butte County, CA 2019

Every month I get wonderful notes via email, and comments in person and on social media as to the value of these conversations to you - and these comments/notes mean the world to me. This month I want to share two.

This one from Ken Williams, Chicago, Illinois: "I have to tell you what a delight it was to come home last evening and find my wife Christine playing your program. I volunteer a bit for Senior Services, taking people to doctor’s appts. This one was an hour away. On the way down my exhaust pipe broke and started dragging on the ground. I tied it up with my jumper cables. On the way back I got a flat tire, which I changed as the polar vortex plunged the temps into the minus teens. So I got home happy to still be functioning, but a little stressed. And on the radio was this amazing story about plant freaks from South Africa. Very very nice stuff. Thank You! Count me a fan."

And this one, from Maggie Rutherford in Washington State: "Hi Jennifer, I don't usually write messages like this, but I recently discovered your podcast and I just felt compelled to tell you how very much I am enjoying it! I've been working my way through all of your past episodes, and as an artist myself, I especially loved your "Art-ober" series in the autumn. The different guests you host are varied and interesting, and I love that you ask really in-depth, thoughtful questions of each of them--the conversations that result are always inspiring. Most of all, though, I appreciate that your podcast is a such an affirmation of the power and value of gardening, refusing to allow it to be dismissed as unimportant or frivolous, as it sadly so often is. I wish more people could see this value as we do, but until that day, I have your podcast. Thank you, -Maggie

Thank you all for listening, for commenting, and supporting. I love knowing you all are out there on this gardenlife journey, too. Together we make a difference.

Happy February in your gardens and on your own trails of interconnection and interdependence.



PS: In the next month, we will be rolling out a special Spring Solstice thank-you offering for everyone who has donated to Cultivating Place in this first quarter of 2019 - so keep your eyes out for that, I think you're going to love it! And I am beginning to commit to speaking engagements and symposia for 2019- 2020 - keep your eyes out for notifications here in this newsletter and on the EVENTS page. I am looking forward to connecting with you all in person where and when I can.



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Two young beings make friends.

Butte County, CA 2019

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