Saturday, April 3, 2010

Old-fashioned Peepers

Some heralds of spring are celebrated with festivals after their first appearance, which used to be the case with the first frog choruses in parts of France and Belgium. I heard my first spring peepers this year on March 19th, the eve of Spring Equinox. In his essay on “The Day of the Peeper,” Joseph Wood Krutch noted how this was a topic of conversation in his community in southern Connecticut, mentioning how, “one [neighbor] announces ‘Heard the peepers last night,’ and the other goes home to tell his wife. Few are High Church enough to risk a ‘Christ is risen’ on Easter morning, but the peepers are mentioned without undue self-consciousness.” Krutch remarks, “I wonder if there is any other phenomenon in the heavens above or the earth beneath which so simply and so definitely announces that life is resurged again,” [“The Twelve Seasons,” p. 4].

I previously mentioned that there seems to be less interest in watching for seasonal firsts, and I am concerned that’s a measure of how we’re losing touch with nature. The preservation and transmission of nature lore especially depends on older people spending time with the younger generation to point out the different types of plants, trees, and birds, so part of the problem may be that time spent outdoors with family is also diminished. As a literary reference to interest in nature as something old-fashioned and irrelevant, in E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” we see how the character known as “Father” is viewed as fuddy-duddy and out of touch with the times when he reads a newspaper account of the return of the spring peepers to his disinterested family.

By the way, the spring peeper has associations with Greek mythology. The peepers, (scientific name Hyla crucifer), are tree toads of the genus Hyla, family Hylidae. They are named for Hylas, a son of Herakles, who was a member of Jason’s crew of Argonauts, and who was carried off by the nymphs when he went to their pond to draw water. According to the poet of the “Argonautica,” Hylas decided to stay with the nymphs “to share their power and their love,” so when his father stayed behind and searched for him, he could find nothing but an echo. There is a natural parallel, for although the voices of hylas crucifer are so loud that a neighborhood like mine positively resounds with their evening jingle-bell tones, few people ever see them.

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