The first croak is the sweetest

I think I was eleven or twelve, back when summer days lasted forever and the future was full of promise and sunshine, that with the help of my dad I taught myself to water-ski. We holidayed in Portscatho on the Roseland Peninsula in a little cottage in the heart of the village. It’s a part of Cornwall that I visit regularly to this day. A place to feel grounded and in touch with the world and your place within and upon it, exposed to elemental forces and the natural world in all it’s beauty. We spent our days out on the water, visiting beaches or exploring the coastline in a 13′ inflatable Zodiac.

It was decided one year, I can’t remember how or why, that the Mariner outboard was powerful enough to water-ski from. In the winter months, kit had been purchased and now a day of flat calm had fallen upon the sea. Full of outward bravado and a large dose of inward trepidation I agreed to give it a go.

Portscatho, Cornwall, February 2016

Out on in the bay, the cool waters looked like oil, not a ripple breaking the surface. An August sun streamed down, reflecting intensely onto tanned bodies, heating the boat’s rubber tubes hot to the touch. Lines were tied, ropes paid out and wrinkled feet squeezed into the rubber shoes of the water skis. Clad in a Merchant Navy lifesaver I slipped into the water. A moment to control the panic and gently float as the Zodiac slipped slowly away, struggling to keep line between vertical skis as I sat in the water. Tension reached, a nod of a signal and the boat pulled away. The power of the tow was immense, too quick for unprepared hands and the handle pulled free.

The boat circled as my mind refocused.
This time I would be ready.

I sat again in the water with ski’s bobbing upright to my front, the tow-rope snaking away from me, a bright orange line breaking the surface – a line of connection between me and my father, his hand on the outboard’s tiller. Again the signal was shared and again the motor surged, the towline pulling taught in an instant. This time I was ready, arms locked straight, body leaning to the anticipate the power the split second it came. The pull was ferocious, dragging me through the water behind the wooden ski planks, legs straining to push back against the strength of the water. In the maelstrom I felt myself lifting, my ski’s tilting forward imperceptibly as I rose further. For a moment I fought to find the plain and then suddenly, I was up……

Nothing to this day compares to that feeling. The rush of adrenalin, for that was what must have been coursing through my young veins as I skimmed across the water’s surface, sent a smile across my face and a buzz through my body. I was flying! On we flew, circuiting the bay, my body quickly drying as I stood high above the water, a streaming flat wake of white streaking from the back of the boat and out behind me. A line of energy that gently faded back into the surface of the sea.

Whenever the weather allowed that summer I ski-ed, which being a British summer wasn’t that often, even when conjured from the memories of halycon days of childhood, but never again did I feel the same level of thrill of that first time riding above the sea.
These memories came to  my mind as I listened back to recordings we made yesterday of a frog croaking in our garden pond on Saturday night. I have listened to frogs and toads in spring before. At a local pond near Plashes Wood, high up on the chalk-hill that looks down on the ancient Ermine Street, we have watched a mating frenzy of male toads wrap themselves in a tight ball around a female in a heaving mass the size of a football and on February nights we have seen migrating amphibians – frogs, toads and newts – returning to the pools of their birth. But when we set to the task of building a pond in our garden back in the autumn of 2014, it was in the hope that one day we might hear the sweet croaking of frogs in our own garden one spring morning.

On Saturday, that day came. A pair of frogs have been frequenting the pond for a week or so. Not always visible, but once or twice the twin domes of eyes could be seen poking above the tiny leaves of chickweed that have spread across the surface. Two half heard croaks had caught the ear over the previous couple of days, but careful listening had heard nothing more. The weekend had begun in sunshine and the birds were in full song, not yet joined by their returning migrant cousins. We had taken coffee into the garden to enjoy the warmth of the sun and watch the wheeling red kites who were rising on the thermals that swirled invisibly from the higher ground to our north.

And then, there it was.

First one, then a second croak.

A pause.

Then another.

Silence broken, the simple percussive rasping hiccup of the male frog began to send out a steady irregular rhythm across the garden and beyond, hoping to catch the hearing of receptive females and signal them to his territory. And at that moment, our own lips moistened by the nutty, mellow taste of sweet columbian coffee, broad smiles lit our faces as hearts filled with a rush of pride of pleasure on a par with the intensity of that adrenalin-fuelled water-ski forty odd years ago. This was different though – a secret moment shared with a different species, akin to the thrill of spending time with the seals back in December above their birthing grounds. I’m not sure what particular hormone my endocrine system chose to produce as a result of the experience, but it felt good. Perhaps there is something in the recent reports that nature is good for health and happiness.

Sunday was dull and all was quiet in the weed-filled waters of the pond.
Nothing stirred when we visited throughout the day, but by Monday morning there had been a change. Two balls of frog spawn were now floating in the middle , the majority of each glutinous mass submerged below the surface. Two tell-tale deposits that confirmed the success of the male’s calling.

By late afternoon as warm, unbroken sunshine bathed the garden, three frogs were now in residence. Two were together, in amplexus* to give the technical term, the larger male riding on the female’s back, the pair locked tight in their mating embrace. For more than 30 minutes we watched through binoculars from the garden seat, the pair circling the pond, submerging for a second then stationary, accompanied by occasional croaks from the male.

And then, with a flick, they inverted – heads down into the water, posteriors aligned and upward. A moment more of pumping movement and then with a splash they parted, both diving below the water and disappearing.

And there, were they had been but a second before, a cluster of black and white dots hung in the water.
A new batch of frog spawn had just been born and fertilised. Nature, life and evolution in the raw, created in front of our eyes in a two year old hole in the ground. Spring has arrived and with it the gift of life** renewing, fresh and bright and full of promise.

*with thanks to Richard Youell!  😉
**congratulations to Chris and Lindsey on the arrival of little Ava , their own little gift of life also born this week.


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