Watery Lamentations


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Yorkshire, UK
Well, the last frog went yesterday.

We had a small pond until last autumn. When our second child, Skye, came I figured we really ought to get rid of it. It hadn't been as successful as I'd hoped.

True, I had managed to establish a small colony of frogs over the few years I'd had the pond. But life in the pond had been riddled with failures - dead spawn and low numbers of tadpoles. That's why the decision to remove it had been much easier to make.

With one child there was always the intention of at least one pair of eyes watching. With a second child here and prospects of being away at work looming, we couldn't risk the possibility of one of our children drowning.

I've always liked amphibians. I distinctly remember writing a story when I was perhaps five, about my middle brother and a frog. It simply ran as a series of words, repeating his name and the word for frog, and was written perhaps precisely like this: "Ian and it frog the frog and it Ian".

When I was around eight years of age we moved into a house and after being so obviously enamoured by the spawning fields beside my new school, my parents allowed me to have a small pond. Small being a complete understatement. It was more like a little puddle. But it was a world before my eyes, and I would simply love to sit by it, and stare in at all the little pond creatures I'd introduced living in it. Somehow, perhaps, I was trying to empathise at being God.

My mum always has been a very sociable person. One person she mentioned this to was the wife of someone who was a mechanic for the British motorcycle champion, Barry Sheen. They decided to have a pond. For a couple of years they were quite happy with it

My mum always feels guilty for that. Perhaps she always will. Their family had booked a holiday abroad. It was literally the day of their leaving, finishing packing the bags, preparing to go. But you can't go on holiday when you suddenly discover that one of your young children is face down dead in the pond.

That's why I was resolved to remove our pond from our garden last summer. Whatever my best intentions, I asked myself whether I could confidently assure the safety of my own two young children, and I answered in uncertain terms. Whatever the best of my intentions it had become a risk I refused to accept.

It was a respectable sized pond, actually designed for Koi carp, which means that the deep cold waters it encouraged were actually very unfriendly for tadpoles - which of course I never realised when buying the pre-moulded design. I lowered the water-level by puncturing the side and then when drained down lower I filled bucket after bucket with water and tiny pond creatures, carrying each bucket a quarter of a mile to a local man-made drain where I hoped they would find a home. Having given them all one home, I felt dutifully compelled to ensure their safety to a new home.

After a few exhausting days I eventually floated the punctured plastic shell of the pond on the waters of the drain, and watched it sail away like some kind of funerary longboat. Or so it would have seemed if some kid hadn't chased after it and, using long sticks, finally brought it ashore. I never knew what he did with it.

This spring the frogs returned. There were seven in all. We have only a small garden which we had the mad idea of ripping out and making child-friendly, so it was a tip of turned soil and broken bricks. As soon as I found frogs around I scurried about until I found an old dustbin lid, and then placed it upturned in the earth, filled it with water, then added a few logs and bricks to offer shelter for them. After a while some of them made a home for croaking there.

But after a lot of thought, I decided I had to move them before they spawned, especially the two fat females. When I had made that decision I found six of them, which included just one female, placed them in separate carrier bags, then drove them to a very small wildlife garden at the back of our local park. My eldest daughter, Hannah, who is four, carried the bag in the passenger seat of the car.

The pond at the wildlife garden was filled with frogspawn. I knew it would be. Some was drying up near the edges, so I scooped as much as Hannah and I could find and placed it in the safer shallow waters. I will always try to save tadpoles left to rot by the less considerate. I could only hope the frogs I brought would make a good life there - and more importantly, do so for the next generation.

I did so with some little trepidation, as there had always seemed to be a mysterious but catastrophic failure rate in the spawn in the wildlife garden pond. I actually thought there was a virus, bacterium, or fungus that was killing tadpoles. I thought I'd seen similar in my own pond, some of the original spawn of which had come from this doomed place.

It was a few days later when I spotted the second female in the garden, and hurriedly did the same. I drove with Hannah holding it in another carrier bag to the small pond at the wildlife garden again.

There was no frogspawn. Not a trace. Not a sight of any tadpoles. Two ducks were sieving through the reeds with their bills where spawn had once been in abundance. The terrible thought occurred to me that perhaps the large population of ducks from the public park itself had been visiting here to snack on the frogspawn. The catastrophic mystery was perhaps solved.

On the way back to the car, I saw a dead dried up frog by the path. It wasn't squashed, or apparently damaged. It appeared to have simply sat down and allowed itself to dry out. I'd seen this before, when I'd dug a small temporary pond outside of a rented flat I'd once lived in. I'd driven a number of toad tadpoles from ponds near Salford, Manchester, carried in emptied soft drink bottles in the car. I watched these toad tadpoles grow up in their new home, and then watched horrified as many of them would crawl an inch or so up the water's surface, on a low incline of plastic bags I'd sealed the pond with - only for the toad tadpoles to simply sit there and dry out dead in the summer sun.

I wondered if the one we had seen dried in the wildlife garden had been one of ours.

I have always had an affinity for ponds, and I have always been drawn to our British amphibians - the common frog and toad, and the common and palmate newts. I have always tried to re-create those moments as a child, as watching by the tiny pond my parents allowed myself to have, staring in at a strange and alien watery world.

I've told Hannah that we are in house number 1, and that our house number 3 will be a big house. I have also told her that we will have a big pond there, filled with frogs and toads and newts. And it will be a safe pond.

Perhaps then, she and her little sister Skye will be able to sit by that pond, also staring into an equally strange and alien watery world as I did once. And perhaps this time it will be a place of some permanence.