Almanac For Moderns: The Impermanent Sea
The tadpoles in the quiet bay of the brook are now far past the stage of inky black little wrigglers attached by their two little sticky pads to any stick or leaf, merely breathing through their gills, and lashing with their hair-fine cilia. A dark brown skin–really gold spots mottling the black–now proclaims the leopard frogs they will become. Now the hunger of the open mouths insatiable; a tadpole, when not resting in sheer exhaustion, will not (and I suppose could not safely) cease for one moment to eat. They all scrape the slime from the sticks and stones; they nibble the water weeds; they are launched upon life with all its appetites and delights and perils.
And what perils! The water is now alive with treacherous, fiercely biting back-swimmers and their cousins the giant water bugs with ugly sucking mouths. The dragonfly nymphs emerge as if perfectly timed to live upon a banquet of frog larvae prepared for them, tigers of the ponds with legs that snatch, and jaws that devour. Fish, turtles, and water birds might all well die in early spring but for the monstrous fertility of the female leopard frog. She must spawn enough children to pay tribute to hundreds of merciless ogre overlords and still more, so that by good fortune June shall hear the marshes rattling with her children’s hymns.
So already the contest is begun, not, in reality the battle between death and life, but life locked naked with life, in a sort of terrible mating of substances, dissolving and fusing from one species into another, one instant palpitant batrachian jelly and the next the wry croak of a stilted shorebird.
There is one spot in my neighborhood where I can literally wade into the very medium of life itself, and that is the marsh and pond. With a net–or with nothing better than my hands, if need be, I can scoop up the teeming stuff of it–the decaying twigs bearing fresh-water sponges, the shard of a crayfish that went to make a meal for a bittern, the strands of the first algae, a handful of mud out of which small nameless things come kicking and twisting. Here is the world of the fairy shrimp, of the thin tubifex worms poised for retreat into their mud chimneys, the caddis-fly larvae, like centaurs with their dragging cases hampering half their bodies, of the transparent Leptodora, the phantom snatcher of that netherworld.
All about me rise the cries of the redwings, sweet gurgling watery whistles, and the angry peent, peent when I come too near their nesting places. The waters lap the tiny shores of this impermanent sea; the ancient sunlight warms me, and dances on the ripples. The feel of life, the joy of it, the thrill and the warmth of it are in my bones, and the same sensations penetrate, I know, to the very bottom of the pond.
Upon the bottom of any pond in spring are pastured its tiny grazing animals, its pollywogs and snails, its microscopic flagellates, each one of which will produce a thousand descendants in a month, its rotifers of which each, seventy hours after hatching from the eggs, becomes itself a spawning factory. Just above them wait and prowl the small creatures of prey, the crayfish and the tigerish dragonfly nymphs, the nymphs of the mayflies, agile as minnows. Voracity awaits these too; they are destined to vanish down greater jaws and bills and gullets. Life in the casual pond, like life in the sea or the jungle, is like a pyramid with the multiplex and miniform for the broad base.
A bucketful of water may support ten thousand copepods; but a water snake may require a marsh to himself, as a whale needs league upon league of sea, or a bear the half of a mountainside. It is a question if there be any biologic advantage in mastering your environment when you need such a quantity of it to support you. Necessity presses just as sternly on the great beasts as on the small. The problem of population and food is the same, and the increased consciousness of the so-called higher forms is harshly compensated for by their increased capacity for suffering. True, it were pleasanter to eat than be eaten, but in the end even kings must come to dirt.
More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.