Requiem for a Tree Frog

Donald Shephard

A squirrel with a sharpened claw is racing madly around the tree rings on my cypress stump. The music he is making is a foil to my sadness. The birds have gathered in the cypress trees around the stump. They are singing “The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from Verdi’s opera “Nabucco”. Earlier we had heard Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring”, beautifully rendered by an ensemble of passerine birds. The program ended rather thoughtfully with another piece by Bach, “And Sheep Shall Safely Graze”. It was a Verdi sandwich on Bach bread.

This requiem was in honor of my short-lived friendship with an Arabic-speaking Iraqi Tree Frog. You will recall that he had explained George W. Bush so masterfully that I had understood American foreign policy. You will also recall that I had slept and forgotten all his wise words.

I found him again on Monday, November 1st, 2004. As it turned out, I had dreamt the whole discussion. What he had actually said was, “1984 is twenty years late. We have a ministry of doublespeak and Karl Rove is Big Brother.” I noticed that my friend was not looking well, he was rather more blue than green. He put it down to stress over the elections.

We met again on Wednesday, November 3rd, 2004. It seemed to me that he was not long for this world and in fact he crowed. I would say that he croaked his final croak but he only managed the first syllable. He was not even given the dignity of a full croak.

I slipped his body into a hollow branch and stuffed the ends with tufts of grass. I laid it in the center of the ring of cypress trees. The Wild Turkeys, looking like sextons with bronze bustles, rounded up the local birds and beasts.

It is both disheartening and heartening to see doe eyes saddened by unnecessary death. I cried when I saw them. I have cried but twice in the last twenty-five years. Once when my father died in 1978 and again when I heard of my sister’s death three years ago. Now I cried not just for the Iraqi Tree Frog but for all the unnecessary deaths in his homeland in the past few years and in the next four years.

As I looked around at all the birds and animals I was impressed to see so many of them dressed in their finest black. The Turkey Vultures rested from their wobbling flight by roosting in the tops of the cypress trees. They were a silent and ominous reminder of the inevitability of death. They would recycle the Tree Frog after the ceremony. The Ravens were there to assist them by picking up any pieces that were missed. It is a very efficient scavenging system.

Other birds joined us in song. A Black Phoebe stood on a fence post and sang lustily. A flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds came en masse to swell the chorus. They were accompanied by their red-winged cousins. One pair of Tri-colored Blackbirds marched in humming La Marseillaise. The Oregon Juncos came with their black heads resembling a hangman’s hood.

A family of California Quail, led by a rather stately male with his black topknot, rose into the cypress and announced their arrival by calling their name. A kite with dutifully blackened shoulders hovered overhead. Two Osprey guarded the sky above them. An Acorn Woodpecker with its clown face of red and yellow managed to look somber and kept mercifully silent. All the birds wore black except, curiously, the Mourning Doves. In the distance, the Northern Sea Lions provided a funeral dirge, a threnody of “ornks”.

We cried, we sang, we grieved before we parted; the deer to tend to the frantic business of the rut; the birds to resume their daily search for food and some to continue their southerly migration; and me to the creation of a rustic bridge in my secret garden.

I sat alone by the silent cypress stump reflecting. My eyes still see the infinitely varied and ever-changing faces of Mother Nature from the brilliant yellows of the poplars in the Anderson Valley to the muted gold of the headland winter grasses. My ears still hear the sounds she makes and the songs she sings from the quiet snort of the deer to the raucous “ornks” of the sea lions. My hands still feel the great range of textures from the roughness of the bark of an oak to the smooth ooze of clay at the bottom of my gully. My nose still smells the funky odor of rotting sword ferns and the essence of citrus in my after-dinner Orange Muscat wine. My tongue still tastes the salt of the tears I shed for my friend.

But the Iraqi Tree Frog has died unnecessarily in an alien land. Neither he nor the other unfortunates who have lost their lives will see the glories of nature again. None of them will feel the bark of a tree or soil between their toes. None of them will taste the salt of tears or the sparkle that is wine. None of them will smell again, not even that last whiff of burning flesh as they died. None of them will hear their favorite music again. All these deprivations are because middle-America has bought Bush’s brand of nationalism dressed up to look like patriotism. Perhaps they do not know the difference. It is a matter of life and death. I am reminded that John Donne wrote for Earnest Hemingway, “No man is an island unto himself alone”, and “Do not send to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”.

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