photo by Jack Hamilton 

 

 

How to Catch a Frog 

by Ernest Troost 

If you tumble out of bed one morning in the autumn of your life and smack your palm to your forehead in the realization that you’ve never experienced catching a bullfrog with your bare hands, you’re not alone. But you’re in luck. After you finish your morning coffee, I’ll guide you through the steps. 

First, you’ll want to outfit yourself with waterproof shoes or rubber boots, and an effective mosquito repellant wouldn’t go amiss. After you’re suitably dressed, the next step in catching a frog is finding one. Look in the marshy ends of fresh water ponds or drainage ditches along country roads. Try flooded sections of farmland where runoff has created large semi-permanent puddles. These are good spots to search and where you’ll eventually spy the big yellow, inscrutable eyes of Lithobates catesbeianus. It can sit motionless for hours, waiting patiently for a dragonfly or a curious wasp to come within range of its sticky tongue and voracious appetite. At dusk it starts up the racket that’s made it famous, deep rumblings that ricochet across the swamp and meadows, serenading its mates, who are devotees of “drum and bass.” During the day you’ll find it resting on a lily pad, its fat body mostly in the cool water, its head in the warm sun. 

  

Once you’ve selected your target, move cautiously and get as close as possible, being sure to stay out of the frog’s line of sight. Squat down low at the swamp’s soft edge near your frog and wait. This is where those boots and repellant will come in handy. We want it to forget you are there, and it might take a while. What’s that slight methane smell bubbling up from the stagnant water? Don’t be put off, as this is just decomposing organic matter and is the primordial perfume that our prey prefers. 

 Now that you’re sure it has forgotten all about you, raise your arm ever so slowly and with your hand formed into an open claw-like shape, move it into position, inch-by-inch, close behind the frog. Be sure not to cast a shadow, as that is a clear sign to the frog that a predator approaches. Now, how fast the frog will react will be influenced by how long the frog has been sitting in the sun. If it’s sleeping and enjoying froggy dreams of life as a tadpole, you have a fighting chance. The most important thing to remember, besides striking quickly, is to aim where you anticipate the frog will be once it jumps, not where it now sits on the lily pad. You will need to lead the receiver here. You’ll want to try a lightening grab for a spot six inches ahead of where it’s facing. Hopefully, it will jump straight ahead--sometimes they jump to the side, and if it does, you’re out of luck. If your aim is true, you will be rewarded with a hand full of sinewy, jerking frog. Hold tight. It will snap and hiss, but it’s harmless, and after it kicks a few times it will give up quietly. 

I’m reminded of a cub scout telling his fellow cubs about a boy who caught an exceptionally large frog. The boy held it up and looked it straight in the eyes, and the frog’s tongue shot out and grabbed the boy’s eyeball and pulled it right out of the socket. Even as a cub I never believed this story, but I never again looked a frog straight in the eyes. 

Now is your big moment. Your nerves and muscles twitch with electricity, your arm flashes forward, the frog leaps straight ahead into your grasping hand, and you’ve got him. Congratulations! 

You’ve caught the frog you’ve dreamed of, but what do you do with it? I don’t recommend eating it. I’ve never tasted one myself, but I hear it tastes like stringy chicken. Stuffed and mounted on your library wall is a little presumptuous. You might take a snapshot to show your grandchildren, but it would be best to simply plop it back into the water. With a few pumps of its powerful legs it will glide beneath the surface like an Olympian and then float up and delicately grasp the edge of a lily pad with its tiny webbed fingers, staring back at you blankly, like nothing’s happened, like it didn’t narrowly escape being breaded and fried. 

But you are now the uncontested, benevolent master of the swamp. You’ve demonstrated your superior hunting skills and you’re feeling decades younger, and ready for bigger challenges more suitable to your well-honed and lightening-fast reflexes. 

Notice the large snapping turtle that’s sleeping in the weeds at the pond’s edge. Should you decide to try to catch it, you might want to read my Capturing Snapping Turtles instruction pamphlet, which states emphatically on page one, STAY AWAY FROM SNAPPING TURTLES. However, if you are not a manual reader and prefer to plunge ahead and learn by trial and error, I leave you to your own devices. Go ahead. Give it your best shot, big guy. 

Dedicated to Andy Hatem, for whom I caught a large bullfrog when he was eight years old.

 

 

 

Clare’s Woods 

by Ernest Troost 

I wish I had met Clare and got to tell her how much I enjoyed climbing her trees and wandering through her fields and meadows. How I scraped my shins trying to climb a granite ledge behind her greenhouse, how I lost a shoe in the mud hunting for frogs down by the lake, and how one summer I dug up some of her wild columbine and jack-in-the-pulpits in a dark hollow behind the caretaker’s cottage, and I transplanted them to the rock garden my mom was planting in our front yard. I watered them, watching over them, but they didn’t live more than a few days. I should have left them where they were, wild and happy in the cool shade of Clare’s woods. 

I grew up in Connecticut on a dirt road opposite the Henry Luce estate. Did I realize as a seven-year-old that people of great wealth and political influence lived across that dusty road? That they had written Broadway plays and scripts for Hollywood movies, that they had been famous war correspondents? No. All I knew was that they owned the beautiful woods across from us. 

The Luce property was one hundred acres of woods and hilly meadows along the southern tip of Fox Hill Lake. Occasionally, in the fall when the trees were bare, we caught a glimpse of the Georgian two-story brick and stone manor house that must have had twenty rooms. We lived in a newly built, three bedroom, nine hundred square-foot ranch house, just like the ones my friends lived in, all built by a developer who thought this affluent town needed homes the working class could afford. He fought with the town elders and the zoning board, and in the late 1950s built little clusters of small houses around three man-made lakes. 

Did my parents talk about the Luces? I remember hearing something about the Luces being the publishers of Life magazine, which I loved. We got month-old, dog-eared copies of Life from my bachelor uncle, who had a subscription. I remember my mother saying that Clare Booth Luce attended our Catholic church. She even pointed her out once at Sunday Mass, and whispered in a hushed voice she used for dramatic effect, “That’s Clare.” 

One winter my father went to the Luce caretaker’s cottage and asked permission for us to toboggan down the hilly field we’d been watching fill up with snow. We made a few runs, but the long grass under the wet snow stuck to the toboggan bottom and we couldn’t get any good momentum. After a few tries we gave up and went home. 

The posted “no trespassing” signs around their property made the fields and woods very desirable for childhood adventures. We were supposed to play in the woods behind our house, but our woods were small and constrained by neighbors’ yards and by roads. You can’t see the edges of real woods. Clare’s woods was the real woods, dark and thick with mystery and mountain laurel, and we snuck over there often. Once, we discovered a huge downed tree, which was our spaceship and Twenty-Thousand-Leagues Under the Sea submarine, for the whole summer. I wonder now if I’ve ever enjoyed myself more than when I was roaming through those woods. Little League and school sports had rules, but here in Clare’s woods we ran wild. 

We always referred to the land across the road as the Luce estate, but years later, after reading Clare Booth Luce’s biography, I learned they had called the estate Spring Hill. They had lived there off and on starting in the 1940s, and many national figures in publishing and politics had visited. Eisenhower might have enjoyed a martini on the terrace of Spring Hill one summer, while across the road I was struggling to lift big rocks to my dad, who was building a stone terrace in our back yard. We were the town folk living at the edge of a sophisticated country estate, the kind that provide what New Yorkers call local color in a 1940s Hollywood movie like Christmas in Connecticut. 

We moved into our new house in 1960, so we overlapped with the Luces from 1960 to 1965. Around 1965 they divorced and sold the property to a rare book collector. I’ve read that those last years at Spring Hill were not happy ones for Clare, that she was ill and alone much of the time. 

I’ve also read that Clare took LSD with a doctor and her friend, an Argentinian composer, on her property in the early 1960s. They walked down to the birch grove that overlooked the lake and lay down in the leaves and watched the clouds roll by. Was I playing or climbing trees on her property that day? I can’t remember ever seeing her, but maybe she saw me. Maybe we got mentioned on the society pages. “On Saturday, Clare Booth Luce, playwright, politician, and icon of the conservative right, spent the day tripping at her peaceful, bucolic country retreat, while nearby a young boy was scampering up a smooth beach tree until he was high enough that the slender trunk began to bend, and lowered him gently to the ground.” I loved those woods. Apparently, Clare did too.