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Benton MacKaye Landscapes Little Compton

“Frog Opera”: A Seasonal Chorus in Deep Time

The house Nan and I are fortunate to be renting in Little Compton is situated on a patch of slightly higher, drier land in the midst of what, for all intents and purposes, is a kind of swamp, especially at this time of year. (I use the word “swamp” deliberately and in a positive and unscientific sense, rather than choosing the more legalistic, sometimes misleading, and potentially problematic term “wetlands.”) The substantial lot on which the house sits, bounded by characteristic Little Compton stone walls that enclose meadow and woodlands, is meticulously cared for and managed by our landlord. Previous owners and neighbors, it is clear, had devoted considerable toil and time to managing and manipulating nearby natural streams and ponds for agricultural and domestic uses, such as watering livestock.

Not even fifty feet west from our house, on the other side of a stone wall, is a small pond, possibly manmade, and other seasonal vernal ponds. On the other, eastern side of the house, perhaps 200 feet away, the property slopes gently down to a more substantial pond, an impoundment of a south-flowing stream that eventually feeds Tunipus Pond.

Little Compton frog opera house

The proximity of all this water, in this month of April, provides a stage for our amphibian co-inhabitants–various species of frogs–to announce the arrival of spring with their daily musical vocal performances. My own somewhat limited hearing prevents me from fully appreciating and making sense of their complex, improvisational compositions. But Nan spends many of her evenings, after dark, sitting in a chair close to the nearby little ponds, wrapped in a sleeping bag, enjoying the free concerts and later providing me with always glowing reviews.

I’m no naturalist. Nan can discern the sometimes overlapping, sometimes solo voices of different frog species. The predominant performers, in numbers and volume, are the spring peepers, Pseudacris crucifer, calling out in the throes of mating season. “Spring peepers are known for their high piping whistle consisting of a single clear note repeated on intervals,” according to “Animal Diversity Web” from the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. “The males sing, normally doing so in trios, the one who starts each round is usually the deepest voiced. During the daytime, peepers often call during light rains or in cloudy weather. They are usually silent at the end of summer, but call from forests during the fall.”

Henry David Thoreau (Illustration by Clifton Johnson, from Cape Cod, 1908 edition)

“You hear him, but you will never find him.”

Of course, Nan is far from the first to notice and report on this annual musical rite of spring. On April 9, 1856, the thirty-eight-year-old Henry David Thoreau could barely keep up with his self-appointed task documenting all the organic developments exploding on the Concord landscape at that moment in the annual round of seasons. Indeed, he is considered an American pioneer in the science of phenology, the study of seasonal and periodic natural phenomena. His Journal entry for that April day reports on three excursions in different directions from his village home. Thoreau, of course, was familiar with every swamp, pond, river, and stream in his native town. That evening, on what he noted was a “very warm day,” he set off on foot “Up railroad.” As best I can tell from his account, he walked “up,” or westward, along the tracks of the Fitchburg Railroad, which within a mile or so spans both the Sudbury and Assabet rivers, not far above their confluence in the village to merge as the Concord River. Here’s a portion of his journal entry, which ends on a somewhat sobering note:

I go off a little to the right of the railroad, and sit on the edge of that sand-crater near the spring by the railroad. Sitting there on the warm bank, above the broad, shallow, crystalline pool, on the sand, amid russet banks of curled early sedge-grass, showing a little green at base, and dry leaves, I bear one hyla peep faintly several times. This is, then, a degree of warmth sufficient for the hyla. He is the first of his race to awaken to the new year and pierce the solitudes with his voice. He shall wear the medal for this year. You hear him, but you will never find him. He is somewhere down amid the withered sedge and alder bushes there by the water’s edge, but where? From that quarter his shrill blast sounded, but he is silent, and a kingdom will not buy it again.

The communications from the gods to us are still deep and sweet, indeed, but scanty and transient,–enough only to keep alive the memory of the past. I remarked how many old people died off on the approach of the present spring. It is said that when the sap begins to flow in the trees our diseases become more violent. It is now advancing toward summer apace, and we seem to be reserved to taste its sweetness, but to perform what great deeds? Do we detect the reason why we also did not die on the approach of spring?

A century later, another Massachusetts student of the region’s natural landscape, Benton MacKaye, who lived twenty miles further west along the Fitchburg Railroad in the town of Shirley, contemplated the peepers’ annual return as a lesson in ecological, evolutionary, geological, and cosmic time. His brief essay, “Frog Opera,” in the summer 1957 issue of The Living Wilderness, magazine of The Wilderness Society, was inspired after reading the recently published book, The Singing Wilderness, by the Minnesota writer and conservationist Sigurd Olson. MacKaye had been a founder of the Society in the mid-1930s and served as its president from 1945 to 1950, then as honorary president until his death in 1975. Olson later became a member of the Society’s governing council and one of MacKaye’s successors as president, playing a significant role in promoting passage of the 1964 federal Wilderness Act.

A “Carboniferous Chorus”

Reading Olson’s chapter “Wilderness Music,” MacKaye had been struck by the “insight into natural harmony” provided by his friend’s description of the springtime “frog chorus” at a north country bog. MacKaye offered his own account of a similar event that he enjoyed with his Shirley neighbors from “a hill overlooking the ‘stage’, … a level meadow, a former spruce swamp (a boreal island) bordered by a screen of hardwoods in their early vernal attire. The sun was slowly setting, and the show began.”

Benton MacKaye, on Hunting Hill, on the borderline between Shirley and Lunenburg, Massachusetts, June, 1937. (Photo courtesy Rauner Special Collections/Dartmouth College Library and Robert McCullough)

MacKaye belonged to a family of dramatists well known in their own times: his father Steele, his brother Percy, and his sister Hazel. His own brief essay framed the frogs’ performance as a sort of deep-time metaphor in three acts. The musical drama “portrayed evolution in reverse, progressing from day into night, from light into darkness,” through geological eras represented by the corresponding living natural sounds and silences of each, culminating in the frogs’ ancient “Carboniferous Chorus.” He wrote:

The long night of the Paleozoic is broken by the amphibian croakings of the Carboniferous era, voicing the first intimations of cosmic dawn. This scene in time is replaced by the cheerful chirpings of the Jurassic era, sounding the royal advent of the birds. This story of half a billion years was told to us backwards in less than half an evening.

Olson’s inspiration, MacKaye concluded, had alerted him to “a new form of dramatic art” in the living existence of a “real outdoor theatre.” Throughout his long life, and partly by force of circumstance, MacKaye had lived by Thoreauvian precepts of simplicity. Until his death at age 96 in 1975, he had resisted installing electricity and plumbing in the family’s modest Shirley cottage. In that austere spirit, he saw both material and spiritual virtue in Olson’s notion of genuinely organic art. “And what a wondrous antidote to TV!” he emphatically concluded. “Soul versus machine!”

In 1957, in his late 70s, MacKaye could write in a philosophical and reflective vein. But the sound of the first frogs each spring held a sharper, more personal meaning for him, as an annual reminder of possibly the most painful moment of his life, decades earlier, which had left a lasting emotional scar that he never publicly acknowledged in the years thereafter.

On April 18, 1921, in the season of the peepers’ arrival, his wife of six years, Jessie Hardy MacKaye–“Betty,” as she was familiarly known–died in New York City, an apparent suicide. She had for some time been suffering from emotional and mental difficulties.

Betty MacKaye, Benton’s wife, in 1915, the year they were married. She was a leader of the Congressional Union and the National Woman’s Party, campaigning for a federal constitutional amendment ensuring woman suffrage. She lived to see enactment of the 19th amendment in 1920, but died, an apparent suicide, April 18, 1921. (Photo courtesy of Rauner Special Collections/Dartmouth College Library)

Her memorial service was held outdoors on Staten Island, where Betty had hoped she and Benton might live. Her ashes were strewn at the lily pond where the service took place. Benton’s sister Hazel, with whom he was close, offered memorial comments. “The place my brother has chosen for the service in memory of his wife is out of doors–for it seems to him that the open air is the only fitting place to scatter the dust of those who have gone from this world,” Hazel said. There, she continued, the “young frogs are piping their spring song. That song which seems to him to be nearer to what the race calls ‘spiritual’ than any other sound in the world. It is the sound of eternal spring–of the pain and ecstasy of that ever-recurring time.”

Throughout his life, MacKaye from time to time tersely noted in his pocket diary the year’s first springtime performance of the “frog opera.”♦