The Eastern Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor) began croaking here in my central Wisconsin yard a few weeks ago. Unlike many other amphibians that hang out with a crowd at the pond, the Eastern Gray Tree Frog seems to like a private party. He releases a single CROOOAK that almost makes me laugh. Such a big sound from a petite frog with dainty looking toe pads to help it climb trees! A master of camouflage, it is more often heard than seen like many other amphibians around the globe. Because they are often out of sight doesn’t mean their role is less important in the grand scheme of things. Not only do they have a vital carnivorous role in numerous food chains and webs globally, amphibians are often considered indicator species because they are very sensitive to environmental conditions. It is no wonder! They breathe through their skin as well as their primitive lungs and most live a double life—in water and on land.
Also inhabiting our central Wisconsin yard are Moccasin Flowers (Cypripedium acaule). A native orchid, they are glorious each May and June. Shaped like a delicate pink moccasin, they sprout up under our pines in the most unlikely places. When my husband and I first came to look at this property to consider buying it, the orchids were blooming. And that’s when I knew I had found home.
Getting to know more about these orchids from a local botany professor, I learned that they have almost no roots. I remember it like yesterday: We were on our hands and knees looking at the Moccasin Flowers when the professor gently moved away the duff from the base of a flower to prove it. There was almost nothing there—only minute nodules at the base of the flower stem. He pointed out that this plant is nearly impossible to successfully propagate for this very reason—there is little root structure. Its survival depends on microorganisms in the soil—fungi, in particular—to do the job that roots often do for other plants. Moccasin Flowers seem to grow somewhere between earth and sky.
Oh, the amazing life that shares our planet with us!
The recent United Nations report on biodiversity tells us what many of us already know—species extinction is accelerating. Countless species are destined for extinction unless we act to protect them. More than 40% of amphibians fall into this category. To those of us who are tuned into the cadence of the natural world and the fast pace of human-induced changes taking place on this planet, we saw this coming. To those who are disconnected from their natural world or denying its importance to human survival, the UN report may have fallen on deaf ears or made them wonder what’s the big deal?
As Aldo Leopold wrote: One of the rules of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts. Not only have we humans been tinkering on this planet, we have been clearcutting, bulldozing, burning, mining, drilling, fracking, spilling, draining, overfishing and bombing. Furthermore, we have been overpopulating, sprawling, spraying, consuming, polluting, exploiting and perhaps most unfortunate of all: denying. It’s as if by imagining there are no limits on Earth, we can’t possibly reach them. So we let ourselves off the hook and we fail to make changes to turn this ship around when we knew better than this a long time ago.
And amphibians in serious decline are indicating that it is time for us to clean up our act.
The family to which my terrestrial orchids belong, Orchidaceae, has the most species under threat of any plant family on Earth. It is at greatest risk of large scale extinction events. Why? Because this plant family has the most threatened genera (though Moccasin Flowers are fortunately not on the list at this time) and because these plants are highly specialized. They co-evolved with their pollinators, so if their pollinators go, they go, too. And they need the right fungi in the soil to survive.
Their extraordinary nature has put them at greater risk.
When we hear about endangered or threatened species, we often think about poster animals such as Bengal Tigers or Giant Pandas and overlook the finer or “out of sight” strands of our web of life. While the frog and the orchid in my backyard are not endangered, they both have essential roles to play. They are part of our life support system on this planet. We don’t fully understand all the ways and whys of our web of life on Earth and I—for one—hope the day never comes when we think we do.
The UN report calls for transforming our relationship with other living things so that we can provide fundamental life support for our planet.
Hmmmm. Sounds like we need to learn to love other species—including the ugly and lowly ones—a little more. Caring for frog and orchid habitat in my yard may seem like small potatoes to some people, but they have immense value because when I protect their habitat, it supports the life of other native critters in my corner of the world, too. And if the frogs are healthy, our neighborhood is healthy. If the orchid blooms for another season, its pollinators have been sustained through another year and our soils continue to support the necessary fungal organisms that function as its roots.
And I can laugh at Mr. Big CROOOAK.
And I get to be amazed at the rare miracle of life between earth and sky.
by Patty Dreier