Last night a low-slung rainstorm raced across northern Illinois. It dropped the temperature slightly. But it raised the humidity tremendously. As I stepped out for a morning run, a small green frog bounded through the grass and hid under the car. It was an omen.
Starting up the drive from the cul de sac where we lived, I noticed frog after frog smashed on the road. Reaching the main street, the number of dead frogs increased. By the time I turned onto Orchard Road, a four-lane tributary that feeds into the Interstate a mile away, there was frog grease everywhere.
The weather conditions were perfect, it seems, for an irruptive migration of frogs. The wetland right behind our house provides prime breeding habitat for several varieties of frogs. These were leopard frogs, most of them three to four inches in length with their legs extended.
Dead on the highway
And that’s how I found most of them. Splay-legged on the road. They can seem like stupid creatures if you look at the irruption from a human perspective. How stupid do you have to be in order to jump in front of speeding cars? But the instincts that drive frogs out of a safe pond to find new environs is what has made them successful for millions of years.
Nature plays harsh with number games. Frogs gather in spring to sing and breed. Then they lay egg clusters that cling to plants until tadpoles emerge. Those wiggle around in the pond or wetland until their tales absorb into their bodies and their legs emerge and strengthen enough to swim. Frogs are very good swimmers you see. Far better than human beings. They use what we might call a combination of breast stroke and butterfly to kick their way through the water.
But they have lots of predators. Other frogs will eat them, with bullfrogs sitting at the top of the food chain in North America. But all frogs are merciless predators. Back in college, we had to collect six or seven species of frogs for our field biology class. Catching them was hard work in the cold springs and streams around Decorah, Iowa. My legs were stiff as boards for track practice that afternoon because I’d wandered around in fifty-five degree water most of the morning. But I finally had them all, and proudly placed them in an aquarium in our dorm room for safekeeping overnight until bringing them into class the next day.
When I woke the next morning to check on the frogs, I looked with horror upon the scene inside the aquarium. The leopard frog had chomped onto the body of the tiny chorus frog, whose legs were sticking out the craw of the bigger frog. I reached into the aquarium and squeezed the sides of the leopard frog, whose mouth popped open. Then I took the chorus frog and put him into a cup away from the other frogs. “You bastard,” I hissed at the leopard frog.
But he was only doing what leopard frogs do. Catching an easy meal was great fun for him in the aquarium. Why had I assumed that one frog would not eat another? Again, my selfish human perspective was imposed on reality.
Wasteful or not?
As I ran down the road this morning the paste of frogs on the road seemed so wasteful. Yet I fully recognize that nature does this all the time. Frogs breed and migrate in the thousands because nature requires such massive distribution in order to take advantage of niche opportunities. If 5,000 frogs get squashed but 200 find new habitats and 10 of them thrive to breed in new locations, that is considered a success in evolutionary terms. For some people, that kind of math is hard to buy. But it is the truth.
Human beings have done precisely the same thing throughout history. The people who occupied North America long before Europeans came across the Atlantic had long emigrated from Asia, likely traveling over what was either a land or ice bridge in northern climes. They built entirely successful societies with advanced knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. Some spread over the central plains and followed bison herds for food. Others made it all the way to the East Coast, and these were the people encountered by European explorers, who sooner or later migrated to other shores and irrupted like Spanish, English and French frogs across the country we call America. They all fought frog wars against each other too. So the cycle of frogs on the highway of history never ends.
It looks like the leopard frogs are winning in America. But appearances can be deceiving. Migrations have their consequences, and so do attempts at ruling niches in ways that aren’t sustainable. Ponds dry up and streams stop flowing when heat waves strike. That can kill off entire colonies of frog. We learned that the hard way with the Dust Bowl. Rain does not follow the plow. We are learning it all over again with climate change.
Nor does money flow from rock. Two years ago I had a creative assignment to write content for a financial advisor who was nearing the end of his life. His mind was still sharp but his body was crumpling into itself from the legs on up, with limbs shriveling like frogs legs back into a tadpole tale.
Yet he still felt a sense of mission. And one of his key objectives was to tell the truth on what he knew about how the financial investment system operated in America. So we met several times as I worked on versions of content for his company brochure and website. Each time we met he grew a little more exasperated because I was not harsh enough in tone for him. “I can’t say this outright I know, because the industry has regulations about what you can and cannot say,” he told me. And this I knew. Because I’d written many types of financial content before.
“But it’s like this,” he intoned. “The typical investor is a loser before they even put any money into a product. I know this because for decades I worked the buyer’s side of the market. I’m the guy who purchased the stocks and investment products that go into investment trusts and other products. And I know for a fact that there are very, very few investment products that are honest with the consumer. The typical investor is forced to buy a bunch of dogs along with the better products. They mix it up to make it look good, but the money’s made by layers of takers before the investor ever earns a single cent. And the real good stuff is reserved for the buyers. It’s a scam. Plain and simple.”
What my clients was saying is that average investors have odds that are not much better than frogs on the highway. Every once in a while, this fact gets exposed when the market turns on everyone. That happens when the Big Frogs get cocky from preying on all the little frogs. They get greedy and leave the pond gobbling up everything in sight.
That was the Great Depression in a nutshell. Also the Great Recession of 2008. The Big Frogs got caught out in the open. The breeding stock, as it were, almost got scorched in the sun. Run over by the Market. Crushed by forces even they could not comprehend.
But the Big Pond was merciful this time around. The government bailed out the Big Frogs by dragging a stimulus hose out to the Big Frogs who lay gasping in the ditches. It was the civilized thing to do for frogs that were too big to fail.
The lesson of all that speculative arrogance and froggy greed was not long retained. The frog population got all up in arms about being ignored out there in the fields. “You forgot about us!” the little frogs all complained. “What about all those frogs that got run over on the highway? How are you going to prevent that from happening? We need Rain On Demand! You need to make it rain so that we can find new ponds and not get crushed on the highway!”
So the little frogs all got together and elected a Big Fat Frog to the President of the Frognited States. The Big Fat Frog made some amazing promises, like the ability to make it rain on demand so that all the little frogs can hop around with no fear of drying up in the wind or the sun. And now the little frogs are now jumping all over the place excited that they’ll never get dry again or be smangulated by the Market and run over by the Heartless Cars of Oligarchy.
It’s an ugly scene, for sure. And poor Big Froggy keeps croaking on Croaker or Twitter or whatever you want to call it.
But when Big Fat Frog gets run over, which is inevitable considering how big and fat and obvious he is on the road, there will be shock among all the little frogs who believe in him. “It’s the Mainstream Media!” they’ll yell. But in fact it will be the Heartless Cars of Oligarchy who do the evil deed. And they’ll stop, wipe down their tires and keep on driving. Because it does not look good to have the spattered parts of frogs big or little on the shiny hubcaps of permanent privilege. So unseemly, you know.
Frogs on the highway.