On Seeing A Frog on My Street

London is remarkable for the variety of wildlife to be found on its streets. Our neighborhood is practically seething with foxes, for example. You see them skulking around trash cans late at night, or hurrying across the road in a flash of headlights. I always imagined foxes as sleek and elegant animals, but that was before I had any direct experience of them. On closer inspection, they are really pretty mangy creatures. Maybe that’s the price they pay for living in the city. London also supports a wide variety of birds and amphibians, partly because so many homes sport little ponds in the gardens. Ponds is perhaps giving these tiny bodies of water too much credit; they are really nothing more than glorified puddles. It is no doubt from one of these that the frog I saw on my street the other day had wandered.

I was walking my daughter home from school when we saw it on the sidewalk, leaping determinedly along a garden wall. It was totally unperturbed by our presence, its sides gently pulsing with respiration. We stopped and watched it for a while. I wanted to put it back on the other side of the wall, where it was less likely to be run over by a car or become an impromptu science experiment for a group of local boys. I tried to get it to leap into my daughter’s lunch box so I could toss it over the wall, but it refused to co-operate. I grew up in the suburbs, so it never occured to me to actually pick it up with my hands. But a builder who happened to be working nearby strolled up, grabbed the frog and clasped it to his chest, showed my daughter one last time and dropped it over the wall, where it plopped into the grass.I’ve only ever had one other close encounter with an animal in a city. It was in San Francisco and this time it was a reptile, a snake. At the time, I was studying Buddhist philosophy and psychology and was walking home from a lecture at the San Francisco Zen Center, which was located just a few blocks from where I lived. The Zen Center was in a pretty dodgy neighborhood, so I was always very alert to my environment on my walks home, especially at night. This time, though, I remember I was completely lost in thought, still immersed in the ancient Buddhist texts we had been discussing. As I walked up the street, completely oblivious to my surroundings, I was astonished to see a snake writhing and hissing right at my feet, right in the middle of the sidewalk. This was no grass snake, though, slender, scared and harmless. It was long and it was thick and sinewy, and for a moment I was scared witless. The snake seemed just as startled to see me, and it quickly slithered off, first into a patch of weeds and then under a parked car. I think it eventually climbed up into the wheel well.

I just stood there dumbfounded for a minute. Where could a snake like that have come from? I didn’t imagine they would occur naturally in a neighborhood as urban as this. I thought maybe it had escaped from someone’s aquarium, or maybe some bored kid got tired of it and just decided to let it loose. But those Buddhist texts were still in my head, and in Buddhist mythology snakes are very auspicious creatures, symbols of wisdom rather than evil as they are in the West. So it occured to me that encountering this snake on the sidewalk was a very good thing, a sign that I was on the path to wisdom, a road that I desperately needed to travel at the time. I walked the rest of the way home in a very good mood.

So what did this frog on the sidewalk symbolize? Well, at the moment my daughter is very much into fairy tales. One of the games we often play together is Sleeping Beauty. She pricks her finger on the side of her bed and then swoons dramatically, pretending to fall asleep on the floor, with a huge grin on her face. I then kiss her and she wakes up. But when she wakes up she’s not a princess, but a very angry lion who roars and brandishes her claws. The only defense against this lion is tickling her. I don’t think my daughter has come across the story ofThe Frog Prince yet. But every time I peck her cheek and she wakes up, I do indeed feel like a king.

And here’s the only aphorism I can think of at the moment that pertains to amphibians. Happily, it is irrelevant to the rest of this posting. It’s from Chamfort, who clearly must have kissed some unpleasant frogs in his time:

A man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes to be sure of finding nothing still more disgusting before the day is over.