home     authors     titles     dates     links     about


28 november 2012

I hear a thousand frogs for every one I see. On summer nights in Texas, the oaks and pecans that surround our house are full of tree frogs, whose collective clamor drowns out every insect and owl in the neighborhood. But the only batrachians I ever see are the occasional ground-dwellers who hop too close to the house and have to be escorted away again. Four cats have a way of keeping down the ground-frog population, I guess. But it's also true that tree-frogs, though incessant and ubiquitous, are nearly impossible to see. Owls, bats, coyotes – these you have a fighting chance to glimpse. Tree frogs, never.

Frogs can appear in such frightening quantities that they seem supernatural in their provenance, notes Charlotte Sleigh in the Reaktion Animal Frog. Their appearance as plagues or swarms, their (possibly apocryphal but definitely Fortean) falling from the sky as rain: all these weird manifestations are reinforced by batrachian betwixt-and-betweenness.

Sleigh spends much of her fine, quirky (and often very funny) study on the uses of frogs in scientific research. Particularly unsettling is her dissection of the commonplace that a frog dropped into boiling water will hop out, but a frog slowly heated to boiling will sit there and boil. This modern fable seems to have a basis in fact, and the fact is even weirder than one thought. Live, whole frogs will in fact hop out of boiling water no matter how quickly or slowly it's heated. The frogs that stay put were, in old-timey experiments, decorticated: they'd had their brains removed. "A frog lacking its brain is hardly thinking straight," Sleigh observes (110). But for researchers of the 18th and 19th centuries, the brainless frog was the perfect biological mechanism. The persistence of muscle reflexes in decorticated frogs showed how the machine functioned without the ghost – and indeed, how the ghost itself could be reduced to a discharge of electrical energy. And thus the lack of coordinated planning in the case of an otherwise twitchy frogsbody proved … well, even Sleigh isn't sure what it proved exactly, but it was one of the "aha!" moments of proto-Frankensteinian science.

Frogs are funny, in popular culture, for the most part; toads are noisome (yet have their countervailing mystical value, as in Shakespeare's toad which, "ugly and venomous / Wears yet a precious jewel in his head"). Kissed, the frog can become a prince, or can turn you into a princess (the legend, Sleigh notes, is extremely malleable). Above all, frogs change. The biological metamorphosis of their life cycle has produced many a myth of human metamorphosis. Out of slime comes redemption.

Frogs have dubious culinary value. English speakers have tended to associate them with the French, sometimes as a sneer at French poverty, sometimes at French effeteness. But other traditions also associate French and frogs. In Arto Paasilinna's novel La cavale du géomètre, a group of French vegetarians camps in the Finnish wilderness. Their local guide expresses confusion when the Frenchwomen forage for frogs to eat.

[Il] leur fit remarquer que les grenouilles étaient de la viande au même titre que les autres animaux. Elles répondirent que les grenouilles étaient bonnes à manger parce qu'elles n'étaient pas des mammifères mais des batraciens.

[He pointed out to them that frogs were meat, the same as other animals. They replied that frogs were OK to eat because they weren't mammals but batrachians.] (Denoël 2010, 219)
One senses special pleading here. Fish or fowl or whatever they may be, to these vegetarians frogs are simply yummy, and thus have to be worked into the category of the edible. I can't pronounce judgment, never having eaten frogs. There's something unsettling about seeing their dressed legs on ice at upscale markets: they're reminiscent of something unspeakable, but as Sleigh keeps noting, we're not quite sure what. (It's less eerie seeing them live, as I do sometimes at Asian markets; unprocessed live frogs are just funny little creatures, not easily convertible in the mind into chicken-fried legs.) Frog legs are a specialty of many a backroad fish shack in the rural South, so I imagine one day I will order up a frog-and-fries basket and find that like everything else dunked in hot oil, it tastes like chicken.

Sleigh, Charlotte. Frog. London: Reaktion, 2012.