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6 April 2022

Spring reflection: What tadpoles taught me

When they turn to tiny tailed froglets and scramble into damp grass, we learn something about letting go.

By Helen Macdonald

It was as reliable a sign of spring as daffodils flaring in flowerbeds or blackbirds breaking into song. It was a schoolroom tradition, but lots of us did it at home, with varying levels of sophistication. Sometimes it was buckets by the back door, or big glass jars. Like me, some went all-in and set up a home aquarium. We filled them with rain and river water and introduced frogspawn harvested from ponds. Adding fronds of aquatic weed, we refreshed the water regularly and waited, and watched, and hoped.

Children aren’t renowned for their patience, but we never lost interest over the months it took for our precious clumps of spawn to turn into frogs. The dark dots of eggs evolved into twitching commas, then hatched into tadpoles the soft black colour of a dead television screen. At first, they hung on the emptied jelly like fur. Then they swam: tiny moving ink-strokes with feathery gills, mouths scouring algae from waterweed. Slowly they grew into chunky beasts whose skins were spattered with gold. Their gills shrank away, and they began gulping air. Ballooning in size, their faces turned so sardonic they resembled miniature Jabba the Huts.

About 16 weeks in, tiny bumps by their tails thickened and grew into legs, transforming them into weird, chimeric creatures that failed to fit the familiar categories of the world. Then their bodies wrested angularity from roundness and suddenly there were miniature, perfect, part-tailed frogs with jewelled eyes in the tank, sitting on top of wooden rafts or stones we’d piled into the water, creatures so cute it burned to look at them.

Teachers explained that tadpoles were raised at school to teach us the life-cycle of the common frog, but there were more lessons here than simple biology. The aquarium was a flicker in the corner of the room, its denizens always busy; to me it always felt somehow like a promise that not everything was, or would always be, school. And unlike fish tanks – arranged with care to perfectly replicate river or reef or pond – the tadpole tank didn’t try to mimic anything. It was only ever a container for growing life. One can have favourites in a tank of fish. But I couldn’t have favourite tadpoles. There were too many, they all looked the same. They were crowds, not individuals, and their purpose was to grow and change. Their slow metamorphoses chimed with my childish comprehensions of what it meant to grow up and leave home.

[See also: The wood may not yet be silent, but its birds are far quieter]

Being the provider for so many tiny lives taught us lessons in care. Many of us learned the hard way that without sufficient food, larger tadpoles turn to cannibalism, and the inevitable casualties among even well-fed aquarium inhabitants taught us uncomfortable facts about death. Staring at tadpoles’ tiny eyes was the first time I knew the world doesn’t operate only on the human scale; that inside and alongside our own worlds are a million others that aren’t ours to share.

For us, the tadpoles weren’t ever wild animals. But they weren’t pets, either. When they turned to fingernail-sized, tailed froglets, we knew they had to be returned to the wild, and it was always an ambivalent experience to watch them scramble into damp long grass or vanish into the shallows of a pond’s edge. That was a lesson about the limits of possession, about giving things up, letting go.

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There were many tadpole horror stories. We were children, after all. A friend still winces at the memory of trying to pick hosts of squirming tinies out of soaked shagpile carpet after tipping over the jar they swam in. Back then we were advised to feed well-grown tadpoles on bits of liver or bacon, and sometimes kids were a little exuberant with the portions and a little lax in changing the water and all their tadpoles died. Millions of tadpoles must have suffered the same fate – which, along with frogs and other amphibians being in serious decline from habitat loss and disease, may be why this activity is less common these days, though it’s still legal to raise tadpoles at home.

Husbandry failings are part of why many people dislike keeping tadpoles, and they give me pause, too. But despite these misgivings, I still hope the activity continues. In its small way, tadpole-rearing can work against narratives about the natural world that portray humans simply as agents of destruction whose dealings with nature inevitably lead to its decline. These stories suggest that we shouldn’t interact with nature at all, which radically attenuates our ability to forge hands-on, emotional connections with it. These are the very connections that can foster a life-long interest in nature and a keen sense of ecological and environmental responsibility.

Not all the kids in my class turned into naturalists. But keeping tadpoles worked a very particular magic on me. It turned frogs from slippery, mysterious creatures into lovable, familiar characters, which is why over the years I’ve done my best to look out for them, digging ponds, leaving grassy areas in my gardens uncut, piling up logs as refuges and avoiding insecticides. Those childhood aquaria coursing with animate punctuation marks helped me see the natural world as an extended community of humans and non-humans alike. Today I know the landscape around me is a place coursing with bonds of reciprocity forged decades ago, after I first lifted a quivering mass of frogspawn from the chill waters of a small suburban pond.

[See also: How flowers have always grown among the devastation of war]

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special