As we gain the stubs of legs, our swimming, of which we are not conscious, grows more awkward or perhaps more graceful and skilled. We do not know each other or care to know. We are one with the water, an element we cannot define or even experience because we have no separation from it. We breathe with gills now in this sea, our only mother. As we develop lungs we do not know that we re-attain the moment when according to Loren Eisley, the snout of a fish struggled eons ago to move from one drying puddle to another, to change or die, and choked in its first air. Each of us does it again, down here in the slime. When our legs and lungs are ready, and our swimming tail shortened to a stub, we feel the naked dryness of the air as we drag out to land, not perhaps as desperate as our heroic ancestor, but desperate just the same. We let the wind dry our leathery porous skin, feel its emptiness around us, a different temperature, and make for the first time a sound that swims through this foreign air. It is night, a safer time to emerge than in the day. And before morning, we must eat, in a different way, slinging out the sticky tongue to catch a gnat or midge unlucky enough to have strayed too near the water.
Frogs are not us, but they are our story. The first agonized breath from what had been a sea creature led to us. In our conception and gestation we are like them, in the water, surrounded and alone--our unknown father, our mother whom we do not know, because we are so close to her. When we come out, it is a shock, an agony of eye and lung, a breach, an utter change, and unlike the frogs, we do not seem to return. We examine frogs, dissect them alive enough to make their legs twitch reflexively when we touch part of their brain. I can remember the one I did, so pale and putty-colored, bare instance of life pinned down in the posture of the crucified Christ. There is no question of a frog soul. It is not debated.
My brother used to go to creeks and ponds to catch crayfish and frogs, and tadpoles he kept in metal pans in an enclosed porch in our house, sometimes all winter it seemed, in hopes they would grow into frogs. They never did, but got all bloated and bulbous and gold. We once panicked when we thought our baby brother had drunk the dead frog water. One night 25 years later in Tennessee, I sat in the evening with my father by a lake and listened to the low hum of bullfrogs--such a loud vibrating sound, like a thick rubber string plucked. He would imitate and buzz along with them, as when I was a child and he sang "The bulldog on the bank and the bullfrog in the pool," going lower and lower and more sputtering in his bullfrog voice, so that at the end we laughed and laughed.
We dream of frogs. In fairy tales, one is a prince, in the most grotesque and repugnant form the folk imagination could give him, the last thing one would want to kiss. With the kiss, the maybe grudging acceptance, he is transformed. But no prince ever seems to want to transform to a frog.
I have dreamed of frogs. One night two years ago, one swam up to the surface of my sleep from the depths where he had been living, and spread his wide mouth in an indulgent self-satisfied way to ask me to make him a bacon sandwich on a donut. I was repulsed, but thought though did not know as well as I know now, that his image and request told me a truth about a man I was close to. And may be even about part of myself. It was a difficult truth that the more advanced parts of my brain could not see or accept. It was the depths that knew, that sent me a message up from those waters, as a frog. A year after that, I dreamed of the primitive froggish man sitting silent in a chair. I touched his throat and cheek, brown and green, his thin wavy-line mouth, trying to help him to talk, to connect. But I don't remember kissing him.
We too are amphibians, and we do return, like the frog, to a version of those mothering waters, where we dream and reconnect. And perhaps feed. It is not only at night. In 1982, I had just put my 5-year-old son on a plane to return from Boston to Atlanta to stay with his father while I attended a writers' conference. I then went to the Boston aquarium with a friend and saw the clawed frogs swimming up and down with arms outstretched and read of how "some male frogs shelter their young in their mouths." These became lines in a poem I wrote the next afternoon, with the images of those frogs and of the desperate evolutionary change from sea to land animals as a metaphor for how we humans must continually transform. As in the dream, the frog image--not from the unconscious but from the physical world--helped me to make an adaptation that was a breakthrough for me as a poet, and helped me to adjust to a recent divorce--actually evolutionary for me. As dreamers, artists, humans, we continually go down into that water and up again. The unconscious is womb water--a sort of pond where we came from and sometimes return, a dangerous place to stay too long, because we do breathe air.
At night, sitting next to the edge, with a belly full of flies, or maybe just at dusk, it is good to hold our breath, spring from long and strong green legs, and make the dive--to give up the separating medium of air, and return, to where our origins keep recreating us. That prince might have been better off as a frog, or maybe as more frog-like. And the princess could have done worse than to kiss him. She could do worse than to get in the water, and do worse than become green.