Alan Halsey: A Pondkeeper Reports

On the fifth morning of the fifth week we spotted the frogs on the paving alongside the smaller pond. They were probably among the couples splashing about and hankering to mate the afternoon before. Slumped with faces pointing away from the water as if paralysed escaping a home become hellhole. Two were speckled white belly-up, legs cramped in pain or panic, one female swollen with spawn. The other two lay flat, heads down and legs distended, skin red as predicted; one body dissolving into jelly, puffed and transparent, in a haemorrhaged puddle. That afternoon we found another, further from the pond and sheltered between flowerpots. Who when my shovel touched him tried to drag himself away by his forelegs but his trunk resisted, too heavy to lift. I smashed his head with a brick.

Two more on the sixth morning. One swollen belly-up, the other face down and legs splayed. Motionless all day but when touched by the shovel late afternoon their legs stretched and lungs pumped. These frogs are suffering long slow deaths but in merciful coma. One smash of the brick isn’t always enough.

A crowd of survivors still frolic and mate in the pond but drop no spawn. Common frogs when breeding often purr loud as bikers revving up a few streets away. These are frisky but silent: have they lost their voices?

As its name implies ranavirus mostly attacks frogs but can also infect toads and newts. It first appeared in England in the 1980s in the south-east. It has been blamed on the introduction of North American bullfrogs, the immigrant’s everlasting doom. It has slowly spread north, perhaps in the wake of milder winters. It is waterborne and has no known antidote. Emptying the pond is a temporary measure but the virus will lie dormant and infect any refill. It usually kills 90% of a colony. Some individuals are genetically immune and will successfully breed, eventually achieving complete repopulation. For some colonies it’s wipeout.

Seventh day, one swollen female belly-up. Are pregnant females the choice victims? Should we suppose a virus has like ants and bees a collective mind with supra-personal intentions? The pond anyway awash with mating couples and frantic three- or foursomes, a daylong orgy. Occasional faint purrs answer yesterday’s question. We’ve yet to see the dying crawl from the water. They’re probably struck when night’s coldest. Most get no further than two feet from the pond. It seems none die without heading for dry land.

Report posted the seventh evening of the fifth week in Europe of coronavirus Covid-19 which as of now has attacked only biggest-brained primates and mostly endangers the older and least fit of the species such as your correspondent mourning those frogs who gladdened his best days.


Alan Halsey’s Selected Poems 1988-2016 is published by Shearsman and his latest book Winterreisen, a collaboration with Kelvin Corcoran, by Knives Forks & Spoons. His edition of Bill Griffiths’ collected poems 1966-96 appeared in three volumes from Reality Street. He keeps his pond in Nether Edge and is an Affiliated Poet at Sheffield University’s Centre for Poetry & Poetics.


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