How we caused a plague of frogs

My wife, Alison, could be called a batrachophile, or a ranidaphile or, more comprehensibly, a frogophile. They’re all terms (somewhat made-up) for a lover of frogs. Alison doesn’t quite love frogs. She’s not into kissing them hoping they’ll change into a handsome prince. But she likes them enough that if we’re out for a late evening walk and she sees a frog sitting on the footpath or the road, she’ll hurry over to pick it up and make it safe before it’s flattened. (Then she’ll expect me to hold her hand again. That’s a test of love.)

So, when I dug the beginnings of a pond in our back garden, and it rained, and our clay soil didn’t let the water drain, and the frogs filled it with frog spawn, Alison called a halt on my construction work. ‘You can’t do any more for now. You mustn’t disturb the frogs.’ Therefore I began work on a second pond, so that eventually I could move the frogs to a new home and finish the first pond.

Finally both ponds were built and the frogs and Alison were happy. Except we now had a lot of frogs. So much so that when Alison mowed our grass I had to walk in front of the lawnmower and shuffle my feet from side to side in case the whirling blades decapitated a frog. However, most frogs weren’t hiding in the grass waiting to die. They went roaming. One evening our doorbell rang. I answered, and one of our neighbours stood there holding two bulging plastic bags. He held out the bags, saying ‘I believe these are yours’, and walked off. I looked inside. Each bag was filled with wriggling frogs. So, you know you have a plague of frogs when special measures are needed before cutting the grass, and when neighbours carry bags of frogs back to your door.

That’s when I suggested we should have fish in our larger pond. I thought gazing at fish swimming lazily in our pond would be relaxing. But my frog-loving Alison saw a problem: ‘Fish will eat the tadpoles’.

I’m not someone who takes every statement for granted. ‘Maybe fish actually don’t eat tadpoles’, I thought. So I searched the internet and found there were several organisations dedicated to preserving frogs. I called one of them, and explained I wanted fish for our pond but my wife said they’d eat the tadpoles, but surely that wasn’t true. The delightful lady who’d answered the phone hesitated, perhaps deciding if I needed marriage advice or frog advice.

Then she uttered the words I didn’t want to hear: ‘Your wife is right. In general, fish will eat any food they can get in their mouths, which will certainly include tadpoles.’

‘Really?’ I said, ‘But lots of people have fish…’

‘Yes, but then they don’t have tadpoles.’

Thwarted. But my frog-preserving-advisor wasn’t quite finished.

‘I don’t know if I should be telling you this…’ she continued slowly. ‘But, out in the wild, only about ten out of every thousand tadpoles ever survive to become frogs. If you protect tadpoles from all predators, you’ll be overrun with frogs.’

Yes! I reported back to Alison what I’d heard from an official source, and the idea of fish with very small mouths got onto the agenda. (I’ll report on the outcome later.)

It was only later that I grasped a principle illustrated by our plague of frogs: What you don’t control may soon control you. What you don’t get on top of may one day get on top of you.

Here are some examples I’ve seen.

Clutter    I’ve visited people whose homes were hard to navigate. There was ‘stuff’ everywhere. In Fred’s house, newspapers and magazines were heaped on almost every flat surface: on counter tops, tables, ledges, chairs, sofas, and, of course, on the floor. Fred lifted a pile off a chair for me, and I followed a narrow path between the heaps of paper to reach it. In Willie’s home, years of paper and no-longer used objects were stacked on free-standing shelves. When one set of shelves was filled, another set was installed. They stuck out into the room at right angles, so I had to weave this way and that to reach a seat. I visited a lawyer whose office was a little better than those homes, but only a little. All his ‘briefs’ (legal paper work, not underwear!) were on the floor. To get to the chair in front of his desk required exaggerated steps to clear small mountains. I felt I was treading between land mines.

These folks may have seen their heaps as organisation. But it was out of control. They’d kept buying new things without getting rid of old things. More came in; nothing went out. Clutter now controlled them.

Addictions    We could talk about many things under this heading, all of them sensitive issues. I’m not competent to write about addictive medications. My only advice is do what your doctor says, no more and no less.

But the problem for the addicted young man with whom I was having coffee was not about medications. He was 25, hoping to get married, have children, own a house – all delightful things. But he was tens of thousands of pounds in debt because of gambling. He’d begun using online gambling sites as amusement. But as he lost money he gambled more than he could afford to try and recoup his losses. He just lost more. On he went, month after month until he’d emptied his bank account and maxed out every source of credit. Now his hopes and dreams were all jeopardised by the need to pay off a huge debt. He’d failed to control minor gambling so it became major gambling and now controlled him.

About ten years ago, the United States’ FBI and equivalent agencies in other countries conducted a major international investigation into online child pornography. They prosecuted people who’d used the ‘dark web’, evil sites with illegal and disgusting images of young children. The users thought they could never be identified, a remarkably naïve and stupid idea since many used their personal credit cards to pay for access. Many held prominent roles in business and civic life, and some in their churches. They became known to their families and communities only when they were arrested and went to prison. I’m guessing, but I imagine they never thought their habit would take them so deep into the dark world of child exploitation. It was a habit that should never have begun, but once begun gripped them. Only being arrested and jailed stopped it.

Workload    I’ve written before about the friend who could never break away from the office until so late into the evening that he wouldn’t get home until half way through the meal with friends he’d invited for dinner. And, when it was family vacation time, he wouldn’t join his wife and children until midway through the first week. He couldn’t, likely wouldn’t, control his workload; so it controlled him.

Tidiness    In a sense this is the opposite of the ‘clutter’ problem with which I began this list. But tidiness has to be controlled as much as clutter does.

Alison and I visited our friend Noreen. She showed us round her modest-sized home. Everything was neat and clean, very neat and very clean. There were no stray cups or plates lying around the kitchen; in the bedroom no clothes strewn over a chair and no overcrowding of the wardrobe; no cushions out of place on the sofa in the lounge. We had to ask: ‘How do you keep everything so perfectly in place like this?’ Noreen’s answer was simple: ‘If I buy something new, I remove something old.’ That’s why her wardrobe and chest of drawers would never overflow. It was hard not to admire Noreen’s ruthlessness but, over time, it wore down her mental health. Her tidiness was out of control.

At their invitation, we visited Chris and Sally just one day after they moved into a new home. I’d protested we shouldn’t visit so soon, but had been assured it would be fine. It wasn’t just fine; the place looked like a show home. Nothing was out of place. At a quiet moment Sally gave away the secret. At the old house, Chris hadn’t allowed a single item to be packed for removal without it being labelled exactly where it was to go in the new place. On arrival, the removers opened the boxes, and laid each item down where prescribed. That’s why, when we visited next day, there were no unpacked boxes, no unhung pictures, nothing lacking a location. It was all perfect. Wasn’t that wonderful? No, it really wasn’t. Time showed that the obsession with tidiness had got out of hand, with serious consequences for our friends.

Something very different had got out of hand for George beside whom I worked in a government office. He spent the first 45 minutes of each day decorating his ‘to-do’ list with fancy calligraphy writing. Impressive, but it wasn’t what he was being paid for, and most of us wished he’d just get on with his work.

Alison and I have been tidy enough but well short of obsessive about it. When the children were small, we hung a plaque on the wall in our kitchen. It read: ‘Our home is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy’. That was our philosophy. And our children thrived.

Who’d have thought tidiness could ever be a problem? But uncontrolled tidiness can end up controlling us. It had sad outcomes for most of those I’ve mentioned.

I could list more examples, but I think the point is clear. What you don’t control may soon control you. Some impulses are good, but when uncontrolled they take us to bad places. Self-control isn’t easy. It often runs counter to our desires. But where would the sheep be who graze on land close to a clifftop if there was no fence? Healthy self-control is our fence, saving us from the disaster that uncontrolled impulses would wreak on our lives.

So, did we end up with fish in our pond? The answer is ‘yes’ but only for a short time. We bought minnows because their mouths were so small a good number of tadpoles could hide and survive among the plants we’d put in the pond. And that worked. But we hadn’t allowed for other factors. One, after only a few weeks I gazed at shoals of tiny minnows in our pond. I’d bought only a few, so where did all the rest come from? I hadn’t known that minnows reproduce every four to five days, and some lay up to 700 eggs per spawn. Two, we didn’t have running water or enough oxygen in our pond, which is especially bad for minnows. Three, wading birds feasting at the edge of our pond had a good time; the minnows didn’t. Four, some kinds of minnows eat their own young. I call that incestuous cannibalism.

The minnows disappeared, and have never been replaced. But other vertebrates have moved in: newts. They’re fascinating little creatures who live in and out of water. We didn’t import them; they imported themselves into our pond. They’re welcome to stay.