Opinion | How Rescuing Frogs Inspires the Way I Fight for Change

During the first spring of the pandemic, my two daughters and I taught ourselves to rescue frogs.

On our daily walks along a riverbank in rural North Carolina, we often came across the stirring of young life. Transparent strings of tadpole eggs and wriggling green tadpoles lay in murky puddles that would soon dry up in the sun. We’d scoop as many slimy eggs and comma-shaped tadpoles as we could into jars, then carry them home, tipping the jars into a Pyrex dish on our deck and adding clean well water, a little boiled lettuce and some gathered algae. Then we’d watch as the tadpoles nibbled, swam and eventually developed the eyes and legs that meant: Quick, get me out of the water and into an amphibian environment!

In the big picture, I know that our efforts are not making a dent in the sixth extinction that some scientists say is currently threatening amphibian life around the globe. This is not the reason we carry nets and jars in tote bags, or why for three summers we’ve almost always had a shallow dish of swimming tadpoles somewhere on our deck or porch. It’s because frog rescue is a way to practice accountability to the world we live in, even in the smallest and most slippery of ways. It’s a reminder to look at our immediate environment, our close neighbors and community spaces, and to take action from there.

I wasn’t always a puddle thinker. I used to spend most of my political energy advocating and canvassing for national causes and candidates. Throughout the Trump administration I had my two Republican senators’ offices on speed dial, and I called them once a week, full of outrage. Eventually, I realized that my most significant impact would be on the political races closest to home. Parenting my daughters through a pandemic, a climate crisis and the actions of a draconian state legislature has taught me to work toward change in my local community, especially in contexts where that is all I can do.

Around the time that my daughters and I started rescuing tadpoles, I noticed that a small but crucial ecosystem in my life was changing. My local public school system, which serves some 9,000 students, including my own two kids, ages 9 and 5, was not an environment I worried much about — until the pandemic revealed how susceptible it was to dangerous ideas that could hurt our whole community. This began when other moms started insisting on an immediate return to in-person schooling and an end to required mask wearing, and escalated from there.

Moms for Liberty is a conservative parental rights group that holds increasing power across North Carolina and 43 other states and has been labeled “extremist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. When a candidate backed by Moms for Liberty ran for school board in my county, I knew we had to get organized. Seemingly overnight, the challenger’s slickly produced yard signs, which did not identify the group endorsing her, popped up on street corners and traffic medians. While she has said that she is not part of the group, like many Moms for Liberty-supported candidates, she achieved notoriety during the pandemic by appearing at school board meetings to oppose school closures, masking and other public health measures.

So I joined a small group of women determined to re-elect the incumbent, a long-serving member of the community I’d known and admired even before I had children. Together we promoted the upcoming school board race at rallies and explained the stakes to our neighbors.

On election night we celebrated victory by a margin of about 1.4 percent, which was certainly affected by our determined, scrappy group. We have continued to meet and work together on issues facing our community, including attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives; a new state law attacking trans kids; and a push for vastly expanded private school vouchers. We’re in the process of connecting with other groups focused on grass-roots organizing for local candidates.

This is the lesson of puddle thinking. Sometimes you win (or lose) by a single percentage point, which is really all that frogs expect — as few as one in 100 eggs they lay will make it to adulthood. Even trying to save them is a trial-and-error experience: With every clutch of tadpoles we save, we might return only three or four fully developed frogs to the wild. The delicate nature of a frog’s life cycle, so full of risk and danger, is what makes it a valuable environmental indicator, alerting scientists to healthy or unhealthy ecosystems. This is also true for school board, county commissioner, mayoral, district attorney and sheriff’s races across the country — politically, these are the small ponds and puddles that have allowed democracy to flourish or wither.

When I pack a jar and a net into our river bag or show up for monthly school board meetings, I hope to show my daughters that watchful, informed, community-minded people can make a difference to even the most threatened and hostile environments. The rewards — creeks full of singing frogs, a library stocked with books no one can prevent them from reading, public schoolteachers unafraid to do their jobs — may sound modest, but consider their absence and you’ll realize, like water, that they’re essential.

It’s late summer, past breeding season for most frog species, and we haven’t seen any puddle-swimming tadpoles for weeks. But we can still hear the occasional frog song through the nightly thrum of crickets and katydids. On our strolls through the woods, it’s satisfying to see racing-striped leopard frogs and fat American toads hopping across the first fallen leaves. I’m excited to show up at the first school board meetings of the new school year, to hear from the board member we worked so hard to re-elect.

There will be more to do next year: more tadpoles to rescue, another school board race to assist with. It’s seasonal work, cyclical, vigilant, repetitive, and worth all the time we have to give.

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Belle Boggs is the author of “The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine and Motherhood” and other books. She coedits the free newsletter The Frog Trouble Times with her daughter Beatrice.

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