Peepers

A few weeks ago I was walking at dusk listening to the sounds of the countryside, the hum of the mile-distant highway, the chirp of crickets, the mournful groaning of cows in an unseen pasture and perhaps the most typical background music of warm evenings in the eastern part of the United States, the trilling of peepers.

It's a sound I've heard since I was a child, coming sometimes from an obvious direction such as a marsh, at other times seemingly from everywhere as if the chorus were emanating from the surrounding air. The tree frogs that produce this magical and mysterious sound are, however, things I've always taken on faith, like Tibet. On a few occasions during the day, I've glimpsed tiny amphibians making their way silently across the forest floor and wondered if these could be those unglimpsed peepers. But at night, whenever I've sought to approach the source of their singing, whatever is making the sound has fallen silent, leaving me to search dark branches in vain.

On this evening the sun had already vanished behind the low rounded mountains. Houses on the hillside opposite my path glowed dimly. The dirt road I was walking still held some light from the sky but deep darkness had puddled along the edges of the fields and under the trees beside the road. As I passed a tree that was little more than a silhouette against the sky I thought I could make out that distinctive trilling, distinguishable from the night blended sounds coming from all around.

I left the road and went a few steps into the knee-high grass in front of the tree. Predictably, the frog ceased abruptly. I took a few more steps toward the tree anyway and stopped to scan the inky confusion of branches, barely discernible against the sky. Maybe I've become more patient than I used to be, because rather than resuming my walk I decided to wait for awhile. To my surprise, after a few minutes the frog resumed its serenade.

Where, I wondered, might a frog perch? I ran my gaze down the tree trunk, checking where each shadowy branch joined it, and finally, not much more than a yard from my face, I saw a movement -- a tiny frog's white neck pulsing in time with its singing. The peeper was no larger than the end of my thumb and I could make out little more than the pale neck but the sight amazed me more than anything I'd seen in a zoo, let alone on any television nature show. For years I had listened to this sound and now, finally and unexpectedly, I was looking at its source.

A lot of things had gone on in the world that day. I'd checked the news on the Internet. Politicians had emitted a lot of words that might have been important if any of them could have been believed. There had been heinous crimes, tragic disasters and horrific accidents that had been of paramount importance to those involved but which, sadly, had not taught me anything I did not already know about human nature and the fragility of life. Glimpsing the tree frog had, for me, been that day's most important event. Usually, it is the non-newsworthy events that are most important to us.

This is why I will always defend fiction against those who claim that it is inferior to nonfiction, because it does not deal with "reality." Fiction, I think, is best when it illuminates those things that are important to us personally in a way that nonfiction, or fact-based fiction, cannot. We don't live in the news headlines or in the lives of people in the news. The fiction writer, in describing the small things that he or she finds important, can shed more light on what readers find similarly important than any network news reader could.

Which is maybe just my excuse for writing about seeing a tree frog.

But maybe not.

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