Editorial for the February MASS 2021: SKIN
I remember, as a child of four or five, catching a common frog in the garden of my house in the Malvern hills. It was in spring-time, I think, and I’d been investigating a rock-wall at the edge of the tiny garden, on the steep edge of the hill. The wall was made of piles of stone flecked with what looks (in my mind’s eye now) like flint, and was covered in tiny purple five-petalled flowers which, if you squeezed them, would open wide, showing bright yellow insides like the mouths of baby birds. The frog was fat, and pale green. First it played dead, splaying its toes out and lolling its tongue. Then later, it curled up tightly and squatted, as I imagined all frogs did, almost like a pebble, rock-hard. As I picked it up, I felt its moist but almost leathery skin on my hands and wondered why it wasn’t moving. I cupped it close and carried it for most of the day. It wasn’t until later, when I was found by an adult and reprimanded, that I first came into contact with the idea that I may have been hurting the frog. “The salt from your hands will damage it, and the warmth of your body will dry it out. You must put it back where you found it” is what I was told.
I hurried back to the spot by the small rock wall where I had found the frog. We, or rather I, had been playing with glitter, and I picked the small flakes of metallic plastic off the body of the frog, taking time to get rid of them all, worried for the lack of movement and how cold the creature was. I said sorry to the frog, then I sat and waited. It didn’t move. Later in the day, coming back to the garden after eating, the frog was gone. I hoped it hadn’t been taken by a grass-snake or a fox or that common British predator, the wolf (because I was especially scared of wolves). I remember thinking about how, as the day had gone on, as I’d moved around with the frog, it had grown dryer and dryer. That thought upset me. I hadn’t meant to dry out the frog, but of course, at that time, I had no idea how its skin was different from mine.
The skin of amphibians is permeable and forms an essential part of respiration. It provides a large surface area through which gases and liquids are able to enter the body to oxygenate the blood, and is such an effective vehicle for exchange that one recently named species of Bornean frog, Barbourula Kalimantanensis, goes without lungs altogether. This wet, interdependence with their surroundings is a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, it affords amphibians an intimate exchange with their environment akin almost to that of plants – open porously to both air and soil, to vapour and to the minutest atmospheric shifts. On the other, it renders them vulnerable when moisture is scarce, with not only their respiration, but also their reproduction endangered when removed for too long from contact with water. Stray too far from the stream, the pool, or the patch of damp undergrowth, or blunder unwittingly into the path of an inquisitive child, and amphibians will effectively suffocate from dryness, their evolutionary link to the water too strong to permit total separation.
That said, amphibians have, over millennia, developed astonishing ways of circumventing this limitation on habitat, allowing them to populate many parts of the world where we might never expect frogs to be. The common rain frog native to southern Africa lives underground in a burrow, sealing itself beneath the soil to prevent loss of moisture, and emerges only after rain to eat, seek a mate, and breed. These grumpy-looking, round creatures would not survive through drought, fire, or the dry season were they to be caught above ground. Nevertheless, they are able to survive for great lengths of time in their burrows, weathering the harshest conditions (even below the desert), and so have been able to take up residency even in the most inhospitable landscapes.
Even in locations we might conceive of as ‘frog-friendly’, like the rainforests of the world, frogs have had to adapt to ensure they have sufficient moisture for reproduction. Tiny tree frogs in central America make use of rainwater collected in bromeliad plants as nurseries for their growing tadpoles. These minute frogs carry their offspring one-by-one on their back, hopping up the trunks of giant trees (equivalent to climbing whole skyscrapers), in search of a small pool within the centre of a bromeliad. They then deposit their young in individual pools, the females returning regularly to lay unfertilized eggs, adding to the soup of nutritious mosquito larvae, and the carcasses of unfortunate insects, on which the tadpoles feed and grow into adult frogs.
The wood frog found commonly across North America has the astonishing ability to freeze through the winter. Researchers at the University of Alaska recently discovered that around 60% of the frogs’ body freezes totally solid, as they undergo a process which maximises the amount of glucose to feed individual cells through the coldest winter months. Their blood stops pumping, and they are for all intents and purposes no longer functioning as whole organisms. The water outside, and the water inside the frogs, are one as solid and not as liquid. They solidify along with the environment, and thaw with the soil in spring.
We do not often think this way about ourselves – as bodies whose skin permits porosity with our environment, as open chambers to the influence of everything around us. We see skin as a great many things: a canvas for expression, a playground for sensuality, a mark of community, a location of beauty. But we recognise our skin so frequently also as a barrier, something between us and other, in every sense – the contrived root of prejudices, the immutable delineation between the inside and outside. What could be gained from froggifying our experience of skin, from considering our own intimate porosity with factors we would consider otherwise external? Does the rain seep in, rather than trickle down? Does the wind blow through into every cavity, every bone, along every limb, rather than around or against a body set apart from it? Do the words carried on our breath permeate the faces of those we direct them to?
I wonder still about that frog. Whether it was eaten, so shocked by my touch that it froze to the point that a predator could easily snatch it up. Or whether it moisturised itself in the cool evening after what undeniably would have been a very stressful day, and then hopped along on its way. I don’t pick up frogs anymore, but I do think about them. I feel like their way of being-with-the-everything of the environment, their liquid relations, their wetness, offer some kind of teaching. The amphibians are far more ancient than we are. They carry that archaic knowledge of what it was like to squelch onto the land, turn flipper into foot, to experience the whole weight of a body unsupported by a buoyant, salty sea. After the plants and the arthropods, who hold a branching, segmented wisdom that we must work even harder to understand than that of frogs, the amphibians were the original landlubbers. They brought with them some of that primordial ooze, that old way of being, and even now, they never stray too far from the water.
United by vapour and moisture, by air and by liquid, transformed by knowing the intimate wholeness of separate bodies. Transcorporeal transboreal transanimal transmutational beings breathing with each other as with seasons, remembering the water through skin.
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