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William Souder is an award-winning journalist who has written for some of the nation's largest newspapers. He covered the story of Minnesota's deformed frogs for the Washington Post. He lives in Stillwater, Minnesota.
THE MINNESOTA RIVER TRACES A DEEP V ACROSS SOUTHERN Minnesota. From its headwaters at Big Stone Lake on the South Dakota border, the river runs southeasterly beneath enormous skies, crossing an open landscape of empty, windswept horizons. In places here you can see the curvature of the earth. Flowing through scrubby remnants of the great prairie and down into fertile corn and soybean country, the river follows the ancient streambed of one of the mightiest watercourses that ever existed--the river Warren, which 12,000 years ago drained glacial lake Agassiz. One hundred and fifty miles downstream the Minnesota angles sharply to the northeast and heads for the Twin Cities, where it joins the Mississippi. A muddy slurry of silt, farm runoffs, arsenic, lead, selenium, cadmium, and PCBs, the Minnesota is one of the most polluted rivers in the country.
But along the second half of its length the Minnesota travels through a valley that is on either side broad and verdant and flanked by lovely wooded bluffs. In the summertime the valley is arrestingly lush. A section above the town of Le Sueur is still claimed by the Pillsbury company as the "Valley of the Jolly Green Giant." It was near here, on August 8, 1995, that a group of eight middle school students on a field trip made a shocking discovery.
The day was humid and overcast. It looked like rain. Most Minnesota schoolchildren were still enjoying the last weeks of what had been an unusually hot summer vacation. But at the progressive New Country School in Le Sueur, where classes are in session year-round, a forty-year-old teacher named Cindy Reinitz loaded her nature studies group into a van at 8:30 in the morning. Reinitz and the kids, who were from grades six, seven, and eight, headed north on Highway 93 as a warm drizzle began to fall.
They were going to a farm owned by Donald Ney. Six hundred acres of rich Minnesota loam situated atop the bluff on the east side of the river, the farm overlooks the little town of Henderson far below on the opposite bank. Carved from the woods in the 1850s, the Ney farm is one of the oldest in the area. Don Ney, who was born in Chicago, came here in 1952 to live with his bachelor uncle and two spinster aunts--an arrangement he maintained had put him "under their thumb" for most of the rest of his life. A short, round man in his mid-sixties, Ney was shy but possessed of a ruddy, reticent charm. Never married, his only real passion in life was the land that had finally passed into his hands. More or less. Just before the last aunt died in 1991, she donated 350 acres of the property to Le Sueur County for use as an environmental learning center. Ney figured the gift was probably part of some complicated larger plan to prevent him from gaining total control over the original farmstead. Even so, the result pleased Ney enormously. He was delighted that people, especially children, routinely visited his farm to hike the fields and scramble along its wooded ravines.
Reinitz knew the Ney farm well. She and her family owned forty acres just a half mile to the east, separated from the Ney place by a winding stretch of woodlands and by seven acres of replanted prairie tallgrass that Reinitz frequently wandered over. A tall, attractive woman with long red hair and a purposeful stride, Reinitz planned this morning to take her students on a walk into the woods rising above a creekbed between her property and Ney's. Some of the trees in the area are vestiges of the Big Woods, the towering hardwood forest that formerly covered much of south-central Minnesota. During the half-hour drive from the school, Reinitz watched the leaden skies roiling overhead and wondered to herself what they would do if the rain kept up. The students were a little wild already, arguing over which radio station to listen to and indicating little interest in the passing scenery they were about to explore. It was only Reinitz's second day with this class, and she sensed the kids were testing her.
To her relief, the rain had stopped by the time Reinitz arrived in Henderson around nine o'clock. She drove east over the low concrete bridge that crosses the river. The road curved sharply to the left and the van climbed a steep hill, then turned onto a long gravel driveway that ran along an expanse of undulating fields carpeted knee-high with soybeans. Reinitz drove in about a quarter of a mile and stopped at a field road. She got the kids out and they began to walk. Reinitz surveyed the countryside forlornly, thinking to herself that this trip, which had so often thrilled the third-graders she sometimes taught, might be a complete bore to these older children.
The field road, scarcely more than two well-worn tire tracks, was flat for a short distance. Then it fell steadily as the land gradually sloped away. Up ahead the road bent left, straightened again, and passed beside a massive, solitary ash. Just beyond the tree, in a large, bean-shaped depression, was a wetland. Don Ney could remember when they used to plant that section. But it was always wet and soft and a treacherous place for a tractor. In 1992, as part of the plan to create a nature center, Ney excavated the bottom of this low area, digging out nearly ten acres to create a pond. It is L-shaped, with two arms of roughly equal size and two small, round islands scraped up well out from shore. The pond collects rainwater that washes down the hillsides all around, and several underground drain-tile lines feed in subsoil moisture as well. The banks are a tangle of grasses and cattails and thistle that grows waist-high by late summer.
Reinitz and her class had gone only a few yards from the van when they began to notice small frogs, seemingly hundreds of them, leaping out from under their feet and into the wet, taller grass alongside the field road. The frogs were both green and brown, with darker spots, and looked to be only about an inch long through the body. But their jumps were prodigious, never coming just one leap at a time, but invariably in a blurry sequence of low-trajectory hops as the little frogs surged out of sight. As first one student and then another stuck a hand down to try to catch one, the frogs easily escaped. The kids scampered after them, and Reinitz felt her plan for the day slipping away. It was clear the students would rather do anything than go on the hike she had in mind.
As the class inched forward waves of small frogs continued to part before them as the animals darted right and left, often hard to see except as a sudden, vanishing movement in the grass that lined the edges of the field road. They were northern leopard frogs. Scientific name: Rana pipiens. It's a common frog in this part of the country, an important part of the often unseen ecology of a landscape dominated in the hot months by an orderly geometry of crops. Frogs are just one other living part of the yearly cycle in which the land is transformed after a long winter of dormancy. These frogs were juveniles, born that same spring and now newly metamorphosed and dispersing from the pond, spreading out overland in search of insects to eat. They were where they were supposed to be, doing what they were supposed to be doing, repeating an annual pattern that began hundreds of millions of years before the first humans tottered across the face of the earth. Jeff Fish, an enthusiastic, freckle-faced thirteen-year-old who had been literally diving onto the ground after the frogs, caught the first one that didn't look right.
The frog was missing a hind leg. Fish turned the frog over in his hand, thinking at first that the leg must have been bitten off by a predator of some kind. But there was no obvious sign of such trauma--just a continuation of smooth, normal-looking skin over the place where the leg should have been. The boy took the frog over to Reinitz.
Reinitz looked at the frog and at Jeff Fish with dismay. The animal felt cool and a little sticky in her hand as it struggled and kicked its one good back leg trying to escape. She was certain the energetic teenager must have somehow injured the frog in capturing it. But as she knelt and began to examine it more closely a girl in the class brought over another frog--this one with a hind leg that was strangely withered and stiff. Then another student came up with yet another frog with a missing hind leg. Perplexed, Reinitz stood on the hillside, sullen clouds riding low above her, and looked toward the pond. She recalled a visit she'd made to the farm on an excruciatingly hot day back in June, when there had been a great commotion in the pond. She remembered thinking at the time that there must have been large numbers of tadpoles thrashing the water. Now, looking at frogs up on the field that had missing legs or legs that could bend only a little or not at all, Reinitz was amazed that they could get around as well as they seemed to.
"Let's move down closer to the pond," Reinitz told her students.
Sure enough, although there were frogs all over the place there seemed to be more abnormal ones down by the edge of the pond, unable or unwilling to venture away from the water. The kids soon discovered that even frogs with significant leg abnormalities could be difficult to grab. They were quick, and easily navigated the prickly underbrush and the higher reeds at the border of the pond. But after about two and a half hours of chaotic lunging the students had managed to catch twenty-two frogs with their bare hands. Eleven of them had missing or abnormal hind legs.
By the time they had to leave, the students were scared. They talked nervously about the deformities and what they should do. As they walked back to the van, one of the kids asked Reinitz about the cancer rate in the area. Thinking of her own home just through the woods a short distance away, Reinitz wondered about that, too. Mentally she went around the township, thinking of everyone she knew in the vicinity of the Ney farm, and found that she could think of several people with the disease.
Reinitz had another worry. As she talked it over with the students, everyone agreed that they had to report what they'd found right away. But Reinitz didn't think anyone would believe their story unless they kept at least some of the frogs as proof. One of the students hit on the idea of photographing them with the school's new digital camera and posting the pictures on the Internet to see if anyone knew what might have caused the deformities. Reinitz rummaged through the van and found an empty five-quart bucket for Blue Bunny vanilla ice cream. The kids put three of the frogs--two abnormal ones and one that appeared to be all right--in the container and took them back to school. Still shaken, Reinitz began making calls the next day, trying to determine where a person reports having found deformed frogs. Eventually she got ahold of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in St. Paul.
* * *
I live about seventy-five miles from Don Ney's farm, in country just outside of the Twin Cities that doesn't look much different from the country around Henderson. Our land is bordered on one side by a farm. Each year a crop of corn or soybeans or sometimes pumpkins rises just feet from where our backyard stops. On the other side of the property is a large pond. It's home to ducks and waterbirds and muskrats, plus an assortment of frogs and toads. In recent years it has seemed that the frogs--especially the handsome, strong-limbed Rana pipiens I always used to see along the banks--have dwindled. Anyway, I rarely see them anymore.
Like many in Minnesota, my family has an abiding relationship with the outdoors. Despite the ugly outward sprawl of the cities--as lamentable here as anywhere--Minnesota is still mostly open space. The state was widely logged off or converted to farmland a century ago, but plenty of it remains wild today. Our children could name a dozen birds before they could read. They're not surprised to see a turtle excavating a hole in the yard to lay its eggs, or to find a garter snake basking by the swing set. They know the true darkness of the night sky, the frozen fire of moonlight, and what it's like to stand in a forest so quiet you can hear your own pulse. They know when the owls nest and how to look for the white head and tail on a bald eagle as it wheels overhead beneath the sun. We eat the raspberries that grow wild at the edge of the woods and fill our freezer with the fish we catch in the summer and the game we shoot in the fall. We're at ease with nature, and take some comfort in the belief we should be.
This sense of environmental well-being is reasonable. The evidence all around us is that the same force that has done so much to compromise the natural environment--human progress--is also what will save it in the end. A culture that can travel into space and chat on the Internet ought to be able to resolve low-tech issues like pollution or the occasional outbreak of birth defects in a wildlife population. We know what's in a rock from the moon; surely we can know what's in the pond by the side of the road and whether it poses a threat to anything or anyone. For a few decades now, at least, we've begun to police ourselves, restoring the air and water and the earth itself to an approximation of the way it would be in the absence of us.
Or so it would seem.
In fact, the environment is bigger, more complex, more difficult to manage than we might imagine, and the array of government agencies and regulations directed toward that end are far from a perfect answer. In many ways, we do know less about nature and biology than people generally believe. We're also much more tentative about what to do when a new sort of problem turns up.
Cindy Reinitz's call to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency set in motion a chain of events that would eventually involve scientists and regulators from all over the country. But there was no special reason why this massive investigation started out the way it did.
The MPCA at that time had no particular interest in amphibians; no one on its staff worked with frogs. But someone there had handled a similar call two years before. Reinitz was told to speak with Dr. Judy Helgen, a research biologist in the agency's water-quality division. A provisional employee of the MPCA whose work was funded by outside sources, Helgen's area of expertise was invertebrate biology. Bugs, snails, that sort of thing. At the time she was engaged in a long-term project in which she was trying to develop a wetland index based on various invertebrate species that can serve as "bioindicators" of environmental conditions.
In the fall of 1993, Helgen had looked into a report of deformed frogs near Granite Falls, another town on the Minnesota River, to the west and considerably upstream from Henderson. A resident there claimed to have seen a number of young leopard frogs during the summer that suffered from various limb abnormalities--both extra and missing legs--plus a few that were missing eyes. The MPCA and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources went out to investigate and managed to catch a handful of abnormal animals. It was sufficient in the researchers' minds to confirm the citizen's report, but nothing more came of it. Analysis of soil and tissue samples turned up mildly elevated levels of arsenic, but that surprised no one familiar with the Minnesota River watershed. Besides, the levels were thought to be below the threshold that would impact the animals. The following spring the frogs in that area appeared normal.
Reinitz was told that Helgen would be interested in what her class had found on the Ney farm. But Helgen was away from the office that week, working in the field with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Reinitz left her a message in voice mail. On August 14, the day she returned to the office, Helgen phoned Reinitz. Each woman would later recall the conversation a little differently.
Helgen says she was immediately alarmed because of the similarity between what Reinitz described and what had been reported at Granite Falls. But if she was worried, she didn't let on. Reinitz thought Helgen sounded more skeptical than alarmed. She says Helgen was polite but didn't seem too impressed because of the relatively small number of frogs the students had caught. Still, Helgen said she would send someone out to have a look, and she did.
The next day, August 15, Helgen asked one of the MPCA's summer interns, Joel Chirhart, to drive down to the Ney farm and see if he could find some frogs. Chirhart, a twenty-three-year-old student worker originally from St. Cloud, had only recently moved back to Minnesota from Texas, where he'd been studying biology. Chirhart couldn't think of any reason why Helgen would send him out to examine frogs, other than the fact that he happened to be available and she was busy.
Chirhart left the MPCA's headquarters in St. Paul around three that afternoon, driving one of the agency's blue Plymouth Voyagers with the words State of Minnesota on the side. The weather had turned hot again, and during the ninety minutes or so it took him to make his way south out of the cities and down to Henderson, Chirhart became convinced he was wasting his time. He wondered what was going on. None of it even made sense. Just a bunch of kids who claimed they'd caught some frogs that weren't normal. Looking out over the wilting countryside, Chirhart doubted he'd be able to find any frogs at all on such an oppressive, sticky afternoon.
At the farm, Chirhart went down the long driveway and then turned onto the field road. The blue van rocked slowly down toward the pond under the blistering sun, soybeans fluttering wanly in its wake. Cindy Reinitz was waiting just beyond the big ash tree. Chirhart parked the van, got out, and introduced himself. He and Reinitz started looking for frogs--which turned out to be everywhere in spite of the heat. They caught frogs along the edge of the field road, in the higher grasses, and near the banks of the pond. They caught so many so easily--more than a hundred--that Chirhart didn't even bother to count them. He could scarcely believe what he was seeing. After about two hours, Chirhart walked back to the van and got on a cell phone to Judy Helgen.
"I think you're going to want to get down here right away," he told her.
Excerpted from A Plague of Frogs by William Souder Copyright © 2002 by William Souder.
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Posted January 4, 2009
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