When I was growing up in St. Helena, one of my favorite times of year was always the gray days of winter. On such days, I would wait for the evening’s light to darken the sky in anticipation of the spectacle that was to come. Waiting, I might drift between reading “The Hobbit” and watching my zebrafish as they glided lazily back and forth within their tank, the water’s filter bubbling away softly.
Outside, the grapevines hibernated, and their unpruned, leafless bodies dripped with mist and rain, resembling a military regime, columns of strange, spidery beings, all silently waiting for orders.
On those days, especially after a heavy rain, I’d open my window to let in the cold air. Along with the breeze the smells of winter filled my room with the aroma of damp leaves, sweet burning oak from a nearby fireplace and the sharp-pungent odor from the numerous nearby piles of pumice — leftover grape skins and seeds from harvest — that had been left to mellow before being eventually added back to the vineyards as mulch.
The sounds during those moments often seemed muted, muffled, as if the world had been placed into a thick blue glass jar of cotton balls, like the one on my mother’s bathroom’s counter.
As the sun sank, the sky blossomed into vibrant oranges, reds and even purples, washing my room’s wall briefly with color before fading into darkness.
Sitting on the edge of my bed I would draw in deep, lung-filling breaths of air. With my cat, Sid, purring by my side I listened for the first lonely voices that would soon be calling from somewhere in the distance.
The Sierran Chorus Frog (Pseudacris sierra) is common to the Napa Valley. These small tree frogs spend most of the year quietly living under logs and rocks or nestled in leaf litter or meadow grass, nearly always close to bodies of water. The male frog’s big moment comes just after the first rains fall in mid-January or early February.
After a storm subsides and the rushing torrents of water have been replaced by standing pools and meandering streams, the males begin to sing out, a loud, two-part “kreck-ek.” They used the vocal-sac membrane under their chins to amplify their calls within a stretched-taught balloon of skin as it expands and contracts. In those moments, these rarely seen amphibians’ calls begin, quiet at first, until lifting toward a musical crescendo, forming an enormous chorus of thousands of voices.
Sitting there on those evenings, I wondered how the females might choose their mates. What was it about the song of a particular male that made the difference? It seemed that if I listened closely I could determine subtle differences — a loud, deep, booming voice over here, a sweet melodic voice over there. To hear these differences it was best if I closed my eyes and took steady breaths.
“What are you doing in here?” my brother once asked, standing at my bedroom’s open door.
“Just listening,” I said, opening my eyes to a darkened room.
“To what?” he asked. “The radio’s not playing.”
“The frogs,” I said.
“The frogs,” he laughed. “You’re weird.”
In the distance a car’s horn sounded and the previously calling frogs were silent in unison, as if their power had been suddenly turned off.
“You’re weird,” I said.
He shook his head.
“Mom told me to tell you it’s time for dinner,” he said.
I didn’t move to get up.
A single frog — a brave frog, I thought — started to call again, his voice hesitant and tentative. Then another and another and then more until the whole chorus was back, their calls once again echoing through my room.
I pointed to the window. “See, frogs,” I said.
He squinted his eyes.
“I hear that all the time,” he said.
“Not like this you don’t,” I said. “They only call like this for a few weeks a year.”
The frog choir was fully back now, each voice separate but blending into one, forming what seemed like waves of sound, sometimes quieter, sometimes louder.
He tilted his head toward the sound.
“Why do they call?” he asked.
“They are looking for their mate,” I said.
“It sounds different tonight,” he said.
“It’s better if you close your eyes,” I said.
He closed his eyes. I closed mine again, too.
“It kinda sounds like the ocean,” he said.
“I hear that, too,” I said
We listened like that for a long time.
When we finally broke away and headed to the kitchen, our dinners were cold and our mother was nowhere to be found. The door was left wide open. But that’s another story.
Tim Carl grew up in St. Helena (class of ‘84). Left to join the Navy, came back, married his sweetheart and went to school. He ended up getting his Ph.D. in biology at CU and became a Fellow at Harvard. Later, in 2006, he co-founded Knights Bridge Winery. firstname.lastname@example.org