How Not To Boil a Frog

I was remembering recently an adult object lesson one of my parents taught me long ago. In the way of many moral lessons we learn as children, the physiological facts of the tale are flawed but the point is nevertheless worth heeding. It is that we can slip into bad circumstances by degrees, so slowly that we don’t even notice the slide until we’re in too deep to pull ourselves out.

The main character in the story as I was told it was your average everyday frog. In a pot. You probably know where this is heading. The water at first is room temperature. Copasetic. Frog fat and happy. And then, very slowly, the burners glow a bit redder and the frog just settles into the new normal.

Again the flames get hotter by a few more degrees, and the frog, he just reads a magazine. I bet you know how the story ends. The frog basks blithely, kicked back in his hot and hotter tub until he becomes a boiled bag of bones, never noticing the slow shift toward death by crock pot.

I’m sorry to tell you, fellow elder-frogs, but the soup is served and it is us. Our species (like real amphibians everywhere) may have a near-future place on the endangered species list, and this has happened on our watch. We senior types, more than the tadpoles, bear the weight. We should have noticed the changes from tepid to near-boiling over our too-comfortable soaking of decades in the pot of American environment and politics.

Our juniors counted on us to be paying attention to the world that contained and sustained them and us. Now we’re all in a stew. How could we have become so brain-dead and numb? Were we drugged? Hypnotized? Pithed? (Sorry. Biology frog joke.)

Just think back a few decades. We’re not that far beyond the notion of “any man can be president” and promise of  “a chicken in every pot.” Remember The Great Society? A thousand points of light? We listened. We had hope; vigor; plastic; ambition; television. The world was our oyster. But I bear some sad news: we’ve been shucked.

Because in fact, it is no longer our oyster. Even as we heard it and recited it and pledged allegiance, the water got hotter, we somehow continued to lie to ourselves that the government was of, by and for–US. The people. Once the cooks in this kitchen,  we’ve slowly but surely become nothing but ingredients. And the pot–the surface and stuff of the planet–is a commodity; a mere resource. It belongs not to all of us for our future, but to some few Citizens United to use up without limit or law, for their present ease and profit. And we have become victims of their recipes for stockholder success. Here’s just one from that cook book:

[su_box title=”Haliburton Frog Soup” style=”soft” box_color=”#e8d3a9″ title_color=”#235529″]“Take immense volumes of perfectly good, sweet water on and under the ground and available to all as an unalienable right. Break and discard the Clean Water Act. Stir with the Halliburton Loophole. Makes tens of millions of gallons of chemical-dense water perfectly good for fracking; otherwise toxic. Dispose ad libitum into deep injection wells or leaky ponds. Serves no one.”[/su_box]

Who owns the land? Who drives The Economy and ecology and toward what end? Who is in charge of the fate of the water, the topsoil, the minerals under the ground, the pace and scale of life, the food economies in communities in  Floyd or Montgomery or Roanoke County? Should we the people in real places on the ground–or someone else–determine the course of the future here where we the people live?

The frog story is one of “shifting baselines.” It speaks to chronic, slow changes within a life memory of the standards by which we measure the social, political and environmental quality of our lives. We tend to compare the present only against the recent past. We can’t remember that the water was once only warm.

But we are caring and intelligent and responsive Floyd frogs. There has come a day when very many of us across the nation acknowledge the shift, feel the pain and cry out because conditions are no longer tolerable.

And as we act on that choice, if we recommit ourselves together in time and place to this democratic ideal, we can return to being cooks in our own kitchen again.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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