An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
of September 8, 2002
Issued from the woods just south of Natchez, Mississippi, USA


Last Sunday afternoon some of the tadpoles in my dishpan were going belly up, though they'd dive to the water's bottom when I nudged them. The water was bright emerald green and smelly, and foam formed around the edges.

As soon as I saw this I placed the dishpan next to the tray in which earlier I had deposited the vast majority of eggs left in my dishpan during the rain of July 31. You'll recall that subsequently something removed nearly all of the tadpoles from that tray, leaving only three or four there, while in the dishpan on my outside table my overlooked eggs hatched, creating a tiny ecosystem overpopulated with tadpoles. Last Sunday I hoped that during the night something would come and similarly reduce the population in my overcrowded dishpan.

When I placed my overcrowded dishpan next to the ground-tray, the three or four tadpoles remaining in the ground-tray caught my eye. They were five to ten times larger than my tadpoles, though they were from the same egg mass. In their tray they darted from shadow to shadow like gleeful, mischievous Calibans, and I was ashamed of my lethargic, dying, runty little beings, for I felt accomplice to what had happened, though all along I had just "let nature run its course."

While regarding my sick dishpan ecosystem, a certain memory vividly took possession of me. Some years ago I took a night-train from New Delhi in northern India to the far-eastern town of Cooch Bihar. At dawn in the slow-moving train I awakened to find outside my window the flat, grossly overpopulated plain of the lower Ganges, India's sacred river. It was countryside, but there were people, people, people... little people, very thin and very poor, standing staring at the train, their poverty, misery and desperation etched in every face, in their body language, in the exhausted land itself. The odor of woodsmoke, moist earth, human and animal manure, people atop people... It was countryside but I felt claustrophobic. At least in the Bombay slums one always felt the possibility of escaping to a park, to a tea booth, to any dark corner, but here from horizon to horizon there was no escape from obscene overcrowding.

Maybe the most nightmarish thing, however, was that though I knew each person standing out there watching the train was a unique individual, as fundamentally different from one another and with as many natural talents as people in any mixed crowd anyplace, their poverty and misery had made them all the same, all having to think and do exactly what was most efficient and effective for staying alive in an ecosystem pushed to its very limit. And this process of forced conformity had created a monotonous ocean of dwarfed, somnambulant, hopeless-looking beings.

On Monday after a night of Ganges-Plain dreams, all my tadpoles in the overpopulated dish were dead.

Maybe it was a disease or algae producing toxins, but I suspect it was much simpler than that. Algae photosynthesize and produce oxygen during the day, but during the night they respire, using oxygen, and oxygen levels in the water drop. I think the oxygen in my algae-choked dishpan just reached such low levels during the night that my tadpoles died from asphyxiation.

I'll bet that if I had been keeping a graph with one line showing the rises and falls of oxygen in my dishpan water, and another line plotting the dishpan's ever-increasing tadpole biomass, days in advance I would have been able to predict the precise moment when the graph's lines intersected -- the instant when the dishpan's oxygen level dipped below what was needed to sustain tadpole life.

On Monday morning just after tipping my dishpan of runty, dead tadpoles into the grass, I was listening to NPR's Morning Edition on the radio. Tabo Mbeki, the host of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, was giving a speech. I was busy fixing pear-cornbread so I didn't get his words exactly, but I think they were something like this:

"We must take care of our Earth. It supports us, and it is sick. We know what some of the problems are and we know what we can do to ameliorate some of the problems. What a tragedy it would be if we did not now do what we see so plainly must be done." Facebook Icon.