In late March the shallow, tea-colored waters in the bog behind our house become full of small, round, gelatinous clumps of frog and salamander eggs stuck to submerged or floating objects. One spring I thought of collecting some of these egg masses and watching how they might develop. At the time I knew little about what I was doing and next to nothing about the different types of eggs I found there or what they might develop into. Whatever I learned, I learned afterward. I suppose that is the motto of the amateur naturalist: Collect now, identify later. In a way, I suppose, it made it more exciting not knowing exactly what I would get.
At any rate, one day in early April I put on rubber hip-boots and waded carefully out into the shallow water of the bog. Slogging around in the soft bottom muck, I used a small minnow net to pluck several of the globular egg masses, like overripe fruit, from the twigs and logs to which they were attached, and lowered them carefully into a pail.
When I had gathered a pailful, I picked through my collection. I kept three of the most visibly-different masses and placed the rest back into the water. The enveloping jelly of the smallest mass, which was about the size of a tennis ball, had a white fuzzy cast, as though it were covered with mold. The larger two egg masses, about the size of oranges, were clear and contained about a hundred eggs each. I carried the pail containing them back up to the house, where I placed each egg mass into a clean glass jar full of bog water. Then I placed the three jars into a small aquarium partly filled with well water and set the whole assembly on top of the piano in the living room.
There they floated, eggs inside jars inside the glass aquarium. I sat on the piano bench and looked at them through multiple shells of air, glass, water and transparent outer jelly. Yet I could clearly see not only each perfectly round individual egg, but also within each egg a dark, distinct yolk, nut brown with a slightly golden cast, already partly split in two, like a pair of tiny clamshells. It was like having my own living ultrasound. At once deeply enfolded and yet open to sight, how different these amphibian eggs are from our own dark and invisible gestations!
The egg masses themselves had the look of miniature clouds with soiled tops, seeded with the germs of frogs or salamanders – I had no idea which at the time, or how exactly they would develop. But they floated there, heavy with promise, feeling, as the days went by, Mozart or Gershwin or Billy Joel hammered out on the piano that supported them, dreaming and formless, waiting to uncurl, blossom, twitch, and fall to life.
Robert Finch is taking some time off to write a new book. In his absence we're replaying some favorite essays. This week's essay originally aired in April, 2015.