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By Kim Poirier March 29, 2022

New Ecology

With any luck, I would’ve been born a shrike.

With any luck, I would’ve been born a sparrowhawk, or maybe even a black baza: some little bird of prey that could flit here-and-there, gnashing up bugs and rats, exacting all kinds of petty cyclical cruelties.

With any luck — any luck at all, really, I’m not asking for much — I could’ve been a heron. I could’ve spent my life sitting up in the high tree, long-necked and happily ugly, staring down at the ducks on the lake. I could’ve peered down at the world with crazed yellow eyes, listening keenly for the whistle-peep of nearby frogs. I could have nested somewhere dark.

I’d have liked that. Really.

But I wasn’t born lucky. I was born human.

I became a scientist.


Now, being a scientist isn’t much like being a heron. I’ll admit to that much. There’s way more math involved, for one — and fewer hours spent grooming. But I don’t think the two are radically dissimilar either. It’s the same game of waiting and watching, of poking your beak through the long grass and waiting for a rustle. You sit still and patient and pull the brambles off your front. You keep an eye out for the ravens.

You scavenge or starve.



Following the beacon of my GPS, I veered into the boreal woods. My university-issued ATV trundled over the unpaved forest floor, unsteady but compliant. The vehicle rocked and jostled against the asymmetric topography — stone, roots, ponds, and wild hemlock roving and raving over the ground.

I gnashed the planty brush beneath my wheels. I left them smashed and spattered, decapitated, the spoils of war.

Up above the trees, I could see weathered, rain-beaten industrial structures puncturing the skyline. Intellectually, I knew they were only thirty or so years old, but to me they seemed as old as time.

Extraction rigs, once the property of some fat cat industrial mogul. Now abandoned. Apparently, the corporation in question had gone bankrupt once the oil fields ran dry.

So it goes.

I cruised uneasily, eyes on the horizon. I wasn’t really sure how I felt about those old rigs. I wasn’t sure if they were grand or hideous, repulsive or fascinating, sad or beautiful. So I reserved all judgment. I just keep driving through the woods.

I stopped here and there to take notes: the low-blooming flowers, which I had first thought of as hemlock, actually appeared to be a more regionally distinct variation. I pulled my notebook over my lap and made a rough sketch of their teardrop-shaped petals. I walked over lichenized stones.

I went on, moving deeper into the woods. I dropped plant cuttings into tiny polyethylene bags. I collected shiny black droppings. I searched for ants. I collected shards of bone the size of a safety pin. I took photos of hooved tracks — the coy traces of ruminant mammals. I was distracted for a good half hour by the discovery of several lizards. I was a fan of lizards, and these local variants did not disappoint. They were scinomorphic and whitish blue, about the size of my forefinger, and they rested placidly on their bellies inside a damp and mossy log.

I opened up my daypack and shimmied out a packet of sunflower seeds. I popped a handful into my mouth, crunching as I jotted all my lizard-related observations into a waterproof notepad. Approx. 10 cm. snout-vent length. Transparent ocular membranes, snakelike. Microhabitat specialization? Distinctly bluish coloration. An adaptation, clearly. But to what?

I packed my buggy up again. I drove towards the lake.

As I approached the lake, the geography transitioned from boreal forest to marshland. The hard, rocky floor grew increasingly soft and spongy. My buggy’s wheels, which had cruised fairly good-naturedly through the hinterlands up until this point, began to chug.

Worried that the wheels might jam, I parked the buggy in the shade of a large tree. I threw my boots on, dropped down, and hiked towards the lake on foot.

Mud squelched beneath my boots. I plodded on, following the bend of a nearby creek. My ears were filled with the sounds of forest living: water trickling over silt, larches rustling, rodents scuttling through the underbrush. Crossbills erupted out of the trees, singing noisily — perhaps to entice prospective mates, or perhaps to ward off potential competition. As the sound of water grew louder and louder, I kept my ears trained.

I was listening for frogs.

In academic writing, I presented myself as an equal-opportunities ecologist. I wrote that each and every element of a forest’s biome was equally vital and irreplaceable. But the truth was, I was most partial to frogs. They were my favorites, my most beloved subjects. I loved them more than almost anything. More than food, more than money, more than my ex-wife, who had left me for a good-looking writer of technical manuals shortly after my last research trip to Bora Bora.

Frogs did not judge. They did not betray. And in return, I loved them unconditionally. I loved their soft, blobby bodies. I loved their rheumy black eyes, their webby little fingers, their happy yellow mouths. I loved the way they burbled, the way they slithering on slick bellies through the river-run mud, the way they nested contentedly beneath the fleshy, variegated leaves of jungle orchids. I loved their unblinking stares.

Eventually, as I wandered through the back-country, I heard it. The sound I’d been longing for.

A throaty little burble. A croak.

Fuck. Yes.

I sped up to a light jog, splashing eagerly through the swamplands. Tall, brambly waterplants tickled my knees as I ran — and then, they disappeared. The mud dried up, the ground hardened. The dense splatter of mud sloped into a pale and sandy shore.

I had reached the lake.

The basin was scooped deep into the earth, several feet lower than the bogs surrounding it: a crater of clean water at the heart of the murky, smoky marshland.

It was a beautiful lake, really. Vast, clear, glittering. Even the distant, looming shadows of that ancient oil baron’s forgotten extraction equipment couldn’t detract from the view. If anything, they gave the waterfront a sort of somber, ominous beauty.

Another croak. Close, this time.

I whipped my head around, my eyes tripping over a large formation of slick, waterlogged stones. I stared, intent.

A slimy little frog stared back.

It was a pale thing. Almost white, really, its body covered in ridgy grayish splotches that closely matched the shade of the stonework it was resting on. It held remarkably still, like a patio sculpture.

Already, I was in love.

“Hello there,” I said, breathless with joy.

The little white toad crouched. A classic defensive position. His vocal sac distended, rounding out into a great big bubble — and for the third time, it croaked. It had a funny croak, really. There was a real reedy twang to it.

He’s gorgeous, I thought. Absolutely gorgeous. And what a fascinating call!  I should make a recording as soon as possible. I want to study the playback.

Then: Fuck. Shit. Fuckshitfuck. I left my camera in the fucking buggy.

I couldn’t slapped myself just then, seriously. This was an unknown, unidentified specimen. How could I leave today without at least getting a picture?

“Don’t — move,” I said, quite stupidly, as I lifted my hands up in surrender. “Shit. For real, don’t move. Okay? Please? I’ll be right back! Don’t move an inch!”

Pleading with a frog.

Ah, the glitz and glamor of ecological fieldwork.

The frog, I’ll add, was entirely unmoved. He stared at me distrustfully. His hind legs rounded out into a ‘planting-down’ gesture. He was thinking of hopping away.


I turned on my heels, splashing back towards the buggy. I climb back up into the swamplands, grunting as I loped through the mud and grass at a light jog.

Caked in waterplants and dirt, I slammed myself against the back of the buggy. I fumbled my camera case open, cursing under my breath when I saw it lying there in pieces. Pieces, for fuck’s sake. Why the hell had I left it in pieces? To keep it clean and safe? Ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.

Bent at the waist, I crouched over and began snapping the constituent parts back together: the lens slotted against the lens mount, the build-in flash snapped over the top…

Once my camera was more or less assembled, I hauled myself back towards the lakefront.

The woods, which had once been thrumming with life-noise, felt strangely cold and inert. The birds had gone silent; I couldn’t hear a single note of frogsong streaming out from the nearby waterfront. Still, as I trudged back towards the shore, I had hope. A fool’s hope, sure — but that was science, right? A bunch of overeducated fools wading out into the water with dumbass, braindead hope?

Finally, my boots rasped against the sand. I was back on the beach. With damp, clammy fingers, I lifted my camera up over my face. I looked through the glassy viewfinder, repositioning my gaze over the lake.

I froze.

The frog was gone.

Instead, my field of vision was taken up by a large, white bird.

I lowered my camera, completely caught off guard. It was a long-necked waterbird — proud and downy, white-bodied and black-masked, floating over the water with the unreal lightness of a feather.

A goose? Wait, wait. No. A swan.

I stood very still, torn. Birds weren’t my specialty. That being said, I knew a couple of things about them.

One: that they were prone to territorial aggression.

Two: that their wings were strong enough to break human bones.

Three: that they were extinct.

I stumbled back a half-step. Then, I froze up again. Would sudden movements agitate the bird? Or would staying still agitate it? Was it already agitated?

There was a beat. I waited for the worst, but nothing happened. The swan didn’t move to attack me. It didn’t move at all, actually.

I let out a breath of relief, my panic receding.

“Hi,” I blurted out.

The swan looked at me. Its gaze was actually shockingly direct. I’d never felt so addressed by a wild animal.

“Do you want food?” I asked the swan.

I reached into my pocket. My packet of sunflower seeds had survived my mad scramble across the swamplands, though they’d been thoroughly crushed against my thigh.

I poured some into my hand, the little gray seeds dotting the surface of my large, dusky palm. I dropped them into the lake, then stepped back.

The swan didn’t even look down.

“Not good enough for you, huh?” I said. I clicked my tongue. “So picky.”

The swan’s eyes were hard and dark, but I wouldn’t call them flinty or mean-spirited. In fact, he didn’t seem to bear any grudge against me at all.

Against my better judgment, I crouched down to meet it at eye-level.

“I guess you can afford to be picky when you’re pretty,” I relented, drawing my eyes over its wings, folded against its sides in a neat triangle. “But are you a picky boy or a picky lady? I can’t really tell. I know male swans are larger than females, but you’re the only swan around right now, so I don’t really have anything to compare to…” I had a new thought. “Hey, aren’t swans social creatures? Do you have a family?”

The swan didn’t have much to say about that.

“Family’s not for everyone,” I told it. “I get it.”

The swan clicked its large beak. Its black eyes swiveled vacantly.

“Is it alright if I take a photo?” I asked it, feeling emboldened. I gestured towards the camera around my neck. “Is that cool with you? Or will you try to break my legs?”

The swan finally broke eye contact. It bent its neck towards its back and began grooming its tail feathers. It didn’t seem like it was gearing up for any leg-breaking. Mostly, I thought it just seemed nonplussed.

“No?” I probed. Then, reassured, I lifted my camera. “Okay. I’m gonna go for it.”

I squeezed down on the trigger and snapped a photo.

However, I’d made a mistake. While reassembling my camera, I’d accidentally flipped the flash on. My camera emitted a brief flare of pure, white light. It cascaded over the two of us, man and swan.

The swan startled. I guess I startled too. I reared back, stumbling against the shore, convinced my idiocy would finally, finally kill me. The swan’s wings unfurled — longer than I’d expected — and it began to flap wildly. I thought it was coming for me, to kill me. I protected my eyes with both hands instinctively.

But the swan was apparently too spooked to flight. It didn’t even come near me. I spied at it through the fan of my fingers, my legs locked in place, heart frozen. The swan kicked and thrashed against the water. It beat its long, clamorous wings. It lifted itself up into flight.

“Wait —!”

Wild animals rarely respond to good-faith negotiation.

That’s the troublesome thing about nature.

The swan climbed up into the air. For a brief, stupid second, it seemed to blot out the sun — bigger than God. But then it turned towards the lake and flew away, growing smaller and smaller with each beat of its wings. I shaded my eyes with my hands so I could watch it. The swan shrank against the horizon until it was an infinitesimal, buzzing flicker of an atom. Then it was gone.

I backed out of the water.

Honestly, I wasn’t really sure if I felt disappointed or relieved. As a scientist, I wasn’t really here for the birds. I was barely qualified to study them. My ornithology was passable at best.

Still, that swan —

Well. It was beautiful. And as a human being, I guess, I was still capable of some essential, elemental reaction to beauty.

I glanced down at my camera’s digital monitor. The single picture I’d managed to take was burned into the 5x7 screen. It wasn’t a very good photo. The off-camera flash had blended poorly with the open sunlight, resulting in a photo that was fuzzed at the edges, overexposed, whitewashed. But the image wasn’t entirely incoherent either. You could still make out the shape of a bird. It floated at the center of the frame, suspended like a ghost in a featureless void. It posed itself into a coy little tuck, beak buried against its wings.

I guess you could call that art.

But I have no use for art, I thought, irritation blossoming deep in my breast. Nor did I have any use for swans.

I deleted the photo, then glanced across the lake. It was blue and quiet, oil rigs parked along the edges, long dormant. You could say they had their own kind of beauty.

But you could just as easily say nothing at all.

Photograph, Three Dirty Great Oil Rigs Posing As Art by stuart anthony distributed by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

About the author

Kim Poirier is a recent graduate of Dawson College, a current student at Concordia University, a Montreal native, and a passionate writer of Dune fanfiction. She is not a frog.

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