Writing about the vivid “waving” frog that vanished suddenly
An ode to the Chiriqui harlequin frog, and considering how we think and tell stories about species extinctions.
Hello, I’m Emily, and this is a newsletter about how we seek and tell stories to make sense of a rapidly changing world & our personal and collective place in it.
Friends and readers,
This week, I’ve got a story behind the story for you. I had a lot of fun researching this short piece I wrote for The Guardian, illustrated so beautifully by Ricardo Macia Lalinde. Go and read it, then come back to the rest of this letter for additional interesting context.
“The first vertebrates to set foot on earth, amphibians are now becoming ghostly in our midst.” —Scott Norris
So, I’ve always been afraid of frogs. Or, that’s not quite right—leery might be a better description. But that’s also not quite right. The Malay word geli, which I’m not sure how to translate, comes closest. Something about their small sliminess gives me the heebee jeebies, in the same way that someone might suffer from trypophobia, I imagine, or kosmemophobia, which you might suspect isn’t a real thing but I know it is because I have it (a story for another time). I think the geli-ness has to do with sliding my bare foot into a shoe when I was about ten-or-so years old and feeling it come up against a frog: a moment of abject horror.
Earlier this year, an editor asked if I would like to write one of their “extinction obituaries”. They wanted to focus on species that have gone within living memory as pronounced by the IUCN Red List, and they gave me suggestions to choose from. I contemplated passing on it because they required only a short piece, which always takes more time than one should allocate to it if it concerns an unfamiliar subject, considering the fee offered and the scope limitations. In the end, I did it because I felt it could help me learn something new I might sustain an interest in. But given my long-standing apprehension of frogs, I’m not sure what made me choose a frog to write about.