Responding to our Environmental Keywords post on ‘Justice’, writer Brit Griffin shares reflections on permeability — in the natural membranes of the living world, in our binary concepts and in our imaginations — as reaching towards the more-than-human.
1,500 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes
A tiny smushed head/body and long, extended legs, splayed out, stuck to the bottom of the ditch. I wasn’t even sure what I was seeing — a partially eaten frog, a deformed one? And how to think about it — can I mourn this creature in the particular, as an individual, when we are so accustomed to thinking in terms of populations, relating to creatures at a species-level? And if I can realign my perspective to see this one frog, how then to mourn, and is mourning enough, are reparations owing? I have no idea, but this seeing-imagining-reparations is what I am trying to explore in my thinking and writing.
I think best when I am walking, following the same path daily, sometimes twice a day. I live just outside a worn-out mining town in northern Ontario, the scars of homo extractus are everywhere1. It is surely a place of hard takings.
So, the morning walk: past the towering cement ruins of the mine mill, along patches of Baltic Rush (remarkably arsenic tolerant), down a small hill flanked by historical tailings dumps with their arsenic, cobalt, and mercury. The ditches that run between the bottom of this hill and the road rarely hold much water, but if there is enough rain it will pool in these shallow troughs, gathering just enough water to attract frogs.
On that morning, the oddly distorted frog caught my eye, warranted a closer look. There were others, small Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans melanota) seemingly inert: were they dead? The disfigured one, yes, dead. And the one floating on the surface, belly up and coated in Oomycetea, a gelatinous water mold, he or she was also dead2.
The permeability of the frog
But what of the ones I startled, that hopped into the water and settled on pond bottom? There they became immobile, appeared to be mud-sunk dead. Have to say it’s a pretty good party trick — they can safely rest down there because they have no air in their lungs. They do, however, still need oxygen when they are under water — so, clever creatures that they are, they breathe it in through their skin. This interests me. This permeability of the frog.
A frog’s skin is composed of a thin, membranous tissue that can bring oxygen directly into its blood vessels. The porous membrane can also act as a sponge, soaking up scarce water from pond bottom or even dew. Such a fine line, then, between the outside and the inside of the frog. What seems like a hard and defined distinction, inside/outside, is suddenly in jeopardy, even in flux, what with those gases diffusing in and spreading out. Nothing to stop them. That is the strand I want to follow.
Permeability is a brilliant adaption that is key to frog survival. But when you factor in homo extractus, well, it’s a whole other ballgame.
For their magic skin to work, it needs to stay wet. Right there, a red flag. Hotter summers, drought — climate change won’t be too kind to frogs. But it gets worse. A warming climate not only stresses creatures but seems to increase the toxicity of environmental contaminants.
In my region, agriculture and forestry now dominate the landscape. Both are promiscuous with the use of glyphosate-based herbicides that are delivered mostly through aerial spraying during the late summer. The toxicity of glyphosate is made worse by the surfactant (POEA) that is added to the mix to make the herbicide stick to, and penetrate, the plants more effectively. I guess it is not surprising that something called polyoxyethylene tallow amine does damage to frogs — it increases the permeability of their skin3, letting in more poison.
I think of frog: that wet membrane, the coolness of the shade, tucked in under a leafy overhang. Then what? The scorching of the defoliant, home laid bare, skin burning?
We have little idea as to how a frog might process the experience of being sprayed with herbicide, but we have some idea of what it does: mouth deformities, eye abnormalities, impairment of their breathing ability and predator avoidance response, decrease and damage to the tail length of tadpoles, affecting their burst swim speed. Lethal and sub-lethal impacts.
Breaking down the boundaries
You know, it is odd, but sometimes when scientists conduct their studies on the impact of herbicides on frogs, they spray them with it, observe the impacts, measure, and record. I have no useful way of thinking about this except to say that it disturbs me. And that I think even when we are trying to be better, more careful, we still don’t quite get to the right place: that it isn’t frogs, habitats, populations. It is this particular frog, it is a home, a community. But between the science and the empathy lie hard and often unyielding binaries and boundaries: human/non-human, civilization/wild, emotional/rational. Until we break these down it is unlikely that we will know frog well enough to see what justice for frogs could even look like and what form of reparations would get us there.
Perhaps we need to turn to the frog and permeability for insight. To consider permeability as a means of soaking in otherness – as an aspect of imagination, a pathway to perhaps dissolving, or at least thinning, the binary that currently rules our thinking about animal/human realities.
The writer Jean MacNeil, discussing a writer’s ability to enter into animal consciousness, describes listening to lions in the night, writing that their calls to one another “… took up a splintered space inside me like the other slashes of perception that ripped through there – sunset, sunrise, the wind, the chocolate earth, the olive green of the desert after rain.” This is the outside moving inside, the permeability of the artist’s imagination, as McNeil felt herself “…ebbing away from the world of the human…” so she could pay attention to what she could “… absorb of an animal’s state of mind, the energy they cast around them …”4
So yes, the ebbing away, the moving from actor to receptor. Opening oneself up to another’s suffering is often a natural path towards acts of solidarity. Such acts could include things like habitat restoration and preservation, committing to less lethal lifestyles (limiting both waste and extraction, developing creature-friendly practices) and achieving a radical redistribution of the world’s wealth.
But what happens as the ‘ebbing away’ continues, if the boundaries keep weakening, thinning? When we move from managing for to living with, when Green Frog goes from a vulnerable amphibian to simply my neighbour? What will that relationship look like?
That is as much a question for art as for science, this shift to a relational way of being. This way of being is a dream, a vision that needs to be created from old wisdom and new insights. Quiet and still on the bottom of our imaginariums, seemingly inert, we can consider the weight of damage done, let the burden of it all crack open those silos of thinking, and then we too become permeable, able to absorb and be absorbed by the thrum and the tangle, within and without. Then perhaps we could be living the dream with our fellow traveller, Green Frog.
Find out more
Brit offered the following notes with her post:
- My home sits on the traditional territory of the Timiskaming First Nation. An Algonquin community, the Saugeen Anishabeg have never signed a treaty with the Crown – their traditional territory remains unceded. The need for reparations and a just resolution to this hard taking (and for all Indigenous communities dispossessed of the land) is inseparable from the creation of a liveable, alternative future for any and all of us.
- A local mining company doing remediation work in the area came by and took the frog corpses and some water samples for testing. Cause of death? Unknown, probably roadwork; also, the gelatinous coating on the frog was a water mold.
- Norman Wagner et al. Questions concerning the potential impact of glyphosate-based herbicides on amphibians, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Vol. 32, No. 8 (2013): 1688–1700,
- Jean McNeil, Them and Us: animal consciousness in fiction, jeanmcneil’s blog, 2021
Brit offered her piece in response to the first in our series of Environmental Keywords posts, Walking With the Word ‘Justice’, which offers reflections on that keyword from participants at a recent workshop at the University of Bristol. A short extract of Brit’s piece has also been included in a new page in our Environmental Keywords section, along with further creative explorations of ‘environmental justice’. Environmental Keywords is part of a short project led by Dr Paul Merchant of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities.