Beyond the Edge of Knowledge: An Ecological Hope for Lent

The Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
The Panamanian Golden Frog
Monday, February 26, 2024

“Every single creature is full of God
and is a book about God.
Every creature is a word of God.
If I spend enough time with the tiniest creature,
even a caterpillar,
I would never have to prepare a sermon.
So full of God is every creature.”
Meister Eckhart

Panamanian Golden Frog

What Wuhan was to COVID-19, Costa Rica was to Panamanian chytrid, but unlike our ability to shelter-in-place or mask up or develop vaccines, the Panamanian Golden Frog became almost entirely subsumed by chytrid suddenly and without warning, a pandemic like no other. No bigger than a golf ball, you could fit half a dozen Golden Frogs in the palm of your hand, if their skin wasn’t so toxic. Their yellow color warns predators to stay away. Too bad chytrid missed the memo and didn’t stay away too. It is an “amphibian black plague” that has been catastrophic to frog populations globally, spreading country to country leaving few places untouched. 

When it comes to chytrid, the word biosecurity is thrown around, and Noah’s ark became the primary metaphor. Nowhere is safe. Chytrid is spore-born and has erased ninety frog species in the past three decades. Golden frogs had a few remaining riverside safe havens, but then as Gayle Boss describes in her book Wild Hope, “In early 2006 a Panamanian biologist guarding the last three streams with living golden frogs began finding them slowed, skin-ravaged, and dead. To his alert, scores of volunteers responded, scooping up the last wild Goldens before chytrid took them. The biologist and his wife began caring for them and other chytrid-threatened species in disinfected glass boxes stacked in a building at a nearby zoo. A better refuge has since been built; still they call it an “amphibian ark.”

Scientists don’t know when it will be safe for the golden frogs to live outside this place of refuge, their ark. The spread of chytrid is too overwhelmingly exhaustively omnipresent. When will it be possible again, for the post-ark promise to be fulfilled? For the frogs to “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth” to which Genesis 9:1 so beautifully commits.

In his book Sacred Universe, Thomas Berry says, “The divine communicates to us primarily through the language of the natural world. Not to hear the natural world is not to hear the divine.” When it comes to the Panamanian Golden Frog, the call of the divine is one of sorrow and uncertainty, a lament, an unknown future. This kind of not-knowing is forever knit into our spiritual life. All futures are equally unknown, though some more urgently helpless than others. We are entangled in the not-knowing of the Panamanian Golden Frog. 

How might we help? How can we be of use to the golden frog? The sacred act in the direction of the golden frog is less about typical environmental activism along the lines of using less single-use plastic or using more reusable lunch containers. It seems harder. Less tangible. More unknown. When it comes to disease mitigation, and the unseen, obscure, covert, veiled mystery of bio-contamination, it seems as if we are called to be more like Noah, building arks in the meantime, while science catches up with the disease. 

Wendell Berry says “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places, and desecrated places,” but I disagree. I feel compelled to believe that even the most desecrated places are still infused with the presence of our lament-singing God. I wonder what it means to still—yet call the chytrid-infected places sacred, paying attention to infirmity and being present in the turmoil of longing. 

Let us pray for the golden frog, and the work of ark-building: 

Make sacred the places of pandemic, 
where the smallest frogs find contagion surging. 
Protect the Panamanian Golden Frog in the ark, a safe haven.
And in the meantime, bless the herpetologist, 
amphibian zoologists, frog specialists, 
conservation veterinarians, and compassionate wildlife biologists 
who will mark the way with wisdom, understanding, 
antidote and rehabilitation. 
Amen. 

February 26, 2024

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