In the time before European contact, the Coast Salish, like most First Nations peoples, were guided through the seasons by signs in nature. A rhythm was created—a cycle that led to a harmonious existence between the people and their environment.
For the Coast Salish, spring was a time for hunting and fishing. The hot and dry time of summer was dedicated to gathering berries, shellfish and cattails for weaving mats. By late autumn, as the leaves turned and the days began to grow shorter, a particular sign heralded the time for people to move indoors and return to the longhouses for the Winter Ceremony. This sign, one that many of us would never notice, was of great importance to the Coast Salish. To know winter was approaching, one had only to listen for “when the frogs stopped singing.”
In winter, the sacred ritual of spirit dancing took centre stage. Feasting, the bestowing of gifts, and telling the stories that passed on vital cultural history and values became a daily focus.
The yearly cycle began again in early spring, when all the gifts of the winter, like food, elaborate blankets, had gratefully been given away. The time to leave the longhouses and once again live outdoors was marked by a joyous sound—”when the frogs started singing again.”
In countless First Nations groups, the frog is the voice of the people. It symbolizes innocence, stability and communication. Even in these times of technology and the invasion of sounds like airplanes, traffic and sirens, the return of the frogs and their song was a welcome relief for Susan Point as she emerged from winter on the Musqueam reserve in Vancouver. “Each year,” she recalls fondly, “I would hear thousands of frogs singing and croaking around my house.” Now, the eagerly awaited spring brings a moment of sorrow for Susan Point.
As housing developments pushed farther toward her home, the frogs were forced away. First they moved west, but if she tried, Susan Point could still hear them. In the last two springs, their song has nearly been silenced. The frogs are now trying to survive on a plot of land on the far west side of the reserve. But this too has been designated for development. As the title for this piece suggests, the frogs now have nowhere left to go.
For many people, the childhood memory of holding a frog on the palm of your hand is vivid. Its fragility was overwhelming. It could sit on the palm of your hand, and, looking close, you could see its delicate bones and smooth skin. You couldn’t put your hand on its back, or you might hurt it. Cupping your hand over top would keep it from hopping away—at least for a moment. Fragile—it’s a word that can’t even pretend to touch on the vulnerable nature of these wonderful ambassadors of the seasons. In environmental circles, the frog is metaphorically considered the “canary in the coal mine”—its silence heralding not the onset of winter, but the first physical signs that the environment is fast becoming a poisonous tomb for all of us. Frogs are highly susceptible to the damages brought on by pesticides, fertilizers, habitat destruction and ozone depletion. The world’s amphibian populations are disappearing at an alarming rate. So few of us have been trained, by generations of culture, to listen for their song, that we have not noticed their silent warnings until only recently. “It seems,” Point laments, “that the voice of the frog is being silenced and we are losing our connection to the land.”
Susan Point’s limited edition puzzle woodblock print Nowhere Left illustrates the importance of the frog in our survival. Although the overall image of these puzzle pieces was designed as a soft-squared spindle whorl, we can’t help but notice how devastating it would be to the design if just one of the four frogs was missing from the puzzle. The number four is significant in First Nations culture, relating to the four winds, the four seasons, the four directions and the four corners of the earth. These frogs are each different, and the one in the lower right corner looks almost human, relating, as Point says, to our own connection to the earth and the environment.
What will happen to us when the song of the frog is silenced forever? How will we know when to return outdoors in the spring? Will winter ever end?
—Susan Point as told to Vesta Giles