Hi, Basil!

The first time I saw a tree frog was when it jumped out from under the leaf of a basil plant on our balcony and startled me. Its green had been perfectly camouflaged by the green of the basil and I did not see it until I started watering the plant and the little frog jumped out of the pot. Obviously, we had to name it Basil, and this has become the name for every tree frog we have encountered since. So I say, “Hi Basil!” when finding a tree frog hidden under a pile of leaves in the eavestrough, or “Basil is at it again” when the croaking of the frogs is loud in the evening.

a Northern Pacific Tree Frog on a wood deck

We have lived in our house for more than ten years and feel attached to the island, but when considering the island’s history and all human and non-human animals who have lived there, our residency is a mere blip on the timeline. We remind ourselves that we may be lucky enough to live here now, but many others were here before us and we have no right to mess with their home.

Basil is a Northern Pacific Tree Frog (Pseudracris regilla) and, thankfully, it is common on the island (and elsewhere in the province) and not threatened by extinction. It eats spiders and insects (which made the leaves-filled eavestrough a great spot) and, even though I will always think of Basil as bright green, its colour can vary (1). Its sticky round toe pads allow it to climb up on smooth surfaces (such as large flower pots).

a Northern Pacific Tree Frog on the side of a ceramic plant pot

There is a famous article by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel in which he argues that a human being cannot imagine what it is like to be a bat. Of course, he says, we can imagine ourselves doing bat-like things, such as flying and hanging upside down, but that is not the same as being able to understand “what it is like for a bat to be a bat” (2). The problem is that human beings’ ways of perceiving the world—the ways we see, hear, smell, and so forth—are quite different from bats’ ways of perceiving the world, and when we imagine what it is like to be anyone or anything else, we can do so only through our human minds and our human perceptions.

I think about Nagel’s article when I look at Basil the frog, and especially when I approach it, whether to take a photo or to shield it from the curious nose of my dog. What is it like to be a Northern Pacific Tree Frog? Does it perceive my presence as a threat? As a fellow animal?

(1) Brent Matsuda and Rose Klinkenberg, “Pseudacris regilla,”In E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia, ed. Brian Klinkenberg, Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 2017. http://linnet.geog.ubc.ca/efauna/Atlas/Atlas.aspx?sciname=Pseudacris%20regilla

(2) Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review 83, no. 4 (1974): 435-450, 439.