The Digger


When I saw her on the red dirt road around 2 in the afternoon I was stunned. It was 92 degrees. Who expects to see a giant toad in intolerable heat? It must be at least 105 – 110 in the sun I thought as I stared at this apparition whose breath was labored and whose newly shed skin was still stuck to her back legs. S/he was the fattest toad I had ever seen, a western version of the toads I lived with in Maine. She was almost as wide as she was long – 5 plus inches in length with a girth of almost four inches – maybe more. In my entire life I had never seen such a HUGE toad.


What threat to her well-being could have forced the toad onto the driveway at this time of day? Her newly shed skin made her more vulnerable to dehydration and death. I already knew that toads could not survive in 90 degree heat.


For a few moments I watched her from a place outside time. I had been longing to see a toad since I had first come to the desert two years ago. A year ago last spring had heard one, and found (tragically) a dead one. This year with the drought droning on through the monsoon season I hadn’t even heard one toad or frog – let alone seen one.


It must be said that my love for these amphibians goes back to early childhood, the songs of peepers, tree frogs, bull frogs, leopard frogs, and when I moved to western Maine, wood frogs joined the early spring chorus. All these amphibians continue to sing through my skin although the symphony is now internal.


One of the hardest adjustments I have had to make here in the desert is losing the seasonal marker of spring – the songs of my beloved frogs and toads. Although this desert is home to both, rain is a necessity for breeding to occur and this year we had no winter, no spring snow melt, and during the monstrous heat that has characterized late spring/summer, only few drops of rain or a light shower have grazed the ground. We have had two good soaking rains in July and August – one at the full moon in July, and one at the Green Corn Moon in August, just two days ago. I wonder if the second rain may have brought this toad to the surface. Could this giant toad actually be pregnant? Probably not and although I would love it if it were so, she has no temporary pool in which to lay her eggs let alone hatch them.


Last June I had constructed a small hand dug rock depression in the ground, using plastic covered with mud to line the hole and creating cool interior niches in hopes of inviting any toad to take up residence hereabouts. I waited patiently watching the lizards scurry about this strange looking rock pile and young fledglings also used the spot but no toad appeared. I created a space for toads and left it at that. Now seeing this giant I realized that if I wanted any toad to breed I would need a much larger container.


After having a brief conversation with Toad and taking a few pictures I watched this female – females are always bigger than males – make three long hops that ended when she reached a tiny oasis, an area watered twice a day with an irrigation drip that supported seedlings that I had planted too late. In seconds she began to bury herself in the soft moist soil. I watched as she used her long webbed back feet to dig herself in, almost disappearing into the ground in minutes. Then at the end when she just sort of sat there with her head still exposed, seemingly exhausted by this herculean effort, I decided I had to intervene to protect her from the heat. First I gave her three cups of water, gently pouring it into the soil that was already drying around her. Next, I gathered three rocks to make half an enclosure and then placed olive branches over her head. My prolonged exposure to the sun during this whole process of watching and building had made me dizzy and ill, as it routinely does in the afternoon, so having completed this project I scurried indoors. Toads and I had a lot in common. About 45 minutes later, still uneasy about the heat, I emerged, watered her again, and added a cottonwood bark roof. Finally satisfied that she would be cool enough I left her to rest.


The most amazing part of this story is that gradually I realized that this toad must have been living here all summer without my knowledge because she knew exactly where she was going when she headed for that particular piece of moist ground. All the other irrigated areas were bursting with plant roots and thus difficult to disappear into, and she had to have known that.


I routinely irrigate and spray water around this area in the early mornings so the hummingbirds can bathe, to keep wildflowers blooming, to help the solitary juniper sprout new growth and to encourage more flowers to come. The ground is well covered with wild greenery and is always moist below the surface so it seemed to me during the early summer that if any toads were in the area I might have seen one but I never did.


For me, just seeing that emerald green in the early dawn hours helps me deal with the drought that seems to be sucking life energy out of me. When I first came to the high desert two years ago sage green bushes and gnarled junipers, monsoon rains and stunning August sunsets stole my heart, but this year’s weather has brought me to my knees.


Someone I know said recently “welcome to the the new summer in New Mexico” in reference to the thick unbreathable smoke of raging Southwest/ Northwest wildfires, and the reality of ongoing drought conditions intensifying as global warming creates more havoc. This casual comment sent chills of miserable truth up my spine because my dreams have repeatedly been forecasting this precise future for approximately 30 years. For a long time I didn’t realize that I was having what some would call a ‘big dream’ that would affect everyone from Maine to New Mexico as well as the entire planet.


The Earth is literally on fire. Most people don’t think about what these changes will mean. For us in New Mexico high desert will become a “true” desert like that of Arizona or that of Utah – a land made of stone, sand, and wind… animals will die, the trees, scrub and bushes will disappear as the water table continues to drop. The Southwest will be the first place in the US to become uninhabitable because of lack of water. This is the reality humans have created in their arrogance, stupidity, and blindness.


The long term future for toads, frogs, and all living creatures is grim.


But for this moment in time I feel such wonder that a toad probably lives here somewhere in this small desert oasis. And that, for whatever reason I actually got to be with her, and hopefully helped her deal with the scorching heat that literally could have killed her. The last thing I did before dusk last night was to clear the pool of wood debris enlarging the space, in case she wanted to take an evening dip after her ordeal.


At dawn this morning after returning from my river walk I anxiously peeled away her house to see if she was still there. What I saw instead was a giant empty toad hole!