Toad Stories

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(Andrew’s toad eggs – photo courtesy of Andrew)

 

Last year I wrote about the giant Western toad that appeared in my garden in Abiquiu last August. Without sufficient summer rains to create pools of standing water in the desert I knew believed that this toad couldn’t have bred. I guessed by her size that she was a female.

 

I watched her bury herself in the ground in earth that stayed moist. She stayed around for about a month, submerging herself during the day, setting off to hunt each hot night. I was so thrilled to have her that I was determined to build a permanent toad pond this spring to entice any amphibians in the area to move in – including that giant toad, if she returned.

 

When I researched Western toads I learned that because of agricultural practices/ engineering/river damming Western toads were considered “functionally extinct.” This phrase means that although there are still pockets of these terrestrial amphibians left, their numbers are so low that the species has no hope of long-term survival. This grim fact made me even more determined to create a home for toads.

 

This spring with the help of my friend Andrew we sunk a wooden barrel in the ground and surrounded it with hand picked stones. It was Andrew’s idea to create a channel from the roof to the pond, so that every time it rained the little pond would fill with clear water. After we completed this project I was excited to see how efficiently it worked. Even morning dew from the roof found its way to the pond, and a light rain kept the water clear without flooding. There is something that is incredibly satisfying about putting every drop of water to good use in the desert!

 

Now I needed some amphibians. I thought I would start with frogs. One tree frog serenaded me from the next field for a month, but even with adequate rain in Abiquiu the spring cacophony of frog song was absent, so no breeding occurred.

 

Andrew and I waded around looking for frogs eggs in some other wet places without success, and I reluctantly returned to Maine thinking my little pond would remain empty all summer because there just weren’t enough amphibians in the area to populate it…

 

Here in Maine I have a number of Eastern toads living around the house. Although their numbers have also plummeted, for the moment the species is still extant, and the sounds of toad trilling sweeten each night. About a month ago I discovered some “toad-poles” down by the lake, gathered some in a pail and brought them to the house to put in a vernal pool that I had dug many years ago. It is situated next to the brook over a small seeping spring and I have raised thousands of toads and frogs over the years. It is immensely satisfying to know that although I can’t do anything to save a whole species at least for the moment, I have a thriving population. I just wished that I could spirit some toad-poles to that small oasis in Abiquiu…

 

Imagine my joy last week when Andrew emailed me with the news that after the first good rain in July, he noticed two toads clasped together in his home dug pool and heard them calling. The following morning he discovered strings of toad eggs attached to underwater vegetation!

 

I already knew the story about how Andrew’s Western toads came to him. One spring he noticed that there were tadpoles in standing water that was drying up on his property. He transported buckets of the wiggling amphibians to one pool that he kept full of water to save them from being fried by the sun. From then on Andrew had a toad family. In fact, I met one early this spring.

 

“Please, oh please, take some eggs to my pond,” I begged. And he did!

 

As of this writing all I know is that his eggs hatched almost immediately, I think in about three days.

 

I am anxious to discover how long it takes these western “toad-poles” to transform into terrestrial creatures and I am ever so hopeful that by the time I return to Abiquiu, I too will have some nubbly brown croaking bug catchers hopping through the scrub around my pond.

 

Thank you Andrew!

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!

Bufo americanus

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I recognized him at once

as he limped, one mangled leg,

one eye bleeding,

dragging himself across a dirt road

in search of a place to die.

 

The day went black

with sorrow.

 

Oh no, I keened,

stopping in front of him.

His mouth was open and closing,

– gasping –

with each labored breath.

Did he know how much

it mattered to me that he was hurt

so badly that there was no way

I could save him?

 

Bearing witness never seems to be enough.

 

It was hot – too hot.

Fierce sun dehydrates even

the toughest skin of toad or frog.

I couldn’t bear that he would die

of injuries compounded by thirst.

 

I ran back to get the car.

My intention was to

run him over, to

end his suffering.

But when I drove the car

down the dirt road

he was gone.

 

If only I could glimpse a toad

basking in the desert sand,

I thought until today.

Never imagining this…

 

I was going to a local seed exchange.

Seeds are about beginnings

but I was mourning a dying toad.

What salt – bush sheltered him?

Even purple seed corn kernels

left me joyless.

My soul was with that toad.

 

I was tired – too tired.

I left early, driving down

the winding red dirt road.

My only hope

was that by now

death had claimed the toad.

 

He would never know

that for the last month

I spent each night listening

for amphibious musical trills.

 

Later in the afternoon

I walked to the place

where I had last seen the toad.

And there he was,

quite still, squashed flat

by the only car

that could have hit him –

my own.

 

I buried him in the sand

that once warmed his flesh.

I closed his golden eye.

Sprinkled cornmeal…

How does one ever say goodbye?

 

Although we’d barely met,

I loved him.

Even in death

his life mattered

to one who would

have mothered him,

healing his wounds,

if only she had the chance.

 

Postscript:

Ever since coming to the high desert last August I have been hoping to catch sight of a toad or frog. I missed the early monsoon season when in one night the frogs emerged from hiding, sang love songs, and laid their eggs. I never met a toad. Last summer I lived back in the hills so perhaps toads don’t like it much up there. However, now that I am staying in this riparian sanctuary, situated near a flooded acequia and raging river, I believed toads and frogs must be around somewhere, and yet until today I never met either.

Bufo americanus, or the western toad looks exactly like his northern cousin in the east. In the spring toads are diurnal hunting during the day; in summer they become nocturnal. This was a large toad, probably 3 inches long. And he was actually a she because females are larger than males.

There is a small lily pond on this property that may eventually harbor black toad eggs laid in a double string of jelly below the surface of the water. However, this toad may not have had a chance to become a mother…I say this because the musical trills of this particular toad are very familiar to me, and I have not heard them during the day or at night. (Trilling occurs primarily at mating time and before and during egg laying).

To meet my first toad in the desert under these circumstances was very difficult for me because I have loved these amphibians since I was a small child, and in Maine, where my home is, I created a vernal pool for the toads that is situated next to the brook. Above on the hill in my flower garden, there is also a small lily pond for frogs and toads.

The synchronicity involved in this incident was also startling. The toad was initially run over by a friend of mine, who would be deeply upset if he knew. When I went back to get the car to kill the toad quickly to put him out of his misery, he simply wasn’t there. Unable to think about anything but the dying toad at the seed exchange, I returned home early and I must have been the one that finally ended the toad’s suffering without knowing it by running him over because this is a private road. Discovering the flattened toad helped me deal with my sorrow because the animal was no longer suffering.

It is also strange that I called the toad a male in the poem since I know large toads are all females and potential “mothers.”

To have this incident occur the day before “Mother’s Day” seems particularly poignant because I have spent a lot of time rehabilitating wounded animals etc., and there was nothing I could do to save this toad’s life.

With that much said, I am honoring Nature as the primal “Mother of All” on the eve of Mother’s Day.

I also honor myself.

I am also grieving with all mothers, who have lost “children,” human, or otherwise.