Coming out of torpor

Last Friday night my son dug two of the last three holes needed to set our remaining fruit tree starts.   We didn’t manage to plant any of them that night  because he and my daughter needed to gather their things together for the early start they faced the next morning.   They were to travel to Moab to take tests for advancement in their Shorinji Kempo classes, and I had to get them to the local Chevron at 7:30 a.m. sharp so they could carpool with the rest of their group.

That morning, after dealing with the €œgotcha € moment of my key breaking off in the car’s ignition at the Chevron, I arrived home to attend to the trees.   Planting trees by yourself is a bit tricky, especially with the hammerhead winds we had Saturday (again!) but not impossible.   The kids wouldn’t be back till mid-afternoon.   I didn’t want to make the trees wait another minute for return to more natural circumstances, especially since the stock was bare root.

I grabbed the last cherry tree needing in-earthed and, holding it straight with one hand so that the bud union hovered two-to-three inches above what would be ground level in the filled-in hole, went about the business.   Shoveling with one hand posed  a slight challenge, but soon the tree was able to stand on its own.   Grasping the shovel handle with both hands, then, I began ladling into the remaining void soil from the conical red backdirt pile.

After dumping one shovel full, I turned to scoop another only to find the last shovel I’d taken away had exposed a gigantic, torpid, female Woodhouse toad.   €œOh, sorry! € I said, relieved— and amazed— to find her unharmed from the shovelhead’s body-slam and bite into the earth above her.   Carefully, I picked her up— she puffed up in that way toads do to discourage  folks from  swallowing them whole— and took her over to the old seed tray I’ve set up as a toad spa.   Toads drink through their skin, so at night they find the nearest wet spot— doesn’t have to be a pool or puddle, they can press themselves into any significant dampness— and soak it up.   For more that I’ve written on our Woodhouse toads, see here and here.

 As I finished filling in the hole, glancing from time to time over at the toad soaking in the spa, I  enjoyed  the  heady relief  of not having  harmed one wart of her head.   By constitution, toads are  more durable than they look.   After all, they spend a great deal of time in estivation with several stones’ weight of earth pressing down on their seemingly soft bodies.   Still, it appeared  that we’d both been lucky, as far as the physics of the situation went.   A hair or two lower and I might have severed something or killed her.   Then not only would the toad be dead  but I would have spent  the next several days in abject sorrow.   Also, the incident sobered me, because once again I realized how deeply decisions I make in the yard— even seemingly harmless ones, like leaving a backdirt pile overnight— affect the local wildlife.   And that quickly.   The dirt stood only for twelve hours, yet by morning it had  acquired a heartbeat.  

One day during  our first spring  in this  area I was re-spading earth that had been allowed to sit too long after being tractor-tilled.     I turned over ground with a shovel then smoothed it out with a thatching rake. At one point, I  caught a spark of movement off to one side and slightly behind me.   I’d nearly stepped on a toad who had hopped quickly out of my way and  then  taken up postion  at a slight distance regarding me with a critical  eye.   Rather than running away, it hovered in the vicinity.   The morning was very warm and the sun shone intensely.   I worried the toad  would suffer harmful effects from the heat.  

At the time, I didn’t know much about these creatures.   €œYou’re out late, € I said to the toad.   I wondered, €œWhere do toads go around here for protection from the summer heat? €   I continued working, watching the toad carefully so as to avoid any more close calls.   As soon as I finished raking smooth the vegetable bed, the toad hopped toward me.   Not more than two feet off, it pressed itself into the nicely turned soil.   Using its front and hind legs to push aside dirt and its blunt, rounded snout as a shovel, it sank from view into the red earth in seconds, a disappearing act far more impressive to my eye  than anything a human magician could pull off.

I don’t think I’ve ever received a quicker answer to any question I’ve addressed to the animal kingdom.   I blessed the toad for trusting me with its secret and marked the spot with a stick to avoid conflicts of interest.

So you’d think that by now I know better.   But assuming the nights were still too cold, and assuming that because I’d seen no signs of toads yet there weren’t any up, I simply hadn’t  considered that some early-to-rise salientian might find a cone of warm, fluffy-soft backdirt an irresistible bed.

This incident was a wake-up call.   Over the last three years, I’ve changed my behavior in the garden to accommodate the presence of the toads, who mid-spring through late summer take up residence there in considerable numbers, attracted by the water; the soft, warm dirt lying beneath the fabric weed barrier in the raised beds; and the delectable bugs. I’m building those raised beds to eliminate the need for tilling, since sad experience has  shown that heavy spring tilling is deadly to toads lying torpid in last year’s stirred garden soils.   As a form of biological pest control, the toads prove their immense value year after year, so I want to foster a relationship with them built on mutual understanding.   Plus, in their strange way, they’re darned cute.   In the late spring and summer, I enjoy working in the garden at night, under the moon when there is one or beneath the stars, flipping on  my  headlamp’s  red filter when I need  more illumination.   Toads hop all around me or  plunk about  in the spa.   Sometimes, I’ll see one sitting  still for a long period of time like  a chessmaster  staring at  the field of play, working out his next move, and,  indeed, all the possible moves he’ll make in every chess game he’ll conceivably  play ten years into the future.

Yet there’s always something more to learn, some further truth about the animals living in my yard to which I might awaken.   Always.   That the toads permit me to continue in their tutelage after some very unfortunate— for them— misunderstandings is a grace.   And make no mistake; you pay attention, you show respect, and animals teach you whatever you’re capable of learning.  

Remind me  … whom were we saying  are the true stewards of this earth?


14 thoughts on “Coming out of torpor”

  1. .

    Slowing down to a speed closer to our animal relations generally is educational. But slowing down is ever harder it seems. Even for those who understand the benefits.


  2. On the other hand, as I discovered driving (almost) the (entire) length of I-35, if go really fast and then slow down sometimes it seems you are going a lot slower than you are. I’m not saying that that’s a solution, but there’s slow and then there’s torpid.


  3. Slowing down to a speed closer to our animal relations generally is educational. But slowing down is ever harder it seems. Even for those who understand the benefits.

    Th.,.,.,.,., (hard to stop once you start)

    You’re implying that our animal friends are slow?

    Boy, have I got a blog post for you coming up.


  4. Toads do not live in uniformity– watch one catch a june bug if you ´d like to see lightning fast. But as far as a sedate pace enforced by a recalcitrant body, I fully relate to the toad ´s plight.

    Some of us live in bodies that serve our demands slowly– that is all. We– the toads and other slow folk– may be more quick-witted than you think.


  5. Jim’s suggestion bears out my own experience, not only with Jim but with all creatures great and small. Everything is smarter, quicker, more aware than we think he/she/it is.

    I suppose that how quickly we catch on in any given encounter with an Other says much about the flexibility of our own wits. I should know, I’ve done my share of underestimating creatures not-me.

    Heh, that reminds me of what I like to say about stereotyping. If a person stereotypes some other person/creature/thing, that’s probably a fair indicator of the degree to which the person has stereotyped him/herself.

    I’m thinking wonder might be the most invigorating approach.


  6. Oh, and by the way, Jim, I’m still trying to figure out how to comment on your blog, given the new format. I haven’t abandoned you, just can’t figure out how to get past the sentries with what I’ve got.


  7. Th.,

    That I can see as a possibility. Animals put the “zen” in the word “denizen.” [Denizen, from L. dientus, “within.”]


  8. Alas, I miss toads. I have only seen a couple in our yard over twelve years. They just don’t stand a chance with all the mowers. The last big one had a name, too, that the neighbor gave him. But then her husband got him while he was mowing over her flowers.
    Hmmm…that says even more than I intended.
    I remember in the summer at the farm where Mom would go buy raw milk, the yard would be COVERED with toads. You had to tiptoe thru them from car to house and back!
    I think of toads as one of those easy first lessons for kids- safe and fun. But my kids can’t even remember the one time we found a toad and I put it in their tiny hands. So I mourn, too, for our loss.


  9. Lora,

    I can relate. The first few years I lived in Payson I discovered a couple toads that no one knew were there. I shared the presence of one with my neighbor, and the toad hopped back and forth between our yards, much to the delight us both. Then one night I happened to be outside when I saw a car stop at the corner on the other side of my neighbor’s house. Someone got out and picked up the toad, which had hopped into the road, and toadnapped it.

    It turned out they took it out to an area having tracts of farmland, so the toad probably had more of a chance than it had inner city (so to speak) with us. But I missed that toad. Don’t know what happened to the other one, but probably nothing good.

    And don’t get me started on lawn mowers. I’ve wakened up crying from dreams about lawnmowers. We hates them.


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