“Toad at his best and highest, Toad the terror, the traffic-queller, the lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night.” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows. Illustration by Charles van Sandwick.
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Aldo Leopold
First there were tadpoles–dozens of them, swimming swiftly in the brackish water of the lily pond. Occasionally, an eastern box turtle shared their aquatic world without interrupting their frantic exercise. Then, in late June, as the roses faded and the trumpet lilies and poet’s jasmine began to bloom, they morphed into toads, oh, frabjous day! Toads are a sure sign that the garden fosters biodiversity. It offers everything a toad needs–an environment free of chemicals, lush vegetation, plenty of water and a reasonably well stocked snack bar. The slug, that dreaded enemies of my hostas, happens to be one the toad’s favorite treat. Alas, toad is one of the favorite treats of the hog nose snake, another frequenter of my lily pond. Toad is not without defenses. Even as a tadpole he poisons the fish that dare eat him–that might explain the disappearance of the Mossadnik, the Israeli fish meant to instill terror into the insect population. As an adult, he secretes a toxin in the paratoid glands behind his eyes. He does not hesitate to express the toxin when threatened by predators and he can inflate his body to appear more menacing than the toothless creature he really is. I envision him lurking in the greenery, long sticky tongue extended, ready to snap up his quota of slugs. The thought comforts me as much as it ought to strike terror into the hearts of the invertebrates that wreak havoc on my borders.
Celia Thaxter, author of The Island Garden, observed with uncharacteristic acidity that the slug, “He is beyond description repulsive, a mass of sooty, shapeless slime and he devours everything.” Having deployed all the chemicals weapons against “the worst of plagues, the snail without a shell” Thaxter dispatched a note to a friend,
“In the name of the Prophet, Toads!”
American Impressionist Childe Hassam, whose lyrical watercolors enrich Thaxter’s text, might have been the friend to whom she appealed. He was one of the artists who summered in Appledore Island where Thaxter gardened. If so, he does not seem to have found the toad painterly. That surprises me. Toad is graphically gorgeous as the above illustration by Charles van Sandwick attests. Beatrix Potter’s Jeremy Fisher is certainly a handsome fellow and so is the toad portrayed by Hokusai. In Kunioshy’s painting of adventurer and writer Tenjiku Tokubei riding a giant toad, the toad is decidedly the most impressive of the two.
The toad, slugg and snake triad is something cultures older than ours have incorporated it into mythology. In Japan, for example, this triad is known as san sukumi, three that fascinate each other or three deadlocked enemies, thre frozen in time. This is tension with which I must not tamper–unlike Thaxter’s my toad is is not an import. He is as homegrown as the snake and slug–lest the ghost of Aldo Leopold smite me with a bolt of lightning. A gardener of my ilk is a guest in her own garden, an observer more than a participant. All around me there are gardeners groomed within an inch of their lives. The glorious stand of jonquils that used to grace a nearby garden succumbed to the untender mercies of a fellow whose job is to keep lawns pristine. Lawn lovers rejoice at his chemical array because gardening, for many of us is indeed an effort to bring order to chaos. Mine is a chaotic garden. To see its loveliness one must love chaos or learn to look selectively. There is a certain elegance in the lacy petal of a Hermosa rose rendered into lace by a hungry slug. As long as the rosebush can withstand the slug’s attention, I will continue my laissez-faire policy. More than that is the work of toad.