Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Toads? Really? Why?

A fascination of toads
"Why? Toads? I mean, Toads!"


a small toad crept through a forest of grass....


People often ask “so what is it with you and toads, anyway?”. Or words to that effect. My answers tend to wander partly because there are too many of them.


I might offer the childhood answer that draws from early, early memories (4 years old perhaps) and determinedly Going To The Pond and the ongoing excitement of heading home with a jar full of tadpoles. A simple excitement of tadpoles. Of their wriggling enthusiasm for life, their shape, their transformation. Then there are seasons of successes and failures before being confident about raising froglets and toadlets to release size….

That is all true.

So is the more scientific response. I’m a zoologist, an ecologist, and toads are fascinating. Their role within ecosystems is much subtler than just being steadfast predators who sit there and eat anything they can fit in their mouths. Their evolution is a success story of the underdog…they have crept, hopped, and slithered their way past dinosaurs and extinctions and ice ages. They have worked with their biologies so that, yes, most are bound to water and the spilling of spawn, but others can thrive in deserts, others can give birth to live young. They have explored ways of raising offspring that makes mammalian systems look positively unimaginative. Incubate eggs in your stomach. Embed eggs in a parent’s back. Wrap them in strings round your back legs and carry them. Stuff them into a pouch on your back. Lay them in a foam nest above the water the tadpoles will drop into. Lay them in a deep tunnel. Withhold them and let young salamanders slip out later. Or just explore toxicity in ways full of intrigue, hallucination and death. What amazing animals!


Then there is the response from my storyteller, folklorist side of enchanted frogs, of disenchanted
princes, of the Vietnamese Toad who confronted the Emperor of Heaven, gained rain and a voice to sing to the sky. There are toad charms for warts and jealousy and anger. There is the Toadman, the holder of the Horseman’s Word. There is Shakespeare, and woodcuts of witches’ familiars. There is the magic of the toadstone that sits inside a toad’s head (the rest of us just say, “look! The jewels in a toad’s head are those golden eyes that watch the world”).

All of those are also true.

There is a simple aesthetic reply. To me (at least), toads are beautiful. I love their lumpy shapes, their smiling faces. Those golden eyes. I love the lines of a frog and the precision of amphibian toes. The flickering flutter of a courting newt’s tail. Beautiful


Then there are deeper answers that don’t always make sense to other people and so are really the ones that matter most to me.


I am an animist. For me, the quality I call spirit is found throughout the world. We all sing in different voices but all sing with the same wonder. We are all connected, all related, both ecologically and spiritually. I have a toad totem. There is a connection between myself and toads (and other amphibians but toad most of all). There is a (metaphorical) toad who sits inside of me, whose presence completes me. Not because he/she/it provides qualities I lack particularly. Nor is it a connection based on calculated astrological balances and elemental wotsits. It isn’t that I have a Toad Guide or Higher Guardian Angelic Toad or something. It is simpler. Like deep friendships, it doesn’t really make sense. It just is. With toads, I am reminded of patience, of the value of just waiting, and watching, and judging the moment to strike. I am reminded of hidden treasures. Of the long stillness of winter dreaming. Of passion. All of which are things I know as a human, anyway, but maybe the toad-view adds a slightly different perspective. Totemic relationships don’t need to make sense to anyone else. They simply need to be.


I am a pagan animist. For me there are spirits who still walk this world and gods who watch and wait. And comment. And there is Grandmother Toad who is one of the Ancient Ones, who was here, waking underground, shaping herself into life from mud and gold when the trees dreamed of the First Forest and Raven’s wings beat the winds into life and woke all the world. Now, with the trees still dreaming of the First Forest, and Raven sweeping the sky with thunderwings, Grandmother Toad is one of the voices who speaks in the dark of the caves of our practice. She is Contemplation and Laughter and Compassion and the rock upon which you can break yourself. She watches. She smiles. She waits.

So, when I pick up a toad stranded in a ditch with nowhere to go, with a slow exhausted death after long hibernation ahead of it and an urgency calling it pondwards, all these answers move within me. I could try to explain it to you, standing there on the bank above me and asking “why are you doing that?” or I can just smile and invite you to pause, to look and recognise wonder in the little cousins who never give up.
Images
From the top:
Small toad: c Ian MacLellan
Toad's eye: c Kenny Taylor 
Newt: c Shaun Walters
all the others: c G MacLellan

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