I am a pantheist
. By nature I don't believe in deities. Neither do I believe that the universe needs such beings to exist, and I have no personal need to find gods to worship. Instead, I often find myself "worshiping" nature, discovering the numinous
in the wondrously elegant order
, the infinite variety
of the natural world, a wondrousness reflected in everything from gravity's effects on starlight
to the appearance and habits of such humble creatures as the American Toad.
I discovered the American Toad late in life. I'm sure I was aware of the critter's existence when I was a boy - I was a hippified city boy, but my family went camping two or three times a year, not to mention Boy Scouts. But who studied toads? Seriously, toads? People didn't study toads, they studied snakes, or whales or maybe bats. If you were a good All-American outdoorsy boy, you learned to identify birds by their calls, to count needles on pine trees to tell what species they were. You learned about animal tracks, and maybe if you were hardcore you learned to identify droppings too. These were worthy skills that showed you were one with Wakan Tanka or at least a pretty good hunter. Not toads. Toads were nothing. There was nothing useful you could do with a toad, and nothing worth knowing about them.
Even in popular culture, the toad has always been upstaged by that amphibian primadonna, the frog. There isn't any Kermit the Toad. No Toad Prince. Toady didn't go a'courtin', and Jeremiah was not a Fowler's Toad. There was a Toad in the X-Men comic, but he was a ludicrous second-rate henchman who was mostly played for laughs. And in the Frog and Toad stories, guess who was the bumbling, fearful one who wore a funny-looking bathing suit? There's no debating the fact that toads just aren't charismatic. Nobody wants to make icons of lumpy, splotchy amphibians.
I'm pretty sure half the kids I grew up with believed toads would give you warts.
Then we moved overseas, and it was there that I started to develop a real appreciation for nature, but there weren't any American Toads there. So it wasn't until last year that I ever actually met one. I found it sitting in the parking area of Sleeping Giant State Park, about ten seconds away from being run over by a blue Subaru Forester looking for a parking spot.
I held up a hand to stop the Forester, scooped the beastie up and carried him over to the edge of the woods. The wretched thing thanked me by peeing on my hand and disappearing into the foliage the second I put it down. I don't mean that it hopped away or mumbled Abracadabra and poofed. It just sat where I set it, and it was gone. Its hideous mottling and bumpy outline made it all but impossible to see in its natural environment. It was one of the most perfect demonstrations of camouflage I had ever seen. Even my daughter was amazed, although her friend who was hiking with us was disgusted that I had picked the toad up in the first place and her brother was disappointed that I had stupidly let it go.
Of course, I spent that entire hike looking for more camouflaged toads. And, of course, I didn't find a single one. This is why you should always stop to watch these kinds of things. More often than not, you only get one chance.
But not always.
Life went on, seasons rolled by, and this April found us eight and a half months pregnant and wanting to get out into nature one more time before the baby came. Real hikes were out of the question in the condition our condition was in, so we took a short drive to Chatfield Hollow, another nice state park near our domicile. There are good trails in the Hollow, but for those who don't want to walk there is also a nice little lake and a wetlands area with an elevated boardwalk. On good days you can see birds like kingfishers, herons, swans and ducks. There are occasionally snakes in the lake, and it's always a likely place to find tadpoles. Which, for six year old nature-loving girls and their pantheistic fathers, are just about the greatest things in the world.
As soon as we got out of the car, we heard frogs singing up a storm. It was a beautiful welcome to the park. Nothing says you're out in the woods like frog song. We parked the eight and a half months pregnant part of the team under a shady tree with a book, and the Spawn and I went walkabout. Walking along the lakeshore, we scanned the lake for birds or tadpoles, but there were none to be found. Undeterred, we kept walking in the general direction of the reedy end of the lake, swerving around a couple of older guys fishing from the beach.
The sound of the frogs chirping got louder as we came closer to the bend in the shoreline where the beach ends and the marshy bit begins. They were making a hell of a racket. We wandered on, right up to the bend, and saw splashing in the shallow water. Must be fish, I thought. I pointed it out to the Spawn, and we moved closer. Then we heard a raucous trilling right near us, and less than three feet away from me I saw a little amphibian sitting in the mud, blowing up what looked like a pearly gray balloon in his throat.
Now this was something you didn't see every day. This was better than tadpoles. Tadpoles are neat, for sure, but how often do you actually see a frog singing? I pointed him out to my daughter, who immediately found another one.
And another one. And look, there's one swimming. And splash, there went another. In fact, all those splashes and gurgles weren't fish, they were frogs.
We were in heaven. We squelched carefully into the mucky water, looking around and seeing more, and more, and MORE frogs. Some were swimming, some were singing for mates, and some had already found mates and were happily getting it on. Frog sex is very interesting. It involves a lot of hanging on while nothing visible happens.
We were surrounded by dozens of amorous amphies, and in short time we began to attract a crowd of interested humans as well. (As a general rule, humans are always interested in finding out what other humans are doing in mud. I believe this explains the eternal fascination with mud wrestling. But that's a whole nother story.) Elderly couples in RV retirement ambled over and asked what we had found. Ten year old boys heard the amphibian siren song and started picking up copulating frogs - who mostly just kept at it with bactrian stoicism. The boys' moms walked by, super casual, and tried to hide their horrified reactions when they realised what the frogs were doing.
"What's going on?"
"Are they... You know?"
"Wow, I never saw that before."
"Look how many of them there are!"
"The girls are bigger than the boys. Didja notice that, Frank?"
"What kind of frogs are they?"
And I replied, "I don't know. Weird-looking things, aren't they?"
"Those are toads," said one of the fishermen.
"Really? In the water? What kind of toads?"
"I dunno, just toads. They come down to the water to mate."
And I looked again, really looking this time, and it was obvious that they weren't frogs. They were those same weirdly mottled, perfectly-invisible-in-the-undergrowth creatures that have no folk songs named after them, no fairy tales, no puppets on national TV because they are too ugly. The same beasties I had last seen disappearing at Sleeping Giant, now driven out of their hiding places by an irresistable urge to sing loud, show off their warts and mate their little hearts out with the only creatures in the world that thought they were beautiful.
It gave me great pleasure to witness these goings-on when I thought they were frogs. When I knew they were toads, it became something else entirely. Something with elements of rapture, reminding me that nothing in nature cares about our preconceptions or our ideas about beauty. And that there is always something you can learn about the world, as long as you're looking and listening.
I am a pantheist. I believe there is a wondrous elegance to the order, the infinite variety and the interconnectedness of the natural world, reflected in everything that we can observe or deduce about our universe. And I believe that the universe shows you these things when you are ready to see them.