C.W. Gusewelle is away this week. His regular column will return. In the meantime, here is one of his favorites.
Journalism is a hasty art.
If there were time, I would like to research extensively the question of toads, because I think, as with anything that lives and lusts and perishes, there must be a good deal about them worth knowing.
What I have, instead, is only the product of an hour’s casual observation.
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We were beside a pond in one of the cow pastures, my daughter and I. The afternoon breeze had hushed. The evening was coming softly on.
A few moments before, a family of a dozen geese had crested a woodline and passed low overhead on their way to the night’s resting place. In the great stillness, the rush of their wingbeats could be clearly heard.
Together we watched the sun fall and the sky across the field richen with a blend of peach and darkest blue. It was a good time to be anywhere, especially with someone who’s a friend.
Suddenly, from the far side of the pond, an electronic trill was heard.
A moment later, from another quarter of the shore, an answer was hurled back.
All around the perimeter, then, there rose a gathering chorus, growing in a number of voices, intensifying in shrillness until we were wrapped entirely in a din of creaking and screaming so vast that it seemed to fill the whole visible universe and resonate inside the head.
Each voice was slightly different in tone. Each song was distinct in its cadence or duration. Plainly, though, the singers were of the same race of creature.
Singling one voice out from the others, my daughter followed the racket to its source.
Its author was a toad. A surprisingly small toad, an inch of him at most, grayish-brown on top, perched at the pond’s edge. We knelt to see him better in the poor light, and he was undisturbed by our being there. He had other things to think about, and work to do.
As we bent close, he inflated his throat to perhaps half the size of his whole body and then shot out a burst of sound that lasted 10 seconds or maybe 15. Unless we’d seen it, we’d never have believed a beast that small was capable of so terrific a howl.
If human beings could emit a cry of such dimension proportionate to our size, it would be a nightmare weapon able to blow down buildings and knock airplanes from the sky.
We watched him, amazed, through several repetitions of his feat, which he seemed to take pretty much for granted. And all around the little pond were dozens, or possibly hundreds, of other virtuosos like himself.
I say himself, although for all I know the singers may have been herselves. Or it could be that, with toads, both genders sing. You see, there’s the handicap of never having time to look into things properly.
If I had to guess, I’d say their performance had something to do with the season of the year and the time of reproduction. Probably they were singing to charm another toad. But why would that be necessary, considering the great multitude of them around the pond and the fact that toads, in any case, have only other toads to go to?
On the other hand, if their songs were different, mightn’t their purposes be different too? Maybe some of them were crying out cautionary arias about the raccoon that comes at night or the heron with his skewering beak.
Maybe some were singing for the pure joy of being toads on such an evening.
Maybe some had been told they had nice voices.
We watched until it was too dark to see them anymore, and we couldn’t know.
But toads know.