This summer Kathy and I have been enjoying our morning coffee out on the front porch. Mockingbirds, my favorite songbird from my southern boyhood, flit even this far north—they are the royalty of our hilltop—and we can watch them hunt insects in the gravel driveway and eat holly berries beside the porch, and then we can look at Marshfield Road that runs below our farm. The curving country lane is a story: What’s next? This stretch is haunted by my memory of seeing a big red-tailed hawk carry a writhing blacksnake across the sky, right above the dip the road takes just before it swings wide and disappears into trees.
We’ve been congratulating ourselves on the biodiversity we’ve fostered in living on this hill farm the past eleven years. When we got here, there were hardly any trees except a few out front for show (the house’s appearance from the road evidently being the point); red plastic shotgun shells littered the ground, and crushed Mountain Dew cans glinted down the driveway toward the barn. We’ve planted lots of trees and berrying shrubs, and birds seem to come over more from the forested hills that surround this high clearing.
But last week when I told our daughter we’d added a bigger sump pit to the basement, improving the place for new owners as we prepare to move up the road to Westerville—suburban, though our new residence backs up on Alum Creek—she said, “I bet the toad likes it.” I hadn’t thought about the toad that lives in the basement for years, hadn’t seen him in years. I realized I haven’t seen any toads here in years. Bullfrogs still thrum down at the pond and tree frogs cry from the trees before a rain, but the only amphibians I ever actually saw with regularity, toads, confident, domestic, and inscrutable in their unstoppable hunkered-down hop from garages and down sidewalks, have gone.
This week’s New Yorker (May 25, 2009) features an intriguing, if depressing, story by Elizabeth Kolbert on why frogs and toads are dying and disappearing worldwide, a phenomenon long recognized and studied, hypothesized as a byproduct of human pollution. Her inquiry among the scientists turns up the new theory that humans, in our travels, have spread an amphibian fungal disease that would have taken decades or centuries or millennia (or never) to get around on its own by wind and water and wildlife. Support for this hypothesis comes from humans being the likely link, she reports, in the recent wildfire-like spread of the “white nose” disease that’s decimating bats in America’s caves.
I don’t know whether our basement toad moved on, down the floor drain from whence he came, or bit the dust, another casualty of a great ongoing global extinction. But in the midst of savoring and missing this Appalachian hilltop, I miss him very much now too. Please tell me you still have toads.