A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Monday, 23 February 2009

Bufo Bufo

With all this talk of toads in blogland at present - as instanced by my striking Marianne Moore quote yesterday and Rachel Fox's recent tribute to Philip Larkin - I'm coming round to thinking the common toad has had quite an unfair literary press.

Just consider the most famous literary toad - Mr Toad, Toad of Toad Hall, in Kenneth Grahame's immortal children's book The Wind In The Willows. He's conceited, vain, egotistical, pompous, reckless, lacking in common sense, foppish and insufferably rich - a warty but lovable rogue, a kind of post-Lottery-winning Del Boy of the amphibian world.

Then we have Larkin's famous poem Toads itself, as referenced in the last line of Rachel Fox's poem, Larkin Is Home. Larkin's poem begins: Why should I let the toad work/Squat on my life?/Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork/And drive the brute off?/Six days of the week it soils/With its sickening poison -/Just for paying a few bills!/That's out of proportion.

I'm sure most of us have experienced to a greater or lesser extent the desperate tedium of working for a living - but it's a biological fact that the toad's poison neither soils nor sickens. The relatively mild toxin in its skin is of little harm to humans. Indeed, sadly for the toad it's often of little harm either to its chief predators, the grass snake and the hedgehog, who regularly make a meal of poor toad with few harmful after effects. Yet, despite these demands of the food chain, toads may commonly live for 40 years or more if left unmolested.

A far cry from the bombastic creature of Kenneth Grahame's imagination, the toad is actually quite a shy beast, fond of burrowing down into garden compost heaps and quietly retiring there for long periods (please bear this in mind, everyone, when airing your own compost heaps with a fork this spring).

So I make a heartfelt plea for the common toad. Though it has a warty skin, there's no truth in the rumour it can give you warts too. That's an old wives' tale. It won't scare the pants of your nervous wife by leaping up her skirt, as is the tendency of the mercurial frog - toads' legs are shorter, and toads crawl not jump. Have pity on and repect for the humble toad. It's harmless, it's undemanding, it's meditative. It's not going anywhere fast. And it may live longer than you.

Writers and poets - a challenge. How about a pro-toad-ode for a change?


Timecheck said...

I may be so bold as to do an ode to a toad.
As a child, I lived in the wild,
Wandered the woods whenever I could
The streams nearby caused my mother to sigh
For the laundry tubs filled,
With frogs and their wogs
And nearby the house in the dark damp spaces
Lived a toad fat and calm,
Who let this small child hold the toad in his palm.

Rachel Fox said...

Well, you've got the title already! The pro-toad-ode is quite groovy!

I think the word 'toad' probably does not help them...the sound of it. Maybe it needs a new name.


The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Toads are fine, fat, ugly creatures who always remind me of someone's great uncle. We always had toads around the house where I grew up, and even my mother—who was never very tolerant of snakes, lizards, and frogs—was seldom inclined to give toads a whack with the shovel.

One of the great boyhood tricks, both harmless and amusing (though perhaps embarrassing to the victimized toad) was to capture lightening bugs—fireflies—on a summer's evening and feed them to the resident toad, then watch the internal light show as the insects flashed and the toad's belly glowed.

I've built several rock-roofed grottoes or caves, "toad holes," around the yard, where toads find damp, dark shelter during the day. At night, I sit little candle lanterns atop the roof stone. The flickering light attracts bugs, and when they flutter into range, the toad zaps them with its long, sticky tongue. (I'll try and do a blog posting about this toad-friendly landscaping feature.)

Your toad ode must be written…so consider this an addition to your DYI list.

Jay said...

I'm actually rather fond of toads. We had one living in our garage for a while. They eat slugs, you know, which makes them alright by me!

The Weaver of Grass said...

You haven't done so bad yourself Robert pro toad ode is not a bad first line and there is always road for the next line.
I love toads - a greenhouse is not a functioning greenhouse if it doesn';t have a resident toad.

Bella said...

Not intending to be contrary or dampen the applause for toads, here in Australia toads (an introduced species) are in plague proportions and have severely impacted on environmental biodiversity and eco-systems. Again, not their fault, just another example of humans using science and the animal world to achieve their own limited agenda. In the tropical north there has has been numerous expeditions to hunt and kill the plagues of toads. Living here you are acculturated to dislike toads and it was a pasttime for boys to use toads as cricket balls (sounds horrible I know). I think there is a link to the near extinction of green frogs because of the toads.

Anyway, how can one not love the maniac enthusiasm and skulduggery of Toad of Toad Hall.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks everyone for these comments.

And particularly to Bella for introducing a different perspective and showing us how one country's national treasure can be another country's pest. This has really made me think, Bella, about lots of things: how mankind has 'interfered' with nature, often with catastrophic consequences, and how 'positive interference' is now so necessary to redress the balance.

Here in the UK we have 2 kinds of toad - the common toad (bufo bufo) and the much rarer natterjack toad which has a more sepecialized environment - sandy heathland in East Anglia and NW England. Toads are, I think, in general much loved - and there's a big educative process going on - in TV nature programmes, schools, books etc - to increase awareness about threatened creatures and disappearing habitats. We even have 'toad crossing' signs on some roads!

Re Mr Toad from 'Wind In The Willows' - I'm afraid I was playing devil's advocate for the purposes of my argument!

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Your post has made me realize that I do not know the difference between frogs and toads! I've just looked on Wikipedia, but nothing seems to draw attention to ways to tell which is which.

Bella said...

Toad crossing signs - amazing really ... Your comments have made me think too - where are the small birds and insects commonly found in surburban gardens?

I don't see any common sparrows anymore, or bees (I know this one is global crisis), toads(plague proportion in rainforests, not city), frogs, ladybugs, and only a few butterflies if lucky (no-where near the number I saw as a child). Also I remember collecting snails by the bucket load...now I haven't seen a snail in years. Is there a global crisis in the small animal world that has been overlooked?

:) yes, I did know you were playing devils advocate re Toady.

The Solitary Walker said...

There are 'toad tunnels' under some busy highways too, Bella!

I've particularly noticed the lack of wild flowers in the British countryside since the 1960s. The causes are well documented: intensive agriculture; monoculture instead of small-field crop rotation - depleting the soil of goodness; pesticides; the grubbing out of hedgerows; the draining of ponds; urbanization etc. All this of course has a big effect too on the biodiversity of fauna. When I was young there were fields of hay meadows close to our isolated house in the country - where grew cowslips, lady's smocks, poppies in profusion - and of course there were bees and butterflies and many other insects.

However all is not completely lost: many farmers are now much more environmentally aware, and young people better educated and more knowledgeable about this. Also environmental issues are now in the forefront of politics.

Or am I perhaps being naively optimistic - to prevent myself getting too depressed?

Val said...

I read this article today in Newsweek and thought of you:


I was going to email it to you but couldn't locate an email address for you...