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.

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  • We have not had toads in the city, but I’ve seen the tiny brown ones when I camp, and my relatives in the county usually have them. We also used to find them fairly frequently at the Gunpowder, but I haven’t been there in awhile because of my back.

    In the morning, at the park down the street, I used to listen to the bullfrogs croak. I don’t go to the park anymore because of my back.

    I told someone today, on Facebook, that I often think of myself as a frog. All the bad things in the world that happen seem to lodge themselves right in my skin. I’m like a barometer for my environment.

    Except I can’t feel anything of others’ misery right now because of my back.

    The frogs and toads have been dying off for years. I don’t think they’ll ever go away completely. And you have to hope they don’t, because we will not be far behind.

  • I am happy to report that, here at the back of beyond in the Florida panhandle, deep in the Longleaf pine woods, we still have toads. Lots of them, thank the Lord.

    I really didn’t want to fly around the country or the world anymore. Now you’ve given me a good reason to hunker down, stay home and not contaminate the toads.

  • David Bailey says:

    Lovely, Richard. Thanks, you brightened a glum day here in Piedmont North Carolina, where I must admit I haven’t seen a singe urban toad in all the years we’ve been here (13). By contrast, there are scads at my father in law’s house in the lowcountry of SC, which is a bit more rural. I, too, read the New Yorker piece, adding to the burden of guilt I already shoulder as a member of the human race.
    I, btw, sent you a book in yesterday’s post that anyone interested in Narrative might want to read. It’s about an English teacher who shares the novel he’s writing with his high school class, which ruthlessly dissects it and him, which doesn’t sound like a riveting premise for a novel, but you just wait. It’s a guaranteed page-turner. A murder mystery, in fact.
    Google it: Travel Writing by Peter Ferry and read The Washington Post review if you have any doubt.

  • I am glad toads are still in the country, but we had scads in suburban Satellite Beach when I was growing up. You know, you don’t miss your toads till you realize they are gone. But only yesterday I saw a baby mockingbird here for the first time, and we have lived with a pair on the hilltop since we came. As a kid, outdoors a lot, I saw baby mockingbirds all the time. If I hadn’t been over at the septic tank stressing over our inspection for the buyers I would not have seen the fledgling.

    I looked up that novel on Amazon and it sounds fantastic. Can’t wait . . .

  • John says:

    We have a pond here in a Maryland suburb just north of DC which used to be swarming with tadpoles in the spring and raise a huge racket at dusk. Many toads would make it up to our pool where they would gracefully glide around. The tree frogs still pipe up before a rain, but I haven’t seen a toad in the pool for a while and the pond has gone from a roar to a murmur.

  • theexile says:

    There seemed to be plenty of frogs in Waco, Texas, when I lived there. But I don’t see many near the apartment complex where I live now. I do hear them when I take walk along the river here.

  • brevity says:

    No toads. Sorry.

  • You came from Satellite Beach…yup, Toad City. We had lots when we lived in Vero Beach and made our yard into a bird and butterfly habitat. But now that we’re in the Texas Hill Country, in the dark brown part of the drought map (most extreme category), the toads are only around when it rains.

    Congratulations on moving on. It’s hard to do and good.

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