The Year of the Toad

‘A toad in the hand won’t get squashed on a road’ …. male toad taking a ride. (Please note: wear gloves when handling toads, or wash hands afterwards).

Froglife have declared 2017 the Year of the Toad.  A recent study estimated that toads have declined by 68% in the U.K over the past thirty years.  Possible reasons include changed farming practices, loss of ponds, urban development, and increased traffic on roads they use, or have to cross, in order to reach ancestral ponds.  Climate change is also likely to be a factor because mild winters have been shown to be detrimental for hibernating toads.

Once again teams of volunteers in our local area have scooped hundreds of toads up from roads and given them a free, if not always dignified, ride in a bucket to their favoured pond or dam.  As this year’s toad rescuing season draws to a close our thoughts have turned to how it all began for us.

My ‘other half’ happens to be a naturalist with a penchant for the common toad, bufo bufo.  Well, more than a penchant actually.  Some would say the common toad was her totem animal, but that would not be her style.  Its obvious, though, from the way she responds to these impressive little amphibians every year, that she has a special connection with them.

According to my archive she made the first record of toads in a threatened pond on the other side of town seventeen years ago, and I was accompanying her on exploratory visits to monitor other sites.  Three years later we watched the spring cavortings of toads (and frogs) in a pond up the hill and talked to the land owner, but were vague about where they were spending the rest of the year.  This is not the place to recount the full story of what followed, of course, but two events stand out for me.

Toad in pond, with string of spawn.

One day in March 2005 I was walking home up a lane through a wood on the hillside.  I’d been walking along there for about thirty years previously without seeing a single toad, but on that day there seemed to be pairs everywhere -little males riding on the backs of larger females- in broad daylight.  Unusually, it was early afternoon.  One particular pair caught my eye.  The female was almost white, a relatively rare albino, and her passenger very dark brown.  I’ve never seen such a striking combination since.

Their presence -within half an hour of the Spring Equinox- alerted us to one of the routes taken by our local population.  We soon realised that many toads were overwintering in cracks and holes in the stone wall that borders the lane, and have been going out on March evenings to rescue them ever since.

A second event that stands out in my memory occured in August 2007 when my partner was struggling with a very stressful situation at work.  At the nadir of that particular crisis, just when a bit of magic was most needed, a strikingly beautiful, calm, and regal, female toad -a veritable matriarch of the toad community (pictured above)- turned up at our back door.   She stayed for a while, spending the day beneath a neighbour’s planter.

I think of heart-felt encounters like these as ‘showings’.  Some would regard that Equinox event as lucky co-incidence.  Maybe it was.  But the Spring Equinox had long been important for me as a key time in the life of Kingfishers, and co-incidentally or not, we happened to hear about a kingfisher turning up on the same day at the pond my partner had surveyed some eight years before.  The second event, the arrival of her amphibian helper, seems to me to illustrate the potential for reciprocity in relations between humans and other species.  Again, given my own experiences with kingfishers, this is not a claim I make lightly.

We always enjoy the toading season, not least the friendly rivalry and camaraderie between rescue sites.  As we’re not quite as able to keep going up and down hills these days we were delighted to welcome some enthusiastic new helpers this year.  Some people have expressed doubt about whether rescuing toads is worthwhile.  Quite apart from the steep decline in their overall population, we know of a couple of migration routes further down the valley that have died out for various reasons.  In any case, once you’ve got to know toads, and seen animals injured or killed on roads you’re likely to want to carry on.  There is always more to learn, and being close to the toads’ springtime rite is brilliant -every time.

To find local toad rescue groups in the U.K go to Toads on Roads, or look on Facebook (if you’re that way inclined -we aren’t :)).

B.T. 6th April 2017.





Divination, an Animist Art – 2

Weathered Gravestone, Whitby, North Yorkshire.

Weathered Gravestone, Whitby, North Yorkshire.

Occasionally the processes of the natural world appear to respond to human intention in quite specific ways.  This beautifully weathered gravestone in the cliff top cemetery at Whitby would seem to be a case in point.  From within-and-beyond the immediate material (geochemical, microclimatic) processes of Nature, a voice seems to be speaking.  I find the resultant image as open-endedly evocative as any piece of human art.  Yet mainstream Western culture has no conception of other-than-animal agency, mind, or sentience, in nature.  Describing Koyukon sensibility, David Abram (drawing on the work of Richard Nelson) writes ‘Rather like the trickster, the Raven, who first gave it its current form, the sensuous world is a spontaneous, playful, and dangerous mystery in which we participate, an animate and articulate field of powers ever responsive to human actions and spoken words’.  Although Abram could almost be describing my own perspective here, I want to resist the assumption that the implications of such a world-view are obvious, readily generalisable, and even necessarily benign.(1)

The following notes were prompted by Patrick Curry’s discussion of animist divination, which (hard as it is for me as an ‘insider’ to make the point) could also be read as romanticising contact with Nature.  I found myself wondering whether I had become set in my ways, and wanted to consider the relevance of categories such as bidden and unbidden omens, and inductive or ‘rational’ versus direct or inspired divination, to my own practice.

When I’m concerned about a particular situation I tend to turn to astrology, or to dowsing with a pendulum.  These happen to be the media that work for me.  Astrology is a complex subject that I’d prefer to discuss elsewhere. It is worth noting, however, that traditional ‘horary’ astrology, where a horoscope is cast for the time a meaningful question is asked, has an in-built safeguard against casual or inappropriate use.  There are various ‘considerations before judgement’ that, if present, prevent a reading from going ahead.  These include a check on the condition of the astrologer.  This significant step may not be entirely foolproof, but it does foreground a crucial issue common to all modes of divination.

In an individualistic culture where anxiety and despair is endemic -one in five of the population in some parts of the U.K are now on anti-depressants!- there’s an understandable temptation to resort to divination either out of desperation, as an antidote to alienation, or instead of doing the necessary preparatory work on an issue, or looking for/setting up networks of mutual support.  Where someone is prone to anxiety, depression, or mental disorientation, astrology may make matters worse, though even in these circumstances, in the right hands (and with good back-up support) it can be a useful general guide to what’s going on, not least in terms of timing.

If I, or someone I’m concerned about, is faced with several specific options, I may dowse with a pendulum.  When I do this I am ‘bidding an omen’, eliciting a response from other-than-human persons.  I’m not sure, though, how applicable the term omen is in relation to such a direct method. Provided that I’ve done some research, that the question I’m asking matters, is timely and appropriate, I seem to get a clear and unambiguous response.*  This, for instance, is how I decided between two possible options when I was about to embark upon a PhD as a mature student. In this case I suspect that I was helped because my health challenges were a significant factor.  I was on the horns of a dilemma and needed to be in the right environment. As things turned out I got a good answer.

A pendulum reading may leave me with much to think about, but the message is not encrypted as a sign that needs to be deciphered or interpreted.  Either the pendulum stalls, indicating that my question may not be appropriate, or that there’s nothing I can do about the situation, or I receive a fairly immediate response to a particular statement (occasionally after an arm-aching few minutes!).  The method I use is blind and ‘randomised’, though again, the latter term, with its scientific connotations (randomised double blind pharmaceutical trials come to mind) doesn’t feel right.  This kind of dowsing happens within the protected enclosure of simple heartfelt ritual, and is a subtle meditative process involving careful mental and emotional attunement.  I have a vivid sense of intimate contact with one or more other-than-human-persons who can ‘see’ the matter at hand, and somehow move the pendulum using my receptive body-mind as a conduit in order to reply.  My act of ‘randomisation’ simply works to prevent my conscious/rational mind from interfering with reception.  This would also be the case if I were using cards, or throwing the I-Ching.

A crucial difference with the pendulum for me, however, is that the feeling tone that comes through is either a sufficient answer in itself, or is what confirms the validity of the reading.  This can sometimes give a good indication of how someone I may know little about is getting on, or what a person I’ve not (yet) met, and couldn’t have picked up subliminal signals from, is like.  This is why I find the method so powerful, and think that explanations involving my own ‘subconscious’ mind are inadequate.  I also find that the pendulum moves eloquently -detecting, conducting, and expressing psychic-emotional energy- in response to my ongoing questions or suggestions.  This can feel very much like a conversation with a close and trusted friend.  The process is, therefore, dialogical.  Another key element in the method of pendulum dowsing I use involves visualisation, often of a permeable membrane of some kind (curtains, a screen, a water surface) which helps me to distinguish received from internally generated imagery and feelings.  Once again, there is nothing casual about this kind of enquiry.  I doubt that anything would ‘come through’ unless the question I asked mattered in terms of someone’s wellbeing.

(Continued on next page)