The incidents described here occurred in New Hampshire, where I once owned a home with a front lawn. Now mowing a lawn is not the best inspiration for writing an essay. Not while the mind is being ground into senseless pulp by the relentless noise and fumes. But the active mind forever seeks meaning out of the most mundane tasks.
Now that the stage is set, I shall introduce the cast of characters. All but one have the same name—Bufo americanus, otherwise known as the American toad. Pretty much any lawn in eastern North America will have its fair share of them during the warmer months. The large, lush lawn around the old schoolhouse where we lived was toad heaven.
Appearing with the toads is a rather pathetic character who plays out the same farce every few minutes, as he pushes his existential lawnmower back and forth across this accursed lawn. For the toads the farce might well turn into a tragedy were it not for the fact that our comic actor dutifully stops his grim reaper, bends over and picks up the hapless amphibians on the verge of their doom, and much to his bemusement transforms himself into a superhero—the toad thrower.
For this lonely image of the toad thrower, I have the late writer, scientist, and anthropologist Loren Eisley to blame. His “lawn” was actually an isolated beach in Costabel. As he recounts in his essay, it was there that the author encountered another bit player in the drama of existence—a man who desperately threw starfishes back into a heartless sea which had tossed them upon the beach to die. He tells Eisley: “The stars throw well. One can help them” (The Star Thrower by Loren Eisley).
As for me, I’m more of a toad tosser than a thrower. Unlike starfish, toads do not “throw well.”
Whether I actually helped them is another matter. It is true that in the course of the six summers that we lived there I must have saved hundreds of toads from certain death. But for how long, and to what purpose?
Beyond the narrow, ordered realm of my former lawn extends a wider sea of life. It will kill toads in random, untidy fashion without the slightest remorse—kill them with predators, diseases, parasites, floods, tornadoes, fires, and starvation. But that same sea of life, like the ocean confronting the star thrower, continues to throw up countless new toads—something on the order of 4,000 to 12,000 eggs laid by each breeding female summer after summer, for as long as there are toads on this earth. Though most of them will never live past the egg stage, the process will go on well after this toad thrower is gone.
The toads I saved on one day would have eventually gone the way of all toads and of all organisms—gone so that other life might persist. Perhaps, in some infinitesimal way, I helped to boost the overall toad population by allowing more of them to survive and multiply. I might have also helped boost the local garter snake population by giving them more toads to eat. On the other hand, I might have helped to decrease insect or worm populations preyed upon by the hungry toads. But I doubt if my impact really mattered in the overall “scheme” of things, if such a word can be used to accurately describe what goes on out there.
And, while I cannot control this heartless sea that throws up its life indiscriminately, I could at least control the depredations of my mower. I am not helping nature by doing so. It’s just that I’m not introducing another destructive element into the equation. A nature that can so ruthlessly terminate the existence of dinosaurs and so many other now extinct life forms, and which has gotten along just fine without us for most of geologic time does not need my help. It is only my self-image that I am trying to help. In describing the desperate fight for survival of our ice age hunter ancestors, Eisley concluded in his essay that, while many of them lost their way, some kept alive “the memory of the perfect circle of compassion from life to death and back again to life—the completion of the rainbow of existence.” The only thing I do know is that the image of the toad thrower matters to me, for as long as the toads and I travel the same road together. ©Gene Twaronite 2013
Originally published in 5enses, November 2013 http://www.5ensesmag.com/the-toad-thrower/